Louis Jordan and “Caldonia”
This is the story of two men, friends and business associates, and one of the films that resulted from their association...actually, the first of four films that the two worked on together. The men are bandleader Louis Jordan, and his personal manager for many years, Berle Adams. The film is an 18 minute black cast short produced in 1944, released the following year, titled Caldonia.
Louis Jordan's career is covered in delicious detail by John Chilton in Let the Good Times Roll: The Story of Louis Jordan and his Music. Here, however, we will let Berle Adams, who I interviewed over a period of many years, do much of the talking. I assume that there will be some conflicts between what is presented in Chilton's biography and what is shared by Adams below. Such is the nature of oral history. Since the film is our primary focus, I will not attempt to reconcile what Berle says about his relationship with Jordan, and what may have been reported in Chilton's book, even when Mr. Adams is the source of the conflicting information.
"Now, my story is pretty interesting it itself, and I'll get a biography out there one of these days. [Adams’s A Nose For Talent remains unpublished.] My parents came over here from Russia, and I was born in 1917, in Chicago. Now, Chicago was a hotbed of music, and I was drawn to it quite early. Small jazz bands, big bands, black, white, singers, instrumentalists, dancers … I heard and saw them all. But we're talking about Louis here, huh? So we'll leave my career to another time."
“I listened to all of the great bands during the 1930s, Goodman, the Dorseys, Charlie Barnet, and the great black bands, too. Louis Jordan was a member of the Chick Webb saxophone section. I'm pretty sure that's when I first noticed him. I never felt he was a major factor in Chick's success, but he had a part to play in the band, and he played it well. Even back then Louis was known as a consummate 'ladies man.' As I recall, he started making passes at Chick's vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald. At this time Webb was also Ella's legal guardian! So he promptly discharged Jordan. At least that is what I heard at the time."
"Sometime later Louis was working in a band led by drummer Walter Martin, who called his band “The Tympany Five” and the band was booked at the Elks Rendezvous in New York City. Louis recorded with the band [on December 20, 1938] for Decca Records. Martin was finding it difficult to play drums and front the band at the same time, so he gave the second chore, that of front man, to Jordan. I have to tell you, Jordan's skill, charisma, leadership, vision were soon very apparent, and Martin finally passed not only the job of front man, but the band as well, to Louis. And “Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five” was born, and this was the name they were soon recording under."
“Now, in the 1930s Cork O'Keefe and Tommy Rockwell were managing bands, and then they formed Rockwell-O'Keefe, which later became the fabled General Artists Corporation (GAC), which booked bands from coast to coast. Rockwell was handling the Jordan band, billing the group as “Louis Jordan, His Silver Voice and his Golden Saxophone.” At this time, Louis was just as apt to sing a song like I've Got You Under My Skin as the rhythm tunes we associate him with now.”
According to Adams, Rockwell began working more aggressively with the band in 1940, and he tried to obtain an important booking at the Capitol Lounge in Chicago, which ultimately went to Roy Eldridge's group instead. Louis found other work in Chicago, performing with the likes of the Mills Brothers, and recording for Decca. As the band moved toward the “jump style” that became its trademark, manager Adams made the discovery that what was most appealing about the band were the lyrics and rhythm, not necessarily the melodies. He therefore felt no hesitancy in steering the band away from a diet of standards, toward novelty pieces written by so-called “unknowns.” Caldonia, the title piece of the film under consideration, was credited to Jordan's wife, “Fleecie” Moore; in reality, this was a Louis Jordan composition, as were all of the pieces credited to Moore. Berle Adams continues,
“Two unknowns [Larry Wynn and Jerry Bresler, with an assist from bassist Dallas Bartley, who provided the “Big Moe, Little Moe, Four-eyed Moe, Brother Eat Moe” part of the routine] wrote “Five Guys Named Moe,” their only hit. “Run Joe” was written by Jordan's dentist, while my maintenance man, later the band pianist, Billy Austin, composed “Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby.” A taxi driver, Ellis Walsh, wrote “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”
“The tune Caldonia was originally known as “Caldonia Boogie”, and it has a fascinating history. It was credited to Louis's wife “Fleecie” Moore, although it was often advertised as by Louis Jordan. At one point Louis got credit on a printed program, or something like that, and it led to a lawsuit against me by Lou Levy of Leeds Music, who published Jordan's music. I got together with Levy and Morty Miller, Levy's lawyer, and this eventually led to the dismissal of the suit, although it points to the importance of publishing rights in the 1940s and beyond. I learned a good lesson, without too much pain, at an early age.”
