Monday, July 21, 2008

Gala honors Jordan centennial

The old house on South Main Street in Brinkley is falling apart, and there’s only a handmade sign in the front yard to remind passersby that this is where Arkansas’ most important musician was born.

Louis Jordan, the great R&B singer who helped invent rock-and-roll, would have been 100 years old this month — he died in 1975 — but this wonderful entertainer, like most of our other great Arkansas artists, doesn’t even have a permanent marker at his birthplace.

But this is Jordan’s centennial year, and he’s getting some recognition from his fans.

“We hope to have the Jordan bust installed outdoors this fall in Brinkley,” says Stephen Koch, who has been promoting Jordan for years on his radio program “Arkansongs” on KUAR-FM.

Says Koch, “Jordan, who influenced James Brown, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and more, had more than 50 top 10 hits in his own right.” A Jordan postage stamp has just been issued, Koch says. Koch will have his play, “Jump! The Louis Jordan Story,” performed Saturday and Sunday at Wildwood Park in west Little Rock.

A pre-show indoor fish fry begins at 6 p.m. Dinner and show is $50 for adults and $25 for students.
“Jump!” is directed by Cliff Fannin Baker and features Lawrence Hamilton.

Mrs. Louis Jordan will attend Saturday’s events. The team that’s making the documentary film “Is You Is” will be filming the weekend proceedings, Koch says. The film is expected to debut in October at the Hot Springs Film Festival.

Koch’s radio play airs at 1 p.m. Sunday and stars veteran local DJ Billy St. James as Jordan. “It features several of Jordan’s original hits, as well as some obscure Jordan songs, while St. James as Jordan tells Jordan’s life story,” Koch said.

“Once a month all this year,” he continued, “I’ve been broadcasting episodes featuring an angle on Louis Jordan’s music and career on ‘Arkansongs,’ which is syndicated on NPR affiliates across the state.”

In addition, there have been Jordan centennial events going on since March, including the Ozark Foothills Film Festival in Batesville, the Choo Choo Ch’Boogie festival in Brinkley in May, as well as the film presentation at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena last week.
You can still catch the “Jazzin’ Jammin’ & Jivin’” exhibit on the history of jazz on film at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena. It includes his saxophone and sheet music, as well as four original posters from Jordan’s films.

He became a musician before his teens, moved to Hot Springs when he was barely 20 to play in the spa city and he then went to Philadelphia and New York.

He made the blues jump with his lively alto playing and smooth voice. He was a great comedian, actor and showman who was as gifted as the other stars, such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, he recorded with.

Everyone knows something about his brilliant 1940s recordings for Decca which combined great musicianship, vocals and humor — “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “I’m Going to Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “Caldonia” and “Five Guys Named Moe,” the name of a long-running musical that was staged long after his death — but even when tastes changed and rock-and-roll took over the hit parade, he remained a true professional.

He bounced around record labels after Decca dropped him — the label signed Bill Haley, who admitted he copied his style from Jordan — and even with his popularity waning, he produced dozens of outstanding records in every decade from the 1930s to the 1970s.

The two-volume CD “Let the Good Times Roll” from MCA/Decca Records has all of his important tunes, from love and marriage (“Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “I’m Going to Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman”) to ballads (“Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”), from comedy sketches (“What’s the Use of Getting Sober,” “Open the Door, Richard”) to barnyard songs (“There’s Nobody Here But Us Chickens”) from southern food songs (“Beans and Cornbread,” “Cole Slaw”), to travel songs (“Fat Sam from Birmingham,” “Texas and Pacific”) all done with gusto and style.

He had a great voice, played the saxophone as well as anybody (Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins were among his admirers) and kept producing hits for a decade.

Jordan recorded and performed for some 45 years, and even though the hits stopped coming in the early 1950s, he still made some great records until just a few months before his death.

His last two records — one made with the bandleader Johnny Otis in 1972 and another in Paris for the Black and Blue Label in 1973, when he was 65 years old and just 16 months before his death — are among my favorites.

Even when tastes changed, his voice remained youthful and his musicianship never wavered. He did superior work in the 1950s, much of it released on “No Moe,” almost all of it arranged by Quincy Jones with first-rate musicians. It’s a treat to hear Jordan in stereo.

There was some fair-to-middling stuff in the 60s, but his last two records are about as good as the ones he made 30 years earlier.

The confusingly titled “The Essential Recordings” was made in 1972 with Johnny Otis playing and producing and shows his evolution toward deep blues and soul (“Helping Hand” and “I’m a Good Thing”).

Also worth getting is his last recording, made in Paris in November 1973, “I Believe in Music,” from Evidence, which also includes six instrumentals with three important Chicago bluesmen, brothers Louis and Dave Meyers and Fred Below.

Jordan traveled the country and the world, making a decent living, although he would have done much better had he lived another decade as more opportunities would have opened up for him.

But he was not well. After decades of performing and traveling, he was worn out: He had heart disease and, like most musicians, had no insurance, according to his biographer, John Chilton, whose book “Let the Good Times Roll” gives a good account of his life, from Brinkley to Los Angeles, where he died from a second heart attack in February 1975.

Lou Rawls sang “A Closer Walk with Thee” at the funeral service in L.A. Jordan is buried in St. Louis.

See you at the Saturday night fish fry.