Louis Thomas Jordan (July 8, 1908 – February 4, 1975) was a pioneering American musician, songwriter and bandleader who was popular from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Known as “The King of the Jukebox“, he was highly popular with both black and white audiences in the later years of the swing era.
Jordan was one of the most successful African-American musicians of the 20th century, ranking fifth in the list of the most successful black recording artists according to Joel Whitburn‘s analysis of Billboard magazine’s R&B chart. Though comprehensive sales figures are not available, he had at least four million-selling hits during his career. Jordan regularly topped the R&B “race” charts and was one of the first black recording artists to achieve significant crossover in popularity with the mainstream (predominantly white) American audience, having simultaneous Top Ten hits on the pop charts on several occasions.
Jordan was a talented singer with great comedic flair, and he fronted his own band for more than twenty years. He duetted with some of the biggest solo singing stars of his time, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Jordan was also an actor and a major black film personality—he appeared in dozens of “soundies” (promotional film clips), made numerous cameos in mainstream features and short films, and starred in two musical feature films made especially for him. He was an instrumentalist who played all forms of the saxophone but specialized in the alto. He also played the piano and clarinet. A productive songwriter, he wrote or co-wrote many songs that were influential classics of 20th-century popular music.
Jordan began his career in big-band swing jazz in the 1930s, but he became famous as one of the leading practitioners, innovators and popularizers of jump blues, a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie. Typically performed by smaller bands consisting of five or six players, jump music featured shouted, highly syncopated vocals and earthy, comedic lyrics on contemporary urban themes. It strongly emphasized the rhythm section of piano, bass and drums; after the mid-1940s, this mix was often augmented by electric guitar. Jordan’s band also pioneered the use of the electronic organ.
With his dynamic Tympany Five bands, Jordan mapped out the main parameters of the classic R&B, urban blues and early rock-and-roll genres with a series of highly influential 78-rpm discs released by Decca Records. These recordings presaged many of the styles of black popular music of the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and exerted a strong influence on many leading performers in these genres. Many of his records were produced by Milt Gabler, who went on to refine and develop the qualities of Jordan’s recordings in his later production work with Bill Haley, including “Rock Around the Clock“.
Jordan was born on July 8, 1908, in Brinkley, Arkansas, where his father, James Aaron Jordan, was a music teacher and bandleader for the Brinkley Brass Band and for the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. His mother, Adell, died when Louis was young.