Tag Archives: Rock-n-Roll

Happy Birthday Louis Jordan!

8 Jul

Louis Jordan

Born July 8, 1908, Brinkley, Arkansas

Died February 4, 1975, Los Angeles, California

Circuit active: 1942-1959

Louis Jordan is one of the more grossly misunderstood artists in American music. Not that he’s overlooked. He is in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It’s that the writers of music history describe him either as a novelty act—many of his lyrics are clever or funny, and all are delivered silvery smooth—or an exponent of the fictitious genre jump blues. Let’s get this straight: Louis Jordan was the key figure in the transformation of American pop from big band swing to small band rock ‘n’ roll.

That’s not to claim he was the first rock ‘n’ roll artist, but more of a big bang in the black music universe. In a time where big bands ruled, and people came out to hear featured instrumental soloists, Jordan and his Tympany Five did things in a new way, coming on strong with hit recordings in late 1941 and a breakthrough chitlin’ circuit tour in 1942. Veteran circuit performer “Gatemouth” Moore explained Jordan’ revolutionary effect: “He could play just as good and just as loud with five [pieces] as [other bands were with] 17. And it was cheaper.”

Promoters, club owners, and patrons all loved that last part. During World War II, there was a nightclub boom in black America, as total employment led to unprecedented amounts of leisure cash. After the war, though, the booming black economy busted. Owners of the new nightclubs needed to make their ventures work. Fortunately for them, the Jordan fad had caught on. Not only did he play with a loud, ballsy combo rather than full orchestra, Jordan made the vocalist, himself, the main draw.

As “Gatemouth” Moore noted, this adaptation was every bit as revolutionary as Jordan’s small band configuration. “With the bands in the ’30s, the singer was like the porter. The singer set up the bandstand. He wasn’t the attraction in those days. But it done changed.”

Following twenty years of big band, the audience embraced the new sound, and for black music businessmen, the numbers worked. Louis Jordan’s fee, at least on his first tour, was $350, while Louis Armstrong’s was $1500. Throughout the war years and into 1946, Jordan had six #1 hits. None of his dozen 1946 releases peaked below #3 on the black music charts. The revolution was on. Small bands like Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers and Johnny Moore and the Three Blazes followed Jordan’s small band-blues heavy blueprint to hit status.

By the end of the 1940s, numerous black big bands had died, swing was relegated to nostalgia, and the new sound had taken over the black music business. Billboard recognized as much, renaming its popular black record list the Rhythm and Blues chart. A new generation of singers stormed the scene, and Fats Domino, B.B. King, Little Richard, and James Brown all said Louis Jordan was their inspiration.

Just before his death in 1975, Jordan told historian Arnold Shaw, “I’d like to say one thing. Rock ‘n’ roll was not a marriage of rhythm and blues [to] country and western. That’s white publicity. Rock ‘n’ roll was just a white imitation, a white adaptation, of Negro rhythm and blues.”


The many homes of Elvis Presley

6 Mar

Elvis Presley's apartment building in Lauderdale Courts

Elvis left the building. Many times. Although only two of Elvis’s many homes, his birthplace in Tupelo and deathplace of Graceland, get sustained publicity, the King spent much of his abbreviated life at other fine, and not so fine, Mid-South residences. Some remain, some are Gone with the Wind, but a survey of them demonstrate his modest architectural ascent to Graceland. (See the home of Jerry Lee Lewis for a comparison).

Elvis first hung his river city hat at a rental house at 572 Poplar Avenue. He lived there with his parents from Sept. 12, 1948 until Sept. 20, 1949. The house is no longer standing– it’s currently a vacant lot between pawn shops a few blocks from Memphis’s downtown medical center.

In 1949 the Presleys moved into the Lauderdale Courts. Their building still stands at 185 Winchester Street, no. 328 (pictured at right). It’s a two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor, and you can rent it and stay where the boy who would be King experienced bouts of teen angst [see inside here]. The former housing project has been redeveloped as mixed income housing, with a special focus of hip urbanites. Of which there are so very many in Memphis.

Elvis Presley's apartment on Lamar Ave. in Memphis, TN

From the end of 1954 until mid-1955 the Presleys rented part of a house at 2414 Lamar. In 1954 and 1955, Elvis was appearing regularily in concerts throughout the South. He recorded “Baby, Let’s Play House” at Sun in February.  The house still stands (pictured at left), with a newer, jankier facade. Lamar is the main street of South Memphis, and no longer residential. Or white. Screaming youths still flock there everyday– the building now holds a daycare center. By March of ’55 Elvis was headlining shows and by May he was causing girls to swoon. He took Mama and Papa to play house on a nicer street.

The west side of the Lamar Ave. building

After the house on Lamar, the Presleys spent a year in another rental house at 1414 Getwell Street, where they lived until May 11, 1956. This house, which has been replaced by a dollar store, would have been a step up from the house on Lamar. Probably brick, it was on a bigger lot and likely had another bedroom. It’s next door to Hub Cap Annie’s, one of a memorable local chain of shops with a unique musical claim to fame. Elvis didn’t spend much time at this property– he was on tour almost every day on 1955, coming home May 6 to take his girlfriend, Dixie Locke, to her junior prom, playing one gig at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis in August 5, and home for twelve days at Christmas. The city directory for the year lists Guitarist Bill Black’s profession as “Musician Elvis Presley Band.” It was more than a full time job.

The house bought just before Graceland, in a much better neigborhood.

In 1956 television discovered Elvis and Elvis discovered the pleasures and perils of owning a piece of the American dream. His new RCA contract, national rep, and film appearances ended the necessity of grueling touring. The success “Heartbreak Hotel” helped absolve him from motel living. Elvis was

Nice awning.

able to settle down. A bit.

In April of 1956 Elvis bought 1034 Audubon Drive, a three-bedroom ranch house in a tonier part of town. It’s much nicer than Graceland’s neighborhood– it backed up to Hugo Dixon’s lot, at that time one of the most exclusive properties in town (now a museum of Impressionism with extensive landscaped gardens). Elvis paid $40,000  for the property and installed the wrought iron fence. Neighboors allegedly hated the Presleys– they were white trash, there were girls everywhere– and the local homeowners association asked them to leave. The Audubon address was recently the subject of a bidding war between a man who bends spoons with his mind and a former lieutenant governor of California. The latter prevailed, and the property has since seen some of its country folk made good glitter restored, including the “P” awnings.

In March of 1957, The Presleys left the heart of East Memphis to return to their roots in the working class suburb of Whitehaven. Graceland cost Elvis $100,000, but it still doesn’t have the cache of the Audobon Drive address. But with a gross income of 22 million bucks in 1956 alone, Elvis didn’t really need the approval of old Memphis to sleep at night.

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