Black History Month – Ella Fitzgerald and Robinson Auditorium

ellaElla Fitzgerald appeared at Robinson Auditorium in the 1940s.  She made the stops as she crisscrossed the US performing her hit songs.

Born in Virginia in 1917, she was raised in Yonkers. At 17 she won a contest at the Apollo Theatre which launched her career.  Saxophonist Benny Carter and bandleader Chick Webb were both instrumental in helping her establish her career.  She would tour with Webb until his death, and then took over as bandleader.

In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks.

She later toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and there met Ray Brown. The two would marry and adopt a son, Ray Jr.  Though they divorced in 1952, they remained friends.

In the late 1940s through the 1960s, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians’ albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart.

As she moved into the 1970s, Ella kept performing. She also started receiving honors and honorary degrees.  She was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979.  In 1987, President Reagan bestowed upon her the National Medal of the Arts.  Her final concert was in 1991 at Carnegie Hall.  She died in June 1996 in California.

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Black History Month Spotlight – Louis Jordan

bhm louis-jordanSince tonight is the 57th Grammy Awards presentation, today’s spotlight looks at a musician who has several entries in the Grammy Hall of Fame – Louis Jordan.

Louis Thomas Jordan was born on July 8, 1908 in Brinkley. The son of a musician, he learned to play the saxophone as a youth and majored in music later at Arkansas Baptist College and performed with Jimmy Pryor’s Imperial Serenaders in Little Rock. He also toured with the famed Rabbit Foot Minstrels, who were the backing musicians for a number of blues legends. In the mid-Thirties, Jordan, now an accomplished jazz saxophonist, moved to New York, working with such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong. He joined drummer Chick Webb’s swing band in 1936.

After honing up his singing skills, he left the band in 1938 to start up his own band. Called the Elks Rendez-Vous Band, after the name of the club where they were playing a long-term engagement, Jordan signed with the Decca label. The band’s name was changed to the Tympany Five in 1939 and between 1941 and 1949; they had a series of hit records that were distinct of the “jump style” rhythm and blues style of music. These included “Choo Choo Cha Boogie,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,”  and “Let The Good Times Roll.”

Jordan’s hits continued into the early 1950s, by which time his popularity on the R&B scene was enormous. His musical influence was far more reaching, with future rock ‘n’ roll stars like Bill Haley and Chuck Berry, fashioning their sound after Jordan’s style, particularly his vocal approach, song structures and lyrics and treatment of the guitars and horns. When Jordan left Decca in 1954, his popularity began to diminish quickly.

He continued to record and tour throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but rock ‘n’ roll, the music he helped foster, was a major contributing factor in his downfall. Louis Jordan died from heart failure in Los Angeles on February 4, 1975. In the early 1990’s, a revue called Five Guys Named Moe, based on Jordan’s music, was performed on London’s West End and New York’s Broadway.

Louis Jordan was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.  He was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2005. In 2008, the centennial year of his birth, he was featured on a postage stamp.

For more on Louis Jordan and other inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, visit the permanent exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. That museum is an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.