Louis Jordan, Forefather of Rock ‘N’ Roll

He made some of the greatest music that has ever been made; if any one man is to be given credit for siring rock 'n' roll, it is he


Do riots have soundtracks? Is there mood music for civil unrest? Should we draw a line from Los Angeles, 1992, and the bleak ve­hemence of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” back a quarter of a century to Newark, 1967, and the buoyant pride of Aretha Franklin’s “Re­spect”? If so — and why the fuck not? This is the way introductory paragraphs get started — then what do we find when we go back yet another quarter of a century, to 1942 and the Sojourner Truth Homes riots, the Detroit confla­gration that foreshadowed even greater rioting in Detroit and New York the following year?

That trouble in Detroit 50 years ago began on the morning of Feb­ruary 28, when a group of black families, attempting to enter the new Sojourner Truth Homes housing project as instructed by the Detroit Housing Commission, was met by an angry white mob standing hard against the project’s decreed integration. It was, to be sure, a conflict precipitated by white aggression. But when trou­ble rose anew in Detroit on the morning of June 20, 1943 — the same month the so-called zoot­suit riots broke out in Los Ange­les — it began with a spree of rob­beries and assaults by blacks against whites. And when rioting erupted in Harlem several weeks later, on August 1, the violence and looting was confined to the black community itself.

The Justice Department’s 1943 observation that “large segments of the Negro community hate the police” came as a surprise to no one in Detroit. “Those police are murderers,” one 20-year-old black man in Detroit was quoted as say­ing, “I hate ’em, oh God, how I hate ’em.” The sentiment was there. But there was no Body Count to take it to market.

Things were different. Billboard had continued to publish a “Min­strelsy” column until 1939, only three years before the Sojourner Truth Homes riots. But by Octo­ber 1942, midway between those riots and the riots of the following summer, the trade weekly was publishing a new chart, the “Har­lem Hit Parade.” Soon there would be a riot going on in more ways than one. Something — in time, it would come to be known as rock ‘n’ roll — was gathering in the wind.

Louis Jordan’s first hit, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” came in early 1942, con­current with the first Detroit riot­ing. Jordan by then was 33 years old, and he had been performing since he was 12, when he found summer work with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in his native Ar­kansas. From Little Rock, where he studied music at Arkansas Bap­tist College and played alto saxo­phone with Jimmy Pryor’s Impe­rial Serenaders, he made his roundabout way to New York. There, in June 1929, in a group led by drummer Chick Webb, Jor­dan made his first recordings. Joining the Philadelphia-based Charlie Gaines Orchestra, Jordan made his next recordings in December 1932, when the Gaines group accompanied Louis Arm­strong at the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey. In March and September of 1934, again with Gaines, Jordan played at two Clarence Williams sessions for Vocalion. At the first session, on a song called “I Can’t Dance, I Got Ants in My Pants,” Jordan was featured as a vocalist for the first time on record. In the fall of 1936, after working awhile in drummer Kaiser Marshall’s band at the Ubangi Club in Harlem, he rejoined Chick Webb, whose or­chestra, by then featuring Webb’s teenage singing discovery, Ella Fitzgerald, was the rage of the Sa­voy Ballroom. From that autumn through the spring of 1938, Jordan made 31 recordings with Webb and Fitzgerald, for Decca.

Jesse Stone, who would go on to write “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and other rock ‘n’ roll classics, and who Ahmet Ertegun would say “did more to develop the ba­sic rock ‘n’ roll sound than anybody else,” was working at the Apollo Theatre in 1938.

“This was right after it had been turned over from being a white burlesque house. I worked for Leonard Harper, staging shows, composing songs,” Stone told me in the summer of 1983. “I also played with my band at the Club Renaissance in Harlem on weekends. That’s where Louis Jor­dan picked up on my style of sing­ing. I was doin’ arrangements for Chick Webb at the time, and Lou­is was playin’ third alto in Chick’s band. He asked Chick could he sing, and Chick said yeah. Louis said, ‘Well, Jesse’s gonna make a couple arrangements for me.’ So I made the arrangements. He tried ’em out one night and he went over great. Chick didn’t like that. He wouldn’t call the tunes again after that. So Louis quit. I encour­aged him, told him that if he wanted to sing, he should get away from Chick. He took my band, and they became the Elks Rendezvous Band.”

Named for the Lenox Avenue nightclub where they found their first steady work, Jordan’s band made its first recordings, for Dec­ca, five days before Christmas of 1938. Changing the band’s name soon after to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five — a name he would never forsake, no matter how many musicians he brought onstage or into the studio — Jordan remained with Decca for more than 15 years. He became the biggest-selling black act of the ’40s with four of that decade’s 10 biggest r&b hits. More important, he made some of the greatest music that has ever been made; if any one man is to be given credit for siring rock ‘n’ roll, it is he.

