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Straining to hear Louis Jordan's music

The 1940s king of 'jumpin' jive' is honored in Arkansas. But some think he still hasn't gotten his due.

June 22, 2008|Peggy Harris | Associated Press

BRINKLEY, ARK. — Is you is or is you ain't a Louis Jordan fan?

The famed 1940s vocalist, band leader and saxophonist from Arkansas gave the world a "jumpin' jive" sound that influenced Ray Charles, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, James Brown and others. Jordan's mix of jazz and blues, playful lyrics and strong rhythms excited audiences and made him among the first black performers to have crossover appeal with whites.

Called the "King of Rhythm and Blues," Jordan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and celebrated in the Broadway hit "Five Guys Named Moe."

In this centennial year of Jordan's birth, July 8, 1908, the U.S. Postal Service plans next month to issue a postage stamp in his honor, one of five in the service's Vintage Black Cinema series.

Fans in Jordan's home state of Arkansas pay tribute to him at festivals, museums and on the radio. A documentary about his life, "Is You Is . . . The Louie Jordan Story," is due out this fall. Still, music lovers say appreciation of Jordan's cultural contributions to the world is underwhelming.

"Maybe it's too much historical excavation for people," says Little Rock musician Stephen Koch, who features Jordan's music regularly on his "Arkansongs" radio program that airs on National Public Radio affiliates. "Maybe it's too far gone."

In the place Jordan knew best, his hometown, he is part of the blurry past as residents deal with the region's present-day poverty and unemployment. Jordan's boyhood home is rotting and falling down, and weeds and tall grass surround the building. A homemade sign reads: "Historical Site -- Boyhood Home of the Legendary Musician Louis Jordan."

The city has condemned the property, and the mayor is waiting for the City Council to appropriate the $2,000 or so needed to tear the house down. The owner, who lives in Ohio, insists he will sell it.

"There's really nothing left to restore," Mayor Barbara Skouras said. "One good snow storm or wind storm . . . that's going to be the end of it."

Brinkley is in one of the poorest regions in the country, and many of its 4,000 residents live on government assistance. City promoters say rather than advertise as Louis Jordan's birthplace, they would do better to draw people to the prairie lands for hunting, fishing, bird watching and a search for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.

Ask a young employee at a local Western Sizzlin' if she knows who Jordan is and she draws a blank; same reaction from a hotel clerk at the America's Best Value Inn. Only band students at Brinkley schools, those studying jazz and blues, learn about Jordan, who was 66 when he died Feb. 4, 1975, in Los Angeles.

Local history buffs five years ago opened the Central Delta Depot Museum in a renovated train station and began holding annual Choo Choo Ch'Boogie festivals, named after a Jordan hit. This year's festival in May featured gospel and rhythm and blues singers. About 500 people turned out, a mix of black and white residents.

A bronze bust of Jordan, now inside the museum, will be relocated outside if the historical society can find the money to pay for a move.

Jordan was still an infant when his mother, Adell, died in her 20s. Under the tutelage of his musician father, James Jordan, and aunt Lizzie Reid, he began playing music as a boy and became part of his father's traveling show. As he matured, he toured regionally with several groups before heading to Philadelphia and New York.

Jordan's good-natured showmanship and vitality made him and his Tympany Five royalty. Also called the King of the Jukebox, Jordan had 54 hits on the charts during the 1940s. Eighteen of them went to No. 1, including "Is You Is or Is You Ain't (Ma Baby)," "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," "Caldonia" and "Saturday Night Fish Fry." His short "soundies" provided popular entertainment and are considered forerunners of today's music videos.

A few among the older generation in Brinkley remember his visits home.

Harold Thomason, 71, who worked as a young man in his parents' grocery store, said Jordan often returned to visit his father and friends. Jordan would drive into town in a big white Cadillac, swoop up some dusty children as they played outdoors and buy them candy or ice cream.

Thomason said Jordan always sent his father money, and once bought some land in town so the black children would have a park to play in.

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