Jordan recorded Caldonia Boogie in January 1945, but the tune was not immediately released. At this point in time Jordan was being featured on Decca's 35¢ label. Decca refused to use shellac, a scarce wartime commodity, on this unproved title, and the master was placed on the shelf. Adams, however, saw the hit potential of the song, and took a somewhat convoluted route in forcing Decca's hand. Woody Herman's band was playing at the Meadowbrook, and Adams convinced Woody and trumpet player/arranger Neil Hefti to catch Jordan's show at the Paramount. Woody and Hefti dug the tune, and an arrangement and recording was hastily put together. The record was a hit. Adams notes that “people at Lindy's were talking about the side in a matter of days.” Next Erskine Hawkins waxed the song to moderate success. At this point Decca realized that they needed to issue a recording of their own posthaste, and the third hit for the tune in less than a year was born! Adams continues, “Louis was flying high in terms of popular success, and he was soon moved to Decca's more prestigious 50¢ label”.
The mid-1940s found Jordan to be one of the most popular of black entertainers. Berle Adams recalls that he was a huge “one night draw,” with a sold-out house pretty much guaranteed. Many ballroom operators, planning their season, would not book other bands “because I don't have my Louis Jordan date yet.” Only one location, Kansas City's Pendergast Memorial Auditorium, got the band for more than one night a year, this because the auditorium had both air conditioning (for a July 4 performance) and indoor heating (for a Thanksgiving appearance).
Such was Jordan's popularity that a draw of 4,000-5,000 people was not unusual. And such was the power of the band's performance that when a booking error led to both Jordan and Lionel Hampton's band being scheduled at the same time in Kansas City, a “battle of the bands” was quickly arranged. One week later, Hampton, back in New York spoke with Jack Kapp of Decca Records. Adams paraphrased his comments as follows: “Mr. Kapp, I just had a band battle in Kansas City with Louis Jordan. Joe Glaser [Hampton's manager] had me go on first. I finished with Flying Home, and we played for ten minutes or so, with the screaming brass and Illinois Jacquet blowing higher and higher. Then Louis Jordan walked out, just him and the rhythm section —no brass— sang a blues and cut my ass.”
Sometime in early 1944 Adams recognized the power of film to further sell the band, and he remembered that in 1942 Jordan had worked with William Forest Crouch in the production of a series of SOUNDIES. Adams consulted with Crouch about the possibility of making a featurette, and Caldonia was the result.
Unlike the standard short subjects of the period, Caldonia was produced with a very specific purpose in mind. Adams explains,
“OK, so this is what I came up with: I knew that Jordan's music would appeal to everyone, to white and black listeners alike. But how to advertise an appearance? Well, why not a film that would let everyone know what an evening with Louis would be like? We would make the film, and then arrange screenings a week or two in advance of Louis's appearance in town. People would see the film, there would be a huge amount of talk, and the tickets to the dance would sell like crazy.”
While the film was released in 1945, Billboard’s coverage of the film, and the concept behind it, was not published until June 1946. In a story titled Louis Jordan's “Caldonia,” “Beware” Pix, a 3-way Payoff, the Billboard staff writer notes,
“Louis Jordan's use of the film short, Caldonia, as an exploitation medium, differs from most ork promotional stunts in that it is in itself a direct source of revenue….”
“So successful is Caldonia ... that Jordan's manager, Berle Adams, has arranged for the leader to make two features a year for Astor Pictures.
The Astor trick, which sets Jordan's flickers apart from the usual run of band shorts and features, is in its distribution. Astor has its own distrib set up … and can plant the Jordan movie directly ahead of him in practically every town he plays.”
