SONG: Saturday Night Fish Fry
ARTIST: Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five
Listen to it here:
Today, we’re welcoming another song from the jump blues genre: Saturday Night Fish Fry, written by Louis Jordan and Ellis Walsh, and made famous by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five.
The first recording of this song was actually by Eddie Williams and His Brown Buddies, with the writer of the song, Ellis Walsh, speaking the lyrics. Louis Jordan got ahold of this recording, and changed the whole feel of the song. He added more choruses, and repeated the hook after every verse, and created a more high energy, propulsive arrangement. Aside from being jump blues, this song is often cited as an early example of rock and roll. In fact, Chuck Berry is quoted saying “To my recollection, Louis Jordan is the first person that I heard play rock and roll.”
One really interesting thing about this recording is that the song is actually 5:21 long, which means it ran longer than the standard size of a 78 record. They had to break it into two halves, one on each side of the disc.
The lyrics are about two itinerant musicians going to a fish fry in New Orleans. The scene turns into a wild party that is raided by the police, and the narrator ends up spending the night in jail.
The single spent twelve weeks at the top of the R&B charts in 1949, as well as reaching number 21 on the national chart, which was a fairly unheard of accomplishment for a “race record” at the time.
Louis Jordan was born in Arkansas and raised by his musician/music teacher father, his grandmother, and his aunt. His mother died in childbirth. At a very early age he started studying the saxophone and the clarinet with his father. By his teens, he was a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and shortly after that, in the late 1920s, he was playing professionally. After hopping from band to band in Philadelphia and New York, Jordan started his own band, the Tympany Five. During the 1940s, the band had several hits, and Jordan was able to record with other legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong. His Tympany Five instrumentation was trumpet, tenor sax, piano, bass, and drums, plus Jordan himself on alto sax and vocals.
In 1942, Jordan and his band moved to Los Angeles, and they began making “soundies”, which were precursors of the music video. He made programs for the Armed Forces Radio to be distributed to American troops overseas, and within one year of his move to LA, the band’s appearance fee rose from $350 to $2,000 a night.
Though his success was greatly lauded in most corners, some point out the larger implication for the music industry: mainly that he played as well and as loud with 5 players as a big band could with 17. As well, clearly hiring a 5 piece band was cheaper. This has been cited by some as one of the main reasons for the decline of the big bands.
Louis Jordan spent the later years of his life battling in court for the rights to his songs, performing, and avoiding jail for tax evasion. There’s even a story that Ike Turner heard of Jordan’s financial issues, and paid the IRS $20,000 of what Jordan owed. Louis Jordan died of a heart attack on February 4th, 1975.
- Saturday Night Fish Fry is one of the first songs to ever use the word “rocking” and also the first song to feature distorted electric guitar
- Jordan was married 5 times, and each marriage ended in divorce due to infidelity
Wooow you can really hear where a lot of rock & roll came from! It also reminds me of the “Jump Jive and Wail” type of big band swing as well. But it’s cool to hear some electric guitar with drums and piano, a precursor to the standard rock band set up. It’s also a good example of the standard ‘verse-chorus-verse-chorus’ arrangement of rock and pop songs. This song is really fun and I definitely boogied around my house on some of my listens! I like Jordan’s voice and the harmonies and the story is cool and fun, although a fish fry sounds gross (I would go for the sides and socialization). I would say my biggest complaint with the song is it’s too damn long! I know it’s telling a story, but shit, 5 ½ minutes is a long rock/pop song! Other than that, the song is great.
Well, after researching this song, and reading about what an important and pioneering musician Louis Jordan was, I’m pretty embarrassed that this is my first listen to this artist. But, I’m glad we got to listen to Saturday Night Fish Fry because oh my god this song is fun! Really fun harmonies, some high energy piano, raw singing and drumming, very cute rhymes in the lyrics…it’s definitely more than bubble gum music, but it’s damn cute. This is the first time we hear electric guitar as a featured instrument, which is just one of the ways you can definitely hear how much he influenced what would come after him. At the end of the day, it’s not my favourite song, but the trajectory that starts here-ish is super cool!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song
Some Lou Rawls, featuring Lionel Hampton!
Pearl Bailey? Why not:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: