My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Fellow Travelers: Louis Jordan

Louis JordanThis is the seventh in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

Louis Jordan was the very successful purveyor of the variety of rhythm and blues usually referred to as “jump blues”, the essential link between big band swing and rock and roll. Jordan was enormously successful during the 1930s and 1940s with several singles that were million sellers. He had eighteen #1 records on Billboard’s R&B/Race charts with another fifteen that reached the top three and several more that stalled out at number four or five. Billboard has Jordan as the fifth most successful R&B chart artist of the twentieth century. Billboard didn’t start its R&B charts until October 1942 and Louis had several big records before that date. His records spent a total of 113 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s R&B charts – Stevie Wonder is second with 70 weeks at #1. From July 1946 – May 1947, Jordan scored five consecutive #1 songs, monopolizing the top slot for 44 consecutive weeks (“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” held the top slot for eighteen weeks).

On the pop charts Louis Jordan reached the top ten on nine occasions with “G.I. Jive” reaching #1 and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” reaching #2. Many of his songs were used in movies and Jordan made numerous “soundies”, the precursor to modern-day music videos.

Chuck Berry regarded Louis Jordan as one of his primary influences, and if you were to change the instrumentation on many of his records replacing Jordan’s alto sax with an electric guitar, you would have rock and roll music. B.B King recorded a tribute album to Louis Jordan. English “New Wave” artist Joe Jackson’s 1981 album Jumpin’ Jive was dedicated to Louis Jordan and was an early harbinger of the ‘Swing Revival’ that occurred about fifteen years later. It also revived interest in Jordan leading to the successful Broadway (US) / West End (UK) musical Five Guys Named Moe that ran during the early 1990s and was based entirely on the music of Louis Jordan.

Louis Jordan only charted three times on the country charts with “Ration Blues” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” both reaching #1.

Louis Jordan had considerable influence on latter day western swing bands, although even pioneering western swing artists such as Bob Wills borrowed some of his material. You can clearly hear the influence of Louis Jordan in the recordings of Asleep At The Wheel, whose debut single “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” was a cover of Jordan’s biggest R&B hit. They’ve recorded other Jordan songs such as “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” in their albums and continue to perform them in their live shows. Other more jazz-oriented country bands also carry his songs in their repertoire. Jordan wrote much of his own material, but songs credited to Fleecie Moore (one of his wives) are also Louis Jordan compositions.

Louis Jordan died long before the digital age, but much of his recorded output is available. There is a fansite dedicated to keeping his memory alive.

5 responses to “Fellow Travelers: Louis Jordan

  1. Luckyoldsun September 17, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    I watched the videos and I think he’s great–but I don’t see how they’re country. Did country radio stations play them? Did they really sell to the country market–or was it some sort of change in chart methodology that caused them to top the country chart?

  2. Paul W Dennis September 18, 2013 at 6:00 am

    In 1944 the actual Billboard chart was labelled as “Folk” and charted folk and (overwhelmingly mostly) country records. That same year the King Cole Trio (led by the great Nat King Cole) would chart two hits at or near the top of the charts.

    In the case of Louis Jordan, for a few years he had across-the-board popularity. My dad recalled hearing his records being played in the same mix as Ernest Tubb, Merle Travis and Al Dexter in the years after WW2

    • Razor X September 18, 2013 at 8:58 pm

      I wouldn’t have thought that he would have received any country airplay, either. Good music, though and interesting article.

  3. Ken Johnson September 22, 2013 at 8:13 am

    A couple of points to sort out this discussion:

    Billboard Magazine published a chart from January 8, 1944 until August 30, 1947 titled “Most Played Jukebox Folk Records.” Though that chart primarily featured country titles it also included records from other genres as reported by the jukebox operators. Jazz and pop recordings were occasionally ranked alongside the country & folk discs. Along with Louis Jordan recordings by Bing Crosby, The King Cole Trio. Buddy Johnson, The 5 Red Caps, Ivie Anderson, Lucky Millinder and Cootie Williams (to name a few) all appeared on that chart. None of these fine acts can be loosely classified as country performers. Their appearance on that chart is merely a function of tabulation. Granted some of these talented folks may have influenced country performers but they were not country music acts per se.

    As for radio airplay, little recorded music was played on the radio prior to World War II. Most radio stations were “block programmed.” They featured segments of different types of programming throughout their broadcast schedule. Commercial TV stations did not yet exist so radio filled that niche by offering soap operas, dramas, westerns, comedies, children’s shows, etc. Musical programming was generally presented by live performances often included within variety show formats. For the most part radio stations were not indentified by a particular musical genre as they are today because they included a wide variety of programs. Back then newspapers printed program guides for radio stations as they do today for television. Post World War II recorded music on radio gained popularity with radio station owners as it was much cheaper than paying musicians union scale for live shows. So as for Louis Jordan garnering specific country radio airplay for those charted hits, country radio stations did not actually exist at that time. If his music was played alongside other country acts in the 1940’s it was because some radio stations mixed songs from disparate genres within the same show. “Format radio” as we know it today had not been developed yet so you might hear Ernest Tubb and Glenn Miller played back-to-back on the same radio show.

    Louis Jordan may be considered a “fellow traveler” only by virtue that his records shared the same chart at one time with country stars like Ernest Tubb, Red Foley & Tex Ritter. But his music was never truly part of the country music spectrum.

    • Paul W Dennis September 22, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      Ken – what you say about radio stations during the immediate post-war period is largely true; however, to the extent that single genre stations existed , they tended to exist in rural portions of the south and mid-west (and often went off the air at sundown). Stations sometimes would divide up their programminging into segments – a station I know of in rural North Carolina would broadcast a live show called ‘Carolina Country Boys’ (who, from the transcriptions I’ve heard, would give Lester Moran and The Cadillac Cowboys a run for their money), then Don MacNeil’ s BREAKFAST CLUB at 8:00 AM followed by various programs, musical and otherwise including a segment devoted to ‘The Hillbilly Hit Parade’.

      Picking Louis Jordan was a bit of a stretch although none of my fellow travelers were country artists per se. Louis Jordan wasn’t aiming for the hillbilly market, although he (like Charlie Parker and Lester Young) would sometimes listen to the songs – but I feel that he is an artist of whom people should be aware. That, plus he was an undoubted influence in the western swing arena

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