Charley Jordan

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A first-rate blues vocalist and guitarist who recorded with Big Joe Williams and Peetie Wheatstraw in the ’30s and ‘40s.
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Time has been kind to Charley Jordan's music. He had some moderate success in his own right as a recording artist during his own time, in the 1930s, but he's probably better known among casual blues listeners of the 21st century than he was outside of St. Louis in the '30s. Jordan wasn't the greatest singer of his era, but he had a way with a song and especially his guitar, which makes his records some of the most endearing of the '30s St. Louis blues scene, of which he was a key part. He was a relative rarity in his time, a player who could coax a beautiful melody out of his instrument within a phrase or riff yet retain a steady tempo and push a song forward. Jordan was born in Arkansas -- some sources say Helena, others Mabelvale -- in (or around) 1890. Nothing is known of his early life, apart from the obvious fact that he was a talented guitarist and singer, and made some of his living while hoboing around the south in his twenties; he'd spent a fair amount of time in Memphis before settling in St. Louis. And sometime during that same decade, he became involved with the bootlegging business, which led to a shooting and a spinal injury that left him walking on crutches. The exact date of the injury is conjectural, but it did push Jordan toward music as a source of income, and the end of Prohibition in 1933 ensured that he would rely on music for most of his living.

Not only did Jordan record extensively for Vocalion starting in 1930 -- both his own sides and as an accompanist to Peetie Wheatstraw -- but he and Big Joe Williams also ran what has been variously described as a rehearsal studio or a club inside a residential building in St. Louis that became a mecca for visiting bluesmen preparing to record in the city; by some accounts, he was to St. Louis‘ blues scene what Tampa Red became in Chicago in the second half of the '30s and the early '40s. With that perch as a vantage point, Jordan was also perfectly positioned to serve as a talent scout for both Vocalion and Decca in the '30s; and that position, coupled with his own prodigious guitar skills, ended up giving him the pick of talent to work with on his own sides, though he was never as well known as a lot of the people with whom he played. In addition to his recordings with Wheatstraw, which are probably the way that most blues listeners know him best, Jordan played with Big Joe Williams, Memphis Minnie, Roosevelt Sykes, and Casey Bill Weldon, among many others. Of his own recorded work, the song that was most popular in his time -- and continues to attract the most attention today -- is his suggestive "Keep It Clean," for which he recorded at least one major follow-up record; it's of a piece with such risqué works as "It's Tight Like That" by Tampa Red, "The Signifying Monkey" by Willie Dixon, and "Reelin' and Rockin'" by Chuck Berry. He lived until 1954, probably age 64, and some accounts say he succumbed to pneumonia while others say he died by violence on November 15 of that year. Jordan's memory lingered in obscurity, neglected by the successors to the record labels for which he recorded, until the '90s when Austria's Document Records assembled a three-volume CD series devoted to his complete recorded output. His reputation grew exponentially as a result of those discs, and since then, his work has also been compiled by the Classic Blues label.