“Caldonia usually opens in a town a few days before Jordan arrives. He habitually makes a personal appearance at the theater, signing autographs, plugging his concert or dance, winning new clients…. Another outgrowth of this sort of treatment is that Caldonia has been one of the few all-Negro productions to get bookings in southern white theaters.”
Therefore, the film fulfilled many functions at one time. As an inexpensive rental, usually less than $40 per screening, Caldonia was a money maker for the theater owner. It promoted not only Jordan’s personal appearance, but his Decca recordings as well. It was, without a doubt, a revolutionary and successful step in the promotion of popular music!
Although Berle Adams receives producer credit in the opening and closing titles (“A Berle Adams Production”), Chilton notes that the film was financed by Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). BMI anticipated a large return on a minimal investment since it held the music license for the title song, and possibly the other songs performed in the short as well. Berle reported that the film was made for “next to nothing,” and an article in the New York Age, (August 5, 1945) states that the film cost “approximately $3,000 to produce,” an amazingly low figure for an eighteen minute film!
To distribute the feature Adams and Crouch turned to Robert Savini's Astor Pictures. Founded in the early 1930s, Astor did not produce films at this time, but rather distributed material made by others. Many films were merely reissues; for example, Astor purchased the rights to reissue the product of Grand National after the company declared bankruptcy in 1939. Astor Pictures also actively promoted the distribution of black cast films. During the 1940s at least a dozen “race films,” including the four featuring Louis Jordan, were released through Astor Pictures. As Chilton points out, Astor and its twenty-eight states right's distribution offices were able to convince theater owners to present Caldonia the week preceding Jordan's appearance in town; certainly the low rental fee, along with Jordan’s popularity, would have been strong inducements to book the film. The strategy was a huge success and the film was, according to Billboard, “…one of the few all-Negro productions to get bookings in Southern white theaters.”
Producer/director William Forest Crouch maintained a full production facility in the Bronx. Called Filmcraft Studios, and located at the site of the old Edison Studio at 2826 Decatur Avenue, the studio was a full service facility. Actress Jeni Freeland, who appeared in both SOUNDIES and short subjects for Crouch, recalled, “Filmcraft Studios was a huge place, with a lot of sets made up and ready for use. [In making SOUNDIES] they would move from set to set all day, filming this and that, and not always in order, not always for the same film. I would go up there in the morning, and I'd take a lot of outfits with me. We might spend a lot of time waiting our turn, but there was a lot going on, and other things than just making SOUNDIES.”
There were other rental studios available during this period, and Berle Adams hesitated when asked about the production location for Caldonia. “You know, we did four films with Bill Crouch, and I know that we did some up in the Bronx, but I think this one, Caldonia, I seem to recall that we might have done that film at the Fox Studios in Manhattan.”
As might be expected, an exact production date for the film is not available. Both printed and online sources quote dates ranging from winter 1944 to summer 1945. The first SOUNDIE to be used from this film (Honey Chile) was released on January 29, 1945, making a winter 1944 production date a certainty. This is reinforced by a review published by the New York Age on August 5, 1945, which states that the short was “actually filmed last winter.”
Four SOUNDIES were excerpted from the film and were released in January, April, June and July 1945. The film was premiered in Harlem during the summer of 1945. However, it is quite possible that roadshow screenings, in support of live Louis Jordan performances, were held during the spring of 1945.
The sets and costumes were minimal at best — one set is a plain white wall; and when the band was not dressed in their street clothes, they appeared in clown outfits; the music was probably all part of the band's regular “book.” I would therefore suggest that the film was recorded in one three hour session, and that sideline photography would not have lasted more than a few days, perhaps three or four at the absolute most.
Crouch's production crew, largely if not entirely white, included a number of filmmakers well versed in the art of making films look slick and polished when the budget was woefully lacking. Cameraman Don Malkames and editor Louis Weiss both had long and distinguished careers in films. They generally worked in lower budget films coming out of the Poverty Row production units on both coasts.
