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Black History Month: Louis Jordan’s legacy

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When Louis Jordan had a heart attack on February 4, 1975 and died at the age of 66, he hadn’t charted a song for almost 24 years. Now in 2021 that 24-year gap has grown to almost 69 years. So why should you care about a musician who hasn’t been relevant since 1951? The answer is that Jordan helped shape the course of popular American music as a black musician in the 1940s. Although Jordan is dead, his music is very much alive. It’s alive in the rap music that sells out arenas. It’s alive in the Latin music that makes you dance. Come dive with us into a few of the songs that made Jordan “The King of the Jukebox.”

Jordan didn’t write “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” but he made it a hit. The song spent 18 weeks at the number one spot in the Race Records chart (now the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart). 18 weeks at the number one position was tied for the longest streak at number one and was only beaten by “Old Town Road” in 2019. The song is pure jump-blues. It chugs along with the energy and effortless cool that Jordan would make his career on.

“G.I. Jive” is the greatest example of Jordan’s crossover appeal. His songs were popular with both black and white audiences. “G.I. Jive” went to number one on the Race Records charts and also went number one on the pop charts (now the Billboard Hot 100). Jordan didn’t write this song or sing it first, but he made it his song. The original version of the song was recorded by Johnny Mercer, who makes the song a lesson in clever lyrics and boring delivery. Jordan takes the easy listening song and injects some adrenaline and spice. He adds a biting force that just makes the song rock.

Jordan was born in Arkansas in 1908 he was not Caribbean. The song “Run Joe” is an example of the calypso music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. On quite of few of Jordan’s hits he puts on an exaggerated Caribbean accent. Elvis wasn’t the first musician to snatch elements from other cultures. But the song was written by Jordan with the help of his medical physician Dr. Walter Merrick, who was born on St Vincent Island in the Caribbean. The song’s lyrics were written by Joe Willoughby, who was from Trinidad.

It’s important to remember that “Run Joe” was released in 1948, the same year President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered the United States Armed Forces to desegregate. America was still deeply segregated. Most popular black musicians weren’t pushing back against racism as strong as Billie Holiday. Even Louis Armstrong was famous for playing the racist song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”

“Caldon-YA! Caldon-YA!” Jordan sing-shouts in his classic song “Caldonia” (sometimes called “Caldonia Boogie”). The song is the funny story about a woman named Caldonia who the singer is in love with, but his mother does not approve. The song’s songwriting credits went to Jordan’s wife at the time. They later divorced after she allegedly stabbed him multiple times.

Some critics write off Jordan’s music as a form of racial minstrelsy. They claim that his music played into racial stereotypes of black Americans. These claims are not unfounded. Some of the exaggerated characters that appear in Jordan’s music fit into racial tropes. The music short film that Jordan made for “Caldonia” faced these claims. Jordan made multiple movies after the success of “Caldonia.” At least one, “Beware” featured an all-black cast. It can be argued that parts of Jordan’s music is racially incessive, but it should also be noted that Jordan made sure to include and promote black artists in his music and work in Hollywood.

When musicians get a taste of success, they often want to push themselves. Sometimes this leads artists to test their endurance and put out a double album. Jordan did not put out albums in his heyday. Instead, Jordan put out “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” Clocking in at 5 minutes and 24 seconds this song was twice the length of his usual songs. The original single was two sided, with a part one and two.

It’s been argued that “Saturday Night Fish Fry” is one of the first rock songs. The song tells the story of a “rocking” party that gets busted by the police. Jordan’s use of the work “rockin” is one of the first times that word was used to describe music. The song also continues an anti-police sentiment that permeated his songs.

In April 1973, Ebony magazine ran an article titled “Whatever Happened to Louis Jordan?” In an interview for that article, Jordan says that the music coming out at the time was “pretty much the same, only louder.” He went on to say that “There is a place today for all music in all styles.” Jordan had good reason to be happy about the music he was hearing on the radio. Jordan’s sound and style had a big influence on Chuck Berry and James Brown, who in turn influenced about everyone after.

Milton Gabler, a record producer who worked with Jordan, went on to work with Bill Halley and the Comet’s on “Rock Around the Clock.” Rock n Roll was Jordan’s music electrified and with a focus on teenage audiences instead of black audiences. That focus on teenage audiences is how Johnny B. Goode went from a colored boy to a country boy. After that change took place rock ‘n’ roll took over. Everything that came next you can hear by opening Spotify or turning on a radio.

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