Known for Forties classics like "Caldonia" and "Let the Good Times Roll," Louis Jordan is a direct link between classic rhythm & blues and rock & roll. B.B. King, Ray Charles, and Chuck Berry, among other artists, are specific in their admiration for Jordan, claiming him as an important model for their own music; all have also recorded his songs.
Born July 8, 1908, in Brinkley, Arkansas, Jordan learned to play saxophone as a youth. He later toured with the famed Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue, where he played behind such blues legends as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox. Moving to New York in the mid-Thirties, Jordan, by now an accomplished jazz alto saxophonist, worked with Clarence Williams and Louis Armstrong before hooking up with drummer Chick Webb's swing band. In addition to playing sax in the horn section, Jordan began singing with the band, mainly on such blues and novelty songs as "Gee, But You're Swell" and "Rusty Hinge."
In 1938 Jordan started his own small group, the Elks Rendez-Vous Band, named for the club where they were playing a long-term engagement. He signed with a major label, Decca, and in 1939 changed the name of the group to the Tympany Five.
From 1941 to 1949 Jordan had a series of hit records that defined his humorous, bluesy approach, including "Knock Me a Kiss," "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," "What's the Use of Gettin' Sober (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)," "Five Guys Named Moe," "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby," "Caldonia," "Beware," "Choo Choo Cha Boogie," "Saturday Night Fish Fry," and "Let the Good Times Roll." These songs are classic models of "jump style" rhythm & blues; their arrangements draw from swing and blues, their rocking rhythms point toward a new music that was just around the corner. During this period, Jordan performed his songs in a series of short comic films that can be seen as precursors to music videos.
Jordan's hits continued into the early Fifties, "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," "Run Joe," "Early in the Morning," and "School Days" among them. By this time Jordan was not only the most popular figure in the burgeoning R&B market, but also the most influential. His importance to rock & roll was made clear by his Decca producer Milt Gabler. When later producing records by Bill Haley and His Comets, Gabler claimed he fashioned their sound purely after Jordan's earlier sides, particularly in the treatment of the guitars and horns.
Jordan left Decca in 1954, and his popularity diminished. He recorded and toured heavily throughout the Fifties and Sixties, but rock & roll, the music he had helped bring into the world, supplanted his sophisticated, smoother style.
He died in 1975 from heart failure. But his music wasn't forgotten. Joe Jackson's 1981 Jumpin' Jive paid tribute to Jordan in its song selections and arrangements. In the early Nineties, Five Guys Named Moe, a revue based on Jordan's music, ran on London's West End and New York's Broadway.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.