Stephen Koch, the Little Rock musician, writer and all-around Arkansas music advocate, has long been fascinated by the singer, saxophonist and bandleader Louis Jordan, who was born in Brinkley, Arkansas, in 1908 and was one of the most beloved popular musicians of the 1940s. His new biography, “Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&B,” is a record of this fascination and an impressive feat of research, tracing Jordan’s career from his early days playing gigs in Hot Springs to his death in 1975, in between detailing his classic collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald, his pop stardom and movie career, his front-page-news stabbing (at the hands of his wife) and his indelible impact on the pioneers of rock, funk, bebop and even ska.
How did you first get interested in Louis Jordan?
I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in Louis Jordan and his music. I bounced on my dad’s knee to “Beans and Cornbread.” It’s great music for kids. But as I grew up, I seemed to be the only person, young or old, even among music fans, that had even heard of him. He was such a shadowy figure, and you never saw his records. There was no statue of Louis Jordan in his hometown. If it hadn’t been for finding the occasional Tympany Five 78 in a junk shop, I would have thought I dreamed the whole thing.
When did decide to write the book — and what was the research process like?
My initial, actual research in Louie started when I was living in Los Angeles and Nancy Williams asked me to write his biographical entry for “Arkansas Biography.” I’d wanted to write a full-length biography of Louie and his music and influence for a long time, but got sidetracked — mostly by other Louis Jordan projects, ironically (a documentary, a musical, radio special, tribute concerts, etc.). Finding a good publisher in History Press took a lot longer than writing the book.
What was the musical context for Jordan’s initial rise to fame?
Louis Jordan had a small pre-R&B / rock-style combo, his Tympany Five, in the midst of the Big Band era — to me, this is part of what makes him so innovative. And his songs seem rife with hedonist abandon compared to his staid contemporaries —- and even to those who followed in his wake.
This 2013 quote from Robbie Robertson address that point in the book: “I’ve had the opportunity to sit with Chuck Berry and say, ‘OK, on Tuesday, it was Teresa Brewer and Patti Page singing popular music. On Thursday, something happened and there you were, and Little Richard and Fats Domino. Were you guys just waiting in the wings? How did rock ‘n’ roll explode that quickly? What happened?’ And Chuck Berry said because the real father of rock ’n’ roll had taught us something we couldn’t wait to share with everybody, and that guy’s name was Louis Jordan.”
What was Jordan’s most important or distinctive contribution to pop music at the time?
During the time when Jordan was riding high, I would say beyond his musical innovation, it was his chart success (50+ top ten hits!) with that musical innovation and incredible chart success coupled with his chart longevity (songs at number one for weeks and weeks). Some years in the 1940s, if you didn’t like Louis Jordan’s music, you would have had to become a monk to escape it.
What did you learn about him that surprised you the most?
Not to cop out, but just how good Louis Jordan really was, and how influential Louis Jordan really was. You expect to hear more clunkers as the years wear on. And you expect there to be an aspect of entertainment, or some musical genre, where Louis Jordan didn’t have some impact.
What are the essential Louis Jordan songs, if you can narrow it down, or what are your favorites?
Stepping beyond his 1940s “King of the Jukeboxes” era to hear him slow down enough to enjoy the ride is always more interesting to me: “Rock Doc” from his 1950s Mercury period is a lost gem. “If I Had Any Sense, I’d Go Back Home” on Aladdin in the early 1950s. “Fifty Cents” and “A Man Ain’t A Man” from 1962. “The Amen Corner,” “New Orleans and A Rusty Old Horn” and his version of the theme to “Bullitt” from 1968 are great. “Every Knock Is A Boost” and “I Believe In Music” from 1973. And he was a great ballad singer: “Just Like A Butterfly That’s Caught In the Rain,” “I’ll Never Be Free,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Jordan was incredibly influential — you include accolades and endorsements from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Sonny Rollins, James Brown, etc. — why is he not better known, or as culturally omnipresent as those figures who idolized him?
That’s the eternal question with no definitive single answer. A collective wish to put the war years behind us? Poor management in the 1950s and 1960s? The postwar creation of youth culture? Divorces, bad health and poor financial outcomes? Probably all this and more … but maybe most interestingly and tellingly, is that Louis Jordan’s music is too bluesy/jazzy for pop, too pop for jazz and too jazz for blues — and too soon for R&B or rock.