A pioneering musician from Brinkley is being posthumously honored by having part of U.S. 49 in eastern Arkansas dedicated as the Louis Jordan Memorial Highway. A ceremony was held Monday with officials from the Arkansas Department of Transportation and other dignitaries who came together to unveil a sign alongside the highway.
The dedication comes almost 110 years to the day that Jordan was born in Brinkley on July 8, 1908. From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, Jordan was extremely successful as a singer and saxophone player who had a comedic flair. He also wrote many widely popular songs and performed with some of the top musicians of the era.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Jordan started playing the clarinet and saxophone at a young age in Brinkley. When school was not in session, Jordan would perform with his father’s band, traveling by rail throughout Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri to play at churches, parades and other venues.
Stephen Koch, host of the public radio program Arkansongs, is also author of the book Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&B. Koch helped generate support for the honor, which he says is long overdue.
"He was the most popular recording artist of the 1940s, sold millions of records, 50 top 10 hits. He's a little forgotten, even in his home state, so this is a great thing," Koch said.
The stretch of U.S. 49 now named in honor of Louis Jordan extends from Brinkley to Marvell, a distance of about 33 miles.
"Historically, it was a blues thoroughfare north and south and there were clubs all along the way in these cities, so it has its own significance."
On Jordan's success
Louis Jordan is a guy that has recorded with Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and is a towering figure in the creation of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. He was an influence [to] James Brown, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, B.B. King; all greats in their own genres [who] were mostly influenced by Louis Jordan.
On the recent appreciation of Jordan and other musical pioneers
There's a great museum in Brinkley that has a section devoted to him in the old train station there, so there's great opportunities for tourism here. This is a win for Arkansas to have Louis Jordan memorialized in this way. When I was a child – and this is mentioned in my book – when I was a kid, I would go through Brinkley on family trips and I would wonder where the statue to Louis Jordan was in town. And of course, there is no statue, still. There is a bust in the train station museum, but this [highway dedication] is a significant, cool thing for the state of Arkansas to do. We've been working, Arkansongs has been working with the Arkansas Department of Transportation on this, and a couple of our esteemed legislators have gotten this through – and kudos to all these folks – and this is all part of the system that they've done. They've named a highway for Sister Rosetta Tharpe and also for Levon Helm and Johnny Cash, and this is a really great thing for Arkansas.
What does it take to get a highway named after someone?
It's something that we've been talking about, people that are interested in this kind of thing for decades, and I think it just takes the right person to hear the right persuasive talk and to understand possibly, it's not just a great thing for history, which is fine in itself, but it's also an economic thing. It's a tourism thing. It benefits the towns that these people came from. This gives people a place to go see and go look that love this kind of music or want to know more about it. They're [from] all over the world and they want to find out about this kind of music and life, and that's one thing we have here in the Delta and in Arkansas is this. This is our oil. This is our Saudi Arabia oil. This is a great, cultural, deep thing that we're really just now starting to explore.