Caldonia is a jump blues song, first recorded in 1945 by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. Jump blues is a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie and was typically performed by smaller bands. It was very popular in the 1940s, and the movement was a precursor to the arrival of both rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
The writing of Caldonia is credited to Fleecie Moore, Jordan’s wife of the time. Fleecie Moore was not a songwriter and the real author was Louis Jordan, who put his wife’s name on the piece to enable him to be able to work with an additional music publisher. Jordan is quoted by Afro-American songwriter Claude Demetrius as saying, “Fleecie Moore’s name is on it, but she didn’t have anything to do with it. That was my wife at the time, and we put it in her name. She didn’t know nothin’ about no music at all. Her name is on this song and that song, and she’s still getting money.” The double negative in that quote notwithstanding, it is clear that Jordan wrote the song.
The song is best remembered for its energetic, screaming punch line: “Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?” banged out by the whole band. Here are the lyrics:
Walkin’ with my baby, she’s got great big feet,
She long lean and lanky and ain’t had nothin’ to eat!
But she’s my baby and I love her just the same,
Crazy about that woman ’cause Caldonia is her name.
What makes your big head so hard? Huh!
I love you, love you just the same,
I’ll always love you baby ’cause Caldonia is your name.
My momma told me to leave Caldonia alone;
That’s what she told me, no kiddin’!
That’s what she said!
“Son, keep away from that woman, she ain’t no good, don’t bother with her!”
But momma didn’t know what Caldonia was puttin’ down!
So I’m goin’ down to Caldonia’s house, and ask her just one more time!
What makes your big head so hard?
In his first billing in 1938, Jordan was listed as “Louie Jordan’s Elks Rendezvous Band.” His name was spelled as “Louie” so people would know not to pronounce it “Lewis.” Jordan was a pioneering American musician, songwriter and bandleader who enjoyed his greatest popularity from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Known as “The King of the Jukebox,” he had fifty-seven hits on the R&B charts between 1942 and 1951. He was highly popular with both black and white audiences in the later years of the swing era. Louis Jordan was probably the most popular and successful African-American bandleader of his day.
In 1942, Jordan had started on an unparalleled run of success on the Billboard Harlem Hit Parade charts, which by 1945 had included four number-one hits, and eventually made Jordan by far the most successful R&B chart act of the 1940s. Jordan’s four #1 hits were What’s The Use Of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again) 1942; Ration Blues (First cross-over hit) 1943; G. I. Jive (1944); and Mop! Mop! (1945). Caldonia became his fifth #1 hit on what was at that point called the “Race Records” chart. It debuted on the chart in May 1945 and reached #1 in June, where it stayed for seven weeks. On the pop chart, the song peaked at #6 under the title Caldonia Boogie. Let me note here that Billboard used the designation Harlem Hit Parade from 1942 to 10 February 1945, then used Juke Box Race Records from 