A Few Notes On the Plot and Cast
The story of Caldonia is simple indeed, merely an excuse to get a great deal of music onto the screen for 18 minutes. Jordan's band is first seen playing at a private party. He and the band are apparently on the way to Hollywood to make a film. However, local producer Felix Paradise (played by Richard Huey) and Jordan's girlfriend, Caldonia (Nicki O'Daniel), convince Louis to remain in Harlem and shoot a picture there. Paradise loses all of his money in the numbers game, and Louis and the band are forced to perform in front of a blank wall, in clown costumes, and so forth. Caldonia is finally called upon to “finesse” the man who is going to repossess the motion picture cameras. Louis finishes the film, but the “other man” wins Caldonia's affections.
Beside Jordan, the best known actor in the film is Nicki O'Daniel. Working out of the Sun Tan Studio in Harlem, O'Daniel had a long and successful career dancing in clubs and on stage in Harlem, as well as appearing in many SOUNDIES and a handful of black cast shorts.
This is likely the only screen appearance of Richard Huey. (Another possibility is the 1934 “B” feature Chloe, Love Is Calling You, produced in Florida by Pinnacle Productions.) However, Huey did appear fairly regularly on Broadway, beginning with Porgy (1927-28). Over the next 15 years he performed in 10 Broadway productions, and was appearing in the hit Bloomer Girl at the time this short subject was produced. This is the only film appearance of Joan Clark, who plays the role of Felix Paradise's secretary.
The Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB), and several reviews from the period, note the presence of others, several of whom (Doc Cheatham, Leonard Graham and Milt Hinton, for example) are clearly not in the film. The IMDB and the New York Age claim that the dance team of Harris and Taylor perform in the film. If so, then they are the dancers in TILLIE.
In addition, rope dancer Ray Kaalund may be the solo dancer.
An Adams Production
(copyright 1945 by Adams Productions, Inc.)
(distributed by Astor Pictures Corp.)
Berle Adams, producer
William Forest Crouch, director
Don Malkames, cinematography
John Doran, production supervisor
John A McGee, screenplay
Musical compositions - Fleecie Moore, Danny Baxter, Eugene Phillips, Arnold Thomas, Wilmor “Slick” Jones
Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five
Louis Jordan - Louis Jordan
Nicki O'Daniel - Caldonia
Richard Huey - Felix Paradise
Joan Clark - Josie
George - George Wiltshire
Spo-de-o-de - San Theard (misspelling “Pheard” on screen)
In addition to the unidentified dancers, a few roles remain unidentified: the girl “waiting for the call” during Buzz Me, the man who finally woes and wins Caldonia, and the party goers in the opening scene.
The Tympany Five - Louis Jordan, alto and tenor sax, vocal and leader; Eddie Roane, trumpet; William Austin, piano; Al Morgan, string bass; Alex “Razz” Mitchell, drums
The identification of the dance duo as “Taylor and Harris,” and the four-woman sideline extras as “The Three [sic] Sun Tan Girls,” is based upon the review in New York Age. The source of the possible appearance of Roxie Joynes is unknown. There are actually four women on screen at the point where “The Three Sun Tan Girls” are featured in the song Tillie. Tillie presumably stands to the far left, then the remaining three girls. From the far left, the third sideline model has been identified as Lil Bit Brown, while the model to the far right is Liza Miller.
Produced at either Filmcraft Studios (Bronx) or Fox Studios (Manhattan), winter 1944
1. Black Raspberry Jam
(Thomas “Fats” Waller) - behind opening credits - unidentified studio orchestra
(Fleecie Moore) - Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five (Jordan plays tenor sax on this number.)
3. unidentified title
(partial) (presumably Arnold Thomas)- Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five (Jordan plays tenor sax on this number.)
4. comedy routine
- George Wiltshire and Sam Theard
5. Honey Chile
(Eugene Phillips, Fleecie Moore) - Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five Five (Jordan plays alto sax on this number.) - An unidentified dancer appears in silhouette in the background.
(Wilmore “Slick” Jones, Fleecie Moore) - Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five Five (Jordan plays alto sax on this number.) + 4 female sideline extras (possibly Roxie Joyce to the far left; Lil Bit Brown and Liza Miller, third and fourth from the left; remaining models unidentified) + “Taylor and Harris” (unverified) + unidentified male dancer, probably the male partner in the team Taylor and Harris, but possibly a member of “The Swing Maniacs” dance team
7. Buzz Me
(Fleecie Moore, Danny Baxter) - Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five (Jordan plays alto sax on this number.)
Notes On the Performers and Performances
- This performance of Fats Waller's Blackberry Jam is by an unidentified studio orchestra and is of little jazz interest. During the 1942-44 recording ban, with new recordings prohibited —union president James Petrillo specifically included SOUNDIES as materials banned during the recording strike— William Forest Crouch purchased a number of soundtracks, perhaps as many as 30, from the Sam Fox Publishing Company. This music was recorded prior to the beginning of the strike and could be used (and in some cases re-used) as musical backgrounds for SOUNDIES and other films. This particular recording was also used in a SOUNDIE titled Jiveroo featuring dancers Harry Day and Della, and the June Taylor Dancers.
- The “movie take” on this Louis Jordan classic Caldonia is rewarding indeed. The tune is credited to “Fleecie Moore,” as are some of the other tunes performed in the short. Moore was Jordan's wife at he time, and the reader is directed to Chilton's biography for details regarding her so-called involvement in the composition of these titles; in point of fact, all of the pieces credited to Moore were composed by Jordan.
Jordan plays tenor sax on this piece and sings the vocal chorus. His tenor sax solo is well-crafted and very much in the jump blues style that we associate with him. The rhythm section is somewhat under recorded throughout the short, although Al Morgan's strong walking base can be heard well here and in the remaining four songs.
Sadly, pianist William Austin is not heard as a soloist either in this piece or elsewhere in the short. His entire discography is limited to this film and two commercial recording sessions with Jordan. He is, indeed, a mystery man in jazz. His social skills, or lack thereof, on the other hand, are reported by a well-known female jazz historian and writer. “Austin was a filthy, obscene man,” she reports, “with pretty disgusting behavior on the street.... I never knew he played piano but he bragged incessantly about writing "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't..." People used to ask him what else he had done, and he would fly into a rage and brag again about his one hit. He was a repulsive little man, barely more than four feet tall. One evening, after having dinner with some friends at Coffee Dan's ... he followed me home. I kept trying to distance myself from him but he boarded the bus and then a streetcar, seated himself beside me every time I moved and told him to keep his distance. He then followed me to ... my front door and offered me money to let him inside the house. I escaped, and he stayed on the front porch screaming obscenities. Mystery man in jazz, indeed!”
“Razz” Mitchell is also under-recorded and, like Austin, appears on only a handful of recordings. In addition to a commercial and transcription date with Jordan, Mitchell recorded twice with Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans, and it is on those recordings that he can best be heard. He also appears on film with Cooper in the 1937 Columbia short subject Rooftop Frolics
Eddie Roane, on the other hand, is heard throughout the short, providing inventive and supportive obligatos to Jordan's instrumental and vocal work along with occasional trumpet solos. While much of Roane's work is muted, he plays strong open trumpet on his number.
Of Eddie Roane, Berle Adams had this interesting comment:
“I was responsible in bringing a couple of trumpeters to Louis’s attention, Eddie Roane and later Aaron Izenhall. But let me tell you, Eddie Roane has the strangest, and I mean the strangest, embouchure of any musician I ever knew. It looked like he placed his mouthpiece inside of his lips, against his teeth, although I know he has to have some lip contact. You can sort of see this in parts of the film. Anyway, I would watch him and wonder how he could get such a fine tone, and such a variety of sounds, out of that horn of his.”
- This is an unidentified fragment, probably written by former Tympany Five pianist Arnold Thomas. I do not recall any Jordan recordings of this melody, and Jordan plays tenor sax on the brief theme statement.
