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R&B pioneer Louis Jordan charted more than 50 top-ten songs. Accomplishment enough, but he’s also influenced the likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, B.B. King and many more.
But, despite being among the most important figures in American popular music, Jordan — born July 8, 1908, in Brinkley — isn’t a household name. In the 1990s, a group of music lovers gathered to better preserve Jordan’s legacy, at least in his home state. Full disclosure: I was part of that group.
The first Louis Jordan Tribute concert was held at Vino’s Brewpub on July 8, 1997, on what would have been Jordan’s 89th birthday.
Luminaries of the late 1990s Little Rock rock scene, such as Ashtraybabyhead and Toast, joined writers Phil Martin and Bill Jones in celebrating Louis Jordan. The Amy Garland Band performed one of Jordan’s signature songs, 1946’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” while John Senner and former Little Rock Wind Symphony clarinetist Diana Taylor did a beat poetry-style version of Jordan’s No. 1 hit “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” recorded in 1949 and co-written by Jordan.
Nessie, with Vino’s owner Henry Lee on vocals and trumpet, performed two of Jordan’s No. 1 songs, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” a song so identified with Jordan it was played at his February 1975 funeral. Jordan co-wrote it, recorded it in 1943, and performed it in the 1944 Hollywood movie “Follow the Boys.” Jordan’s part in the film was expanded after he made friends with actor George Raft and they exchanged Hot Springs stories.
Jordan briefly attended Arkansas Baptist College after moving to Little Rock as a young man. He later was a benefactor to the college, which didn’t contradict him when he claimed to have graduated there. And the college’s Eugene Porter, brother of piano playing legend Art Porter Sr., spoke at the first Jordan Tribute event. Porter, like Garland and many others, began participating regularly in the Jordan tributes:
“Arkansas Baptist College, it offered [Jordan] the opportunity to travel,” Porter remarked. “Travel where? Travel to Hot Springs. What’s in Hot Springs? Gambling. Music. Music. Gambling. Gambling. Music. Now you don’t have to be a sophomore to understand, if you’re a good musician, where the action is. [Jordan] only stayed on our campus for one year.”
The second Jordan Tribute, in July 1998, saw Jordan’s widow, Martha, participate, and the event was expanded to two days. Martha Jordan returned to Arkansas again that October for Jordan’s posthumous induction into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in Pine Bluff. Jordan was the special inductee that year of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had been hipped to Jordan by the Jordan Tribute, which had asked him to write a letter honoring Jordan and tribute participants. Other well-wishers in this regard have included Lucinda Williams, Levon Helm and Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel.
Martha returned to the Jordan Tribute in July 2001. In 2005, she visited Arkansas again when Jordan was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.
Over the years, the Jordan tributes have been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the U.S Library of Congress. Participants have included bluesmen CeDell Davis, John Weston and Doc Tomato, the Greasy Greens, the Bob Boyd Sounds, Stax Records executive Al Bell, Little Rock native producer/musician Jim Dickinson, and Trout Fishing in America of Prairie Grove.
The Grammy-nominated Trout Fishing duo has made Jordan’s 1953 song, “Everything That’s Made of Wood,” one of its concert standbys. Chester Lane, who’d first joined Jordan to play oil-booming Union County back in the 1920s, played piano on Jordan’s recording of the song. In 1998, his son Chester Lane Jr. attended the Jordan tribute.
All the proceeds from the Jordan tributes go to a Jordan memorial in his hometown of Brinkley. In 2004, a bust of Jordan sculpted by artist John Deering was unveiled at Brinkley’s Central Delta Depot Museum.
The 10th annual Jordan Tribute will be staged at 7:30 p.m. July 6 at Cornerstone Pub. Suggested donation is $6. The Louis Jordan centennial is 2008.
Hear more about the Louis Jordan Tributes on this week’s “Arkansongs,” hosted by Stephen Koch and heard Fridays at 6:40 a.m. and 6:20 p.m. on KUAR-FM, 89.1, in Little Rock and syndicated statewide.
• “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” Diana Taylor and John Senner
• “Caldonia Boogie,” Toast
• “Let the Good Times Roll,” Amy Garland Band
• “Everything That’s Made of Wood,” Trout Fishing in America
• “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” Nessie