As Friday melts into Saturday with the cyclical inevitability Rebecca Black warned us about, I’m having a little Louis Jordan moment. Specifically, this song.
Louis Jordan’s music has been in my life since I was tiny, so perhaps I’m not objective about it, but I’m always surprised by how few people are aware of him relative to the huge impact he made. Some (white) people like to cite Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues as a precursor to rap music. Really they ought to go back to Dylan’s source material, which is the jump blues of Louis Jordan, as played frequently by DJ Bob on Theme Time Radio Hour. Saturday Night Fish Fry might as well be a blueprint for the 60 years of popular music that followed it. The horns in the intro and outro point towards swing, the chorus (“it was rockin”) towards rock & roll. The minimal bass-driven beat and virtually one-note melody are familiar from the many subsequent evolutions of R&B right up to the produce of the Ark Music Factory (Yes, I’m talking about Rebecca Black again. I know I’m a week or so behind with this gag, but I’ve been busy).
Listening to the remarkable Saturday Night Fish Fry in the context of everything it’s influenced is a useful reminder of what makes the R&B formula work. To make the non-melody interesting you need (a) charisma (b) rhythmic attack and (c) a story to tell. The best rappers share Jordan’s ability (honed, in his case, as a big band saxophonist) to combine laser-precise phrasing with an illusion of effortlessness; the worst R&B muzak is a string of clichés about nothing in particular, delivered by no-one in particular.
When Jordan started out, R&B releases were called “race records”. It’s an icky term, but in a sense quite accurate of Jordan’s songs, which eschew Big Themes in favour of celebrating African American life in its everyday details, lovingly and hilariously sketched. The characters in Jordan’s songs live for the weekend, for eating and drinking and making merry. (Jordan didn’t write much of his material, by the way: his genius was as a showman and interpreter. His songs came from a succession of writers including, latterly, Jon Hendricks.)
I think the general exuberance of his music is one reason it doesn’t get more retrospective attention from critics, who are rightly interested in black protest music but sometimes don’t know what to do with positive expressions of the African American experience before the Civil Rights movement. Music announcing itself as “important” tends to be treated as such, even though it’s not usually the music that most people danced to or had on their record players. And given that his style was a bridge between other much better known genres (and that his successors included more highly regarded artists, such as Chuck Berry and Ray Charles), perhaps it’s not so hard to see how he could fall through the cracks.
But damn, would you just smell that fish…