Louis Jordan: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Louis Jordan was an American rhythm and blues musician and the leader of the band Tympany Five. His musical style influenced rock and roll. This lesson will discuss his life, music, and influence.

Louis Jordan: Jukebox King

You're on a hot date in 1948. It's been a perfect evening. You just saw the Hitchcock thriller Rope and now you're seated in a booth at the diner for an ice cream sundae. Your date wants to hear some music. You saunter to the jukebox and pop in a quarter, looking for a song. Hmmm, there's a Louis Jordan song. There's another, and another, and another. Is there anything here but Louis Jordan? With a sigh you punch one of his tunes. Good thing you like his music.

Early Life and Career

Louis Jordan
Photo of Louis Jordan

Despite being born into obscurity in tiny Brinkley, Arkansas on July 8, 1908, Louis Jordan was in the right spot to become a great musician. His father was the bandleader for a vaudeville minstrel troupe called Rabbit's Foot Company. Louis learned trumpet and saxophone from his dad and toured with Rabbit's Foot as a performer.

Those road trips rambling all over the Unites States were fertile ground for Jordan's musical mind. He heard Delta blues, New York jazz, big band swing, and other popular musical styles. After majoring in music at Arkansas Baptist College, Jordan moved to Philadelphia to start his career in earnest.

Tympany Five

In Philly, Jordan played in a swing band led by Chick Webb. Upon learning that Jordan was planning to break with the band and take a few other performers with him, Webb fired him. This was okay with Jordan. Within months he had moved on to New York City and started his own group, the Tympany Four, which later became the Tympany Five.

Jordan with the Tympany Five
Photo of Jordan with Tympany Five

Jordan's new band was small and adaptable. They played tighter, hard-driving swing rhythms. This style became known as jump music or jump blues, due to its bluesy background and danceable rhythms that made people jump. Soon Jordan and the Tympany Five were playing all the clubs in Harlem and landed a fat record deal with Decca Records.

Decca Recordings

Decca Records sent Jordan's music across the country. In the 1940s Jordan and the Tympany Five released 57 singles onto the rhythm and blues (R&B) charts. Many of them became huge hits, including 'Choo Choo Ch'Boogie', 'Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens', and 'Caldonia'. From 1943 to 1950, Jordan and the Tympany Five owned the number one hit on the R&B charts for an unprecedented 113 weeks. Jordan was called 'King of the Jukebox' because so many of the songs played on the jukebox were his.

A Decca recording
Photo of Decca record label

Jordan went on to success in Hollywood, recording a soundie, a short musical movie that is similar to the music videos of today. He also had small parts in feature films, such as Swing Parade. Inspired by his father's old minstrel troupe, Jordan's comedic style brought him crossover appeal with white audiences.

Musical Influence

Jordan's forays into syncopated jump rhythms with a small combo provided the bridge from big band swing to rhythm and blues, and from there to rock and roll. Important early rock and roll musicians acknowledged their debt to Jordan, including Bill Hailey, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. Jordan's hit song, 'Beware, Brother, Beware!', is an early precursor of rap music with it's fast, lyrical talking style.

Louis Jordan Concert in LA
Photo of Louis Jordan concert

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