When I was a teenager in the 1950’s, rock and roll was catching the attention of most of my contemporaries. I wasn’t immune to its attraction, but while I kept an eye on what was happening in that area I was also beginning to form my lifelong affection for the type of big band music that had risen to popularity decades earlier.
One day while listening to a new compilation album of big band music, I was surprised to discover a song that almost seemed to combine the two genres. Expecting to hear something closer to what I’d come to expect from the big bands, I instead heard a wild, infectiously bouncy vocal romp that was sort of like rock and roll — and more specifically, rock and roll with a R&B flavor. It was being performed by someone new to me – Louis Jordan – and he and his group were doing “Caldonia.”
It turned out that Louis Jordan was something special; not only a saxophonist and sometimes vocalist in many of the big-name bands, but also a seminal influence in what came to be modern R&B music. In later years, even Ray Charles named him as a major inspiration (and hooked up with Jordan in a number of projects).
His early years mirrored those of many other musicians of the day. A musical education at Arkansas Baptist College helped prepare him for the big time, and in the early 1930’s he moved to Philadelphia to be closer to the Eastern music scene. He found work that led eventually to his popular appearances with the Chick Webb band, where he developed his vocal style.
Later in the decade he formed his own group – the Elks Rendezvous Band – and began a solid career as leader and headliner. Later he renamed the group the Tympany Five, and its lively music was enormously popular through the war years and beyond. Hits included “G.I. Jive,” “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” and many others.
As the years passed, he occasionally tried a bigger band, but his success was built on his smaller groups. That’s where he concentrated most of his efforts, and for many years he virtually owned the R&B charts. Even when rock and roll began to come to the forefront, he found that his style translated pretty well to what the kids wanted. He even generated an album called Rock -N- Roll Call and worked with Quincy Jones on another project.
Although he wasn’t heard from too often during the next decade or so, he was respected by many of the younger artists and continued finding plenty of opportunities to play. He died in 1975 and soon faded from the memory of most modern music fans, but his star rose again a few years back when much of his music was featured in the musical Five Guys Named Moe.