|Louis Jordan had 54 hits during the 1940s and influenced a host of future musical greats. (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 US 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 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 down the house. The owner, who lives in Ohio, insists he will sell it.
"There's really nothing left to restore," Mayor Barbara Skouras says. "One good snowstorm or windstorm, . . . 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 that rather than advertise as Louis Jordan's birthplace, they do better to draw people to the prairielands for hunting, fishing, and bird-watching.
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 came out.
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 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. He died in 1975 in Los Angeles.
A few among the older generation in Brinkley remember his visits home.
Harold Thomason, 71, who worked in his parents' grocery store as a young man, says Jordan often returned to visit his father and friends. Jordan would drive into town in a big white Cadillac, swoop up some dusty kids 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.