Let the Good Times Roll: The Complete Decca Recordings, 1938-1954 (Bear Family, PO Box 1154, 2864 Vollersode, Germany) is a magnificent collection: eight compact discs and one long-play vinyl album (Jordan’s duets with Ella Fitzgerald could not be li­censed for CD release here) com­prising and presenting the full de­velopment, breadth, and flow of Jordan’s main body of work in all its glory. Inspired in part by the popularity of the current stage re­vue Five Guys Named Moe, there has been renewed interest in Jor­dan of late. The recordings that he made, 1929-38, as a sideman and sometime singer, are now available on several compact discs in the Classics Chronological series from France. The Vintage Jazz Classics CD Five Guys Named Moe: The Best of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five brings to­gether V-Disc and radio-pilot re­cordings from 1943-46. Jordan’s work after leaving Decca can be heard on the Capitol CD One Guy Named Louis: The Complete Alla­din Sessions and the new Verve CD No Moe! Even Jordan’s penul­timate session, done in Paris in late 1973, is now a CD, I Believe In Music, from Evidence. And there are videos as well — three compilations and a featurette. But know it: the Bear Family set rep­resents the heart of the Jordan corpus.

Jordan’s first number-one hit, “What’s the Use of Gettin’ So­ber,” recorded in New York City in the summer of 1942, 10 days before the Harlem riots, was a breezy piece of hokum, complete with an introductory comical col­loquy, that was little more than a jive-age rendering of an old-fash­ioned minstrelsy turn. The hits continued to come, and by the summer of 1944, when his “G.I. Jive” crossed over to the pop charts, Jordan’s commercial suc­cess was such that Decca brought him together in the studio with Bing Crosby, the golden idol of mainstream pop.

From 1938 through the Crosby duets, Jordan’s music remained essentially a captivating blend of swing, sweet, and jive. By 1945, however, the jive aspect — that elusive protopathic something that Jesse Stone called “my style”; that nascent poetry of hepcat ni­hilism set to the obliterating rhythm of the century’s rising pulse — began to bound forward with a rushing force that soon left swing and sweet in the dust. It can be heard, lush and wild, in the opening waves of “Buzz Me”; in the fierce, truncated saxophone breaks of “They Raided the House”; in the blare and squeal of “Caldonia Boogie” — all recorded on the same glorious day in Janu­ary 1945. Both “Caldonia Boo­gie” and “Buzz Me” became num­ber-one r&b hits and crossed over to the pop charts, impelling and forever imbuing the sound of things to come.

Jordan by then had moved to Los Angeles. Back in New York, other reed-men — they had come out of the same sort of jazz bands as he — were brewing a strange new sound. By 1946, when Dizzy Gillespie and his All-Star Quintet released a record called “Be-Bop,” that strange new brew had a name; and by the summer of that year, when Charlie Parker record­ed “Lover Man,” jazz was as much about mystique as about music. Those musicians who culti­vated that mystique, that aura of the serious artist, would define jazz and the concept of hip in the decades to come. But the summer of alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker’s “Lover Man” was also the summer of alto-saxophonist Louis Jordan’s “Choo-Choo Ch’Boogie,” the biggest r&b hit of the year and a resounding smack to the face of all self-serious art and a smack as well on the ass of that newborn baby, conceived in rhythm and baptized in wine, called rock ‘n’ roll. It was a sundering smack, leaving the para­digm of hep forever cleft in twain. From here on in, one either sat squirming to the fingerfuck of ex­istentialism or one danced on the grave of pretensions.

The electric guitar had become a part of Jordan’s evolving sound in 1945, and by 1946 its presence was often as important as that of the saxophones. The electric-gui­tar licks that kick off “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” recorded in January of that year, would be recycled 12 years later by Chuck Berry in “Johnny B. Goode.” By the end of 1946, Jordan was at his musical peak, having arrived at a unique and consummate sound that was both a continuation of the old — he had not so much for­saken big-band swing as trans­formed its essentials into a driving force for new rhythms — and a foreshadowing of things to come. That peak can be heard in “Let the Good Times Roll,” the rau­cous birth-cry of a new era and the song that still best sums up the sound and style and achievement of Louis Jordan.

Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” came out nine months after “Let the Good Times Roll” hit the charts, and by the summer of the following year, Wynonie Harris’s cover of Brown’s song was a number-one hit. Jordan continued to make fine music — “Saturday Night Fish Fry” in that summer of 1949, “Blue Light Boogie” in the summer of 1950 — but, in 1951, the hits stopped coming. The two compact discs here that cover the years 1950 to 1954 contain more than a few splendid surprises — the previous­ly unissued blues “If You’ve Got Someplace to Go”; the luxuriant, forth-bursting “If You’re So Smart, How Come You Ain’t Rich?”; the lowdown “I Gotta Move” — but they exude the lassi­tude of a man whose music was being eclipsed by others’, a man reverting more and more to the rote familiarity of past idioms, as if seeking refuge from a world whose sound was changing too fast and too deliriously. Just six months, a breath in time, sepa­rates Jordan’s last Decca session from Elvis’s first Sun session; but that breath is immense, one of expiration and of inspiration both.

As early as 1941, Downbeat, the voice of the hep status quo, damned Jordan’s music as “crap.” Since then, anything that takes a swipe at that status quo has been similarly damned, from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to Body Count. In the end, it is not the music that defines rock ‘n’ roll — the current that connects “Caldonia Boogie” to “Jailhouse Rock” to “Cop Kill­er” runs deep beneath the surface of the cultural waves — it is the damnation it evokes in its myriad disparate emanations.

Though more danceable than damnable, more conducive to ro­mancing than rioting, the blast of Louis Jordan’s music was the in­vocation that started it all. As his­tory — more important, as fun­ — this magnificent set brings that blast to life anew. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 10, 2020

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 10, 2020