The Most Influential Musician You’ve Never Heard Of


For a guy who was a major pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll and rap, not to mention the music video, Louis Jordan is criminally underappreciated.

During the 1940s and early 50s, the saxophone-playing singer and bandleader had a whopping 54 hits (18 of them reached #1) in a style called jump 'n' jive. A high-spirited amalgam of jazz and blues, it was one of the key influences on rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, Jordan’s 1949 hit “Saturday Night Fish Fry” is often acknowledged as one the first rock records. Sadly, an online link to the original doesn’t seem to be available. But here’s an alternate version from the ‘50s that’s still pretty great. Listen for a chorus that obviously had a huge influence on Chuck Berry:

While rap can be traced to everything from West-African griots (news singers) to seminal recordings like 1970’s debut by The Last Poets, you could make a strong case that it was Louis Jordan & The Tympany Five who made the first rap record with the 1946 hit “Beware.” The cadence, the rhyming, the attitude, the hipster slang. Even the hand motions. It’s all there:

In the 1940s, many artists promoted their singles with “soundies.” Short three-minute films, these were early versions of the music videos we know today. While there wasn’t a VH-1 or CMT back then, the clips were shown on Panorams, coin-operated video jukeboxes found in nightclubs, bars and amusement parks. Once again, Louis Jordan was at the forefront of the trend. Here’s a soundie of his 1945 hit “Caldonia”: