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Home / “Who’s The Toast Of Rhythm Town?” It’s Louis Jordan
First in a series of appreciations of early R & B pioneers.

“Who’s The Toast Of Rhythm Town?” It’s Louis Jordan

It's difficult to overestimate Louis Jordan's significance in the history of American pop. The Arkansas-born singer and sax man, who had a ton of number ones on the rhythm-and-blues charts in the forties, was a seminal influence on Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, two pillars of American rock 'n' soul. His songs continue to be performed today by bluesmen like B.B. King.

Jordan's recorded output also provided the basis for a musical revue (Five Guys Named Moe) back in the early nineties, and if the show in question couldn't completely measure up to its source, it happily provided the impetus for a slew of CD reissues in this country. I have three different discs released from that period, and though much of the material is different on each, they all contain his high-speed recording of "Moe." To have left it off would've been like keeping "Louie Louie" off a collection of sixties garage band music.

I love Jordan (not to be confused with the actor who once starred in a soporific TV adaptation of Dracula, by the way) and not just for his role in the formulation of rock 'n' roll music. He's smooth, funny and his Tympany Five could play like a sumbitch. In an era still dominated by the big band sound, Jordan and his combo showed just how much ebullient noise could be generated by a smaller unit: it was not a lesson lost on bandleaders like Bill Haley.

Unlike a lot of jump blues shouters (Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, to name two), Jordan was equally accomplished as a jazz vocalist, which gave him the range to do a rueful lament like "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" (a lyric first heard by this Boomer as a punchline in a Bugs Bunny cartoon) or a tropically tinged bluesy monologue like "Early in the Mornin'" (later made their own by both Ray Charles and Harry Nilsson) alongside bacchanalian party invites like "Saturday Night Fish Fry." His sense of humor – well repped in comic monologues like "Open the Door, Richard" or "What's the Use of Getting Sober (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)?" – clearly tickled a young Chuck Berry, who took Jordan's comic tales of woe out of the city and transplanted 'em into the fifties teen world. Berry's "Maybelline" could be the teenage-aged daughter of Jordan's "Caldonia."

In sum, Jordan is just plain fun to listen to. Play a track like "I Like 'Em Fat Like That" ("Let the cats all criticize/Joke about my baby's size/She's reet with me/Because you see/I like 'em fat like that!") or (equal time!) "Reet, Petite and Gone" (dig Carl Hogan's rockin' electric guitar opener), and if you don't at least start grinning, then, Jack, You’re Dead. (Lyrics to a very funny pre-Viagra song that Jordan assayed way back in 1946.) During a recent period of personal high-stress, I kept returning to Jordan's music quite a lot – and happily appreciated his sound every time.

Like a lot of early R & B, there's a goodly amount of down-on-yer-luck lyricism and stereotypical clowning ("Yes, it's me – and I'm drunk again!") that white artists have frequently performed as modern minstrelsy (think of Joe Jackson on his heartfelt, but misperformed, Jumpin' Jive tribute album). With Jordan, however, it's all a part of an honest sound: the music of partying (and regretting) in the midst of hard times that also informed early New Orleans jazz – and is still an essential theme in modern R & B. Plus ca change, and all that.

As I said, there are a host of good-to-great Jordan collections out there. A strong starter set is Number 1s, which collects most of his big Decca hits from the 1940's, and includes "Ain't That Just A Woman," the song where you can hear Carl Hogan inventing Chuck Berry's beloved guitar lick. After his pre-fifties chart dominance, the singer traveled through a slew of record companies, which has also inspired a variety of lesser collections from this era (a decent overview of this period can be found on Rhino's Just Say Moe!).

To my ears, the most grin-packed set is MCA's Five Guys Named Moe: Original Decca Recordings – Vol 2, which, in addition to classic jump boogie like "Fat Like That" and "Texas And Pacific," includes pure novelty tunes like "Pettin' and Pokin'" and "(You Dyed Your Hair) Chartreuse" that still hold up today. "Vote for me… I'll put everybody in the red!" he loudly boasts in "Jordan for President." Sounds to me like he'd have no difficulty fitting into the present day political clime.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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