- We take a break from the music with a brief comedy routine by George Wiltshire and Sam Theard. Wiltshire was a popular stage and screen performer, and he can been seen in close to a dozen black cast films during the period 1939-1955. Sam Theard (Spo-De-O-Dee) is perhaps best known for his contributions to the hit songs “I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You” and “Let the Good Times Roll.” This is his only appearance on film, although he was seen fairly regularly on television in the 1970s. During the early 1980s I had the opportunity to share this film with him one evening. Theard recalled,
“Oh yes, I remember this so well. I could almost do the routine here for you, right now. I think Fritz Pollard, up at the Sun Tan Studios in Harlem, might have gotten us this job. But I really don't recall, it has been such a long time. But I do know that this is the exact thing that George and I were doing on stage at the Apollo Theater at this time. We were a big success at the Apollo, and that is probably why they wanted us to do this film.”
- Louis leads the group in the vocal chorus on Honey Chile, then takes up the alto sax, splitting a chorus with Eddie Roane on muted trumpet. Louis then takes a full chorus, inventive, swinging and very much within the Tympany Five style. An unidentified dancer with a large head feather dances in silhouette in the background.
- Louis is concerned about costumes for the picture, but the producer has lost all of his money, and the costumes, playing the numbers game. But secretary Josie secures costumes hidden in the studio, and Louis and the band perform as clowns, uptown dandies and such. The song is TILLIE which, like the other tunes performed in the short, was recorded by Louis for Decca. Four dancers appear in front of the band, presumably representing Tillie, Bessie, Jessie, and Millie. Roane plays muted trumpet behind Louis's vocal, then takes a second chorus while two dancers, possibly Taylor and Harris, perform together, followed by a short solo bit by the male. (To my eyes, the male looks like one of the dancers who appears with Louis in two SOUNDIES filmed in December 1943, a duo discovered in Chicago by Berle Adams and billed as The Swing Maniacs.) Louis takes a half chorus on alto sax, then swings out the remainder of the song as vocalist, backed by Roane’s trumpet.
- For me, Buzz Me is the finest piece in the film, a combination of jazz and blues, played with a shuffle rhythm that looks back to the great jazz and jump blues of the Swing Era, and forward to the R&B and rock and roll that would follow. Louis takes a couple of wonderful, blues-drenched solos, and sings with Eddie Roane's Armstrong-influenced muted trumpet in the background. This is a great performance, and I have uploaded it, under Louis’s name, at my YouTube channel “CantorJazzOnFilm
Upon it’s release in Harlem during the summer of 1945, a number of newspapers reviewed the film. The New York Age, a paper for African-American readers, was clearly impressed with the film:
“Caldonia’ has ‘arrived.’ The film featurette, stuffed with four new tunes and adorned with the Bobby Soxer’s King, Louis Jordan, as its star, makes it’s initial bow in New York this week in Times Square. It will be the first time the celebrated bandleader has appeared on the screen in a film acted in and at the same time produced by Negroes [sic].”
The 28 minute [sic] featurette ... gives its Negro cast a chance to prove its talent....
...Astor Pictures Corp., in New York, just released “Caldonia” ... for country-wide public consumption. They believe this featurette will be one of many by Jordan and that in its giving unique entertainment to the nation, it will instill a courage in Negro youth to do things for themselves.”
“Caldonia” is an important film for a number of reasons. William Forest Crouch was a professional filmmaker, and the rather simple plot notwithstanding, the film has a clean and polished look, much more so than the black cast films of the 1930s directed by Oscar Micheaux. Strong photography and editing, adequate acting and terrific music make it hard to criticize the film on a technical level.
The concept of “film as advertising” is, of course, decades ahead of its time. If this idea was successful for Adams and Jordan —and remember that three feature length films staring Louis Jordan were to follow— it would prove to be equally successful for jazz artists in the earliest days of variety television. The advent of the ultimate in “performance as promotion,” MTV, would eventually follow.
Last of all we have the music. It is true that Louis Jordan is not breaking any new ground in this film, and that the innovations of bebop are nowhere to be heard. Yet, the music is indeed a delight. Blues, novelty, jump-style jazz are all performed with the swing, drive, creativity and aplomb that we have come to expect from Louis Jordan. Because the spirit is so genuine, this film continues to delight many decades after Louis Jordan asked the essential question, “Caldonia, Caldonia, what makes your big head so hard?”