Louis Jordan: Films and Soundies [DVD]

Louis Jordan
Music Video Distributors

This DVD is the real thing: 35 Louis Jordan songs collected together, all full-length (no medleys or incomplete clips) and all with clear, static-free audio quality. It doesn’t have extras like interviews or a biography and the picture quality, especially in the 10 songs from Peet, Petite and Gone could be better, but this is still a bargain for any Louis Jordan fan. And, since so many of the trademark songs are included (“Five Guys Named Moe”, “Let the Good Times Roll”, “G.I. Jive,” and “Caldonia” — all are here), it makes a great introduction for the uninitiated. After all, these 35 songs cover more than 90 minutes of Jordan’s best, more than any single CD could hold, and you can then get any of his CD compilations without worrying about buying the same product twice.

Louis Jordan was one of the most commercially successful — perhaps most commercially successful — black artists of his generation. From 1942 to 1951, he notched 57 hits on the R&B charts. It was this success that allowed him to appear and even headline some feature films (Kind of like Crossroads, the one where Britney Spears doesn’t strike a deal with Mr. Scratch), leaving behind a large body of professionally filmed performances which are now compiled here. The downside, I guess, is that these performances are synched, sometimes fairly obviously when the lips are perfectly cued with the words. The upshot is that the sound quality is uniformly high and that the performances allow Jordan to run through his full gamut of showman’s tricks instead of being anchored around a microphone.

And, with Louis Jordan, showmanship counts for a lot. He was the pre-rock Chuck Berry, a great songwriter and performer and musical innovator who made a virtue out of accessible jive and who cast a sly, fond eye at the fun and foibles of the commonplace. As a musician, he wed beat-driven blues (Fittingly, “You Gotta Have the Beat” starts things off here) with the swinging horns and rhythms of jazz, perfecting the party-perfect concoction known as jump blues, one that would have a profound influence on everyone from Big Joe Turner to B. B. King, from Chuck Berry to James Brown. As a lyricist, he carved out a niche somewhere between the romance and dense wordplay of Tin Pan Alley pop and the more explicitly sexual come-ons of blues. And then he sang, spoke, and shouted these lyrics, lyrics filled with rapid-fire rhymes, puns, and allusions, a style that was half-Chuck Berry and half-Muhammad Ali, though it predated both, just as it predated rap. Songwriter, musician, singer, performer, synthesizer of influences and harbinger of the future. He was even a commercial smash who was prolific to boot: Louis Jordan had it all.

Even given the bleached video quality of some of the clips and the synched performances, I just can’t find anything bad to say about this DVD and mean it. The video quality, even at its worst, is instantly recognizable. And, throughout, the original films have been digitally enhanced and cleared of scratches and spots. Complaining about the performances being synched would be like making the same accusation about music videos — so what? Especially with dancers and sets and props, including different sets of female legs swinging saucily to the music in “Wham, Sam (Dig Them Gams)”, the artifice, like that on a theater stage or — ahem — movie set, is part of the performance. And the music driving these performances is all of a piece in the best sense. A consistent style runs through the songs even as each individual song is recognizably different from the others in melody, beat, and lyric. The pleasure of being thrilled by familiar elements newly rearranged should be one familiar to any rock or blues fan, a pleasure that they’ll get here once they get with Jordan’s groove. In short, this DVD of great single songs even has that elusive magic of overall flow. If it lacks easter eggs and other little extras, it more than makes up for those with the main (and only) feature. For the quality and sheer watchability of what you’re actually paying to get, this music DVD, like Jordan, has it all.