Celebrity Deaths ›

King of the Jukebox: Louis Jordan

Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

In the 1940s no self-respecting jukebox would have been complete without at least a few records by Louis Jordan.

In the 1940s, no self-respecting jukebox would have been complete without at least a few records by Louis Jordan. The pioneering bandleader-singer-saxophonist was one of the top hitmakers of the day, making black and white audiences alike move their feet to his uniquely infectious tunes. Along the way, he created some of the earliest precursors to rock ‘n’ roll and rap, and his wild success on the charts – as well as in diners, dance clubs and drive-ins – led fans to dub him "The King of the Jukebox."

Born in Arkansas Jul. 8, 1908, Jordan grew up playing music with his father, a music teacher and bandleader. Jordan became proficient on piano and clarinet, but his main instrument was alto sax. After years of playing professionally, Jordan’s big break came in 1936 when big-time big band leader Chick Webb asked him to join the Savoy Ballroom orchestra. Jordan’s two-year stint at the Savoy propelled his career and allowed him to hone his skills as a singer and performer. He struck out on his own in 1938, forming his own band, the Tympany Five. Within five years, he was flying high at No. 1. And for nearly a decade Jordan and his “jump blues” or “jumpin’ jive” would rule the charts and jukeboxes.

Jordan’s first big hit, "I'm Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town," dropped in 1942 and reached No. 2 on the R&B charts. The song was a response to his earlier "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," but only the second track made a splash.

"Ration Blues" was Jordan's first crossover hit, climbing to No. 1 on both the R&B and Country charts in 1943, and reaching No. 11 on the pop chart. As Jordan's popularity increased, he began recording "soundies" – early predecessors of today's music videos. Here's a clip from his "Ration Blues" soundie.

Following on the heels of hits like “G.I. Jive” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” 1945’s "Caldonia" was a smash hit, dominating the R&B chart for weeks. It is also believed to be the very first song described as "rock and roll" – that's what Billboard magazine called it at the time. Though it would take a while for the term to catch on, Jordan clearly was already crafting the classic rock ‘n’ roll sound.

"Stone Cold Dead in the Market" was the first of several duets Jordan would record with former Savoy bandmate Ella Fitzgerald. When they collaborated, the winning twosome scored big hits.

"Saturday Night Fish Fry" was one of Jordan's last hit singles, but no less notable than his earlier hits. Using the word "rockin'" in the chorus, the song broke ground as an early example of a true rock ‘n’ roll track. And Jordan's rapid-fire, talky delivery presaged another musical style that in 1950 was barely on the horizon – rap.

By the time Jordan died from a heart attack Feb. 4, 1975, the music world had moved on. Funk and disco were on the scene, and rock ‘n’ roll – arguably the dominant form of the day – had evolved from its early rhythm and blues roots into a full-blown multi-styled genre. It’s doubtful that the fans who filled arenas and stadiums in the '70s and '80s to see their favorite rock stars thought much about Louis Jordan and his role in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Decades after his death, however, Louis Jordan is remembered as “the Father of Rhythm & Blues” and “the Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” In 1987, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its second roster of rock legends. Joining all-stars Little Richard, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles, were early rock innovators like Bo Diddley, Bill Haley – and Louis Jordan, who directly or indirectly influenced the lot of them.

Written by Linnea Crowther and Jessica Campbell