Crossing over

As lovers of American popular music, we note the birthdays tomorrow of the first two black artists to cross over in a big way to white audiences in the forties and fifties — Louis Jordan (b. July 8, 1908) and Billy Eckstine (b. July 8, 1914). Jordan is the link from the birth of jazz and the big band swing era to rock ‘n’ roll, from Louis Armstrong (with whom he recorded some terrific duets) to Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Jordan is a monumental influence on American popular music, having touched everyone from Ray Charles to Prince, but his music deserves a hearing in its own right. Between 1942 and 1951 he recorded an astounding 57 rhythm and blues chart hits on Decca.
You probably know several of his hit songs — “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Caldonia,” “Let the Good Times Roll.” Perhaps most striking is the sheer infectious joyousness of Jordan’s music. For a taste of the good stuff, check out the thoughtfully compiled selections on the page devoted to Jordan this month by Chicago’s WBEZ public radio. Jordan died in 1975; the music survives.
Billy Eckstine possessed the unforgettable baritone voice that made him a kind of black Sinatra, the first romantic black male in American popular music. An awesome bandleader, Eckstine first fronted a bop big band with musicians who established the vocabulary of modern jazz. Starting in the forties he ran off a string of five million sellers including “Blue Moon,” “Cottage for Sale,” and, of course, “I Apologize.” Eckstine continued to radiate dignity throughout an era that must have presented many challenges to his pride and ambition. He died of a heart attack in 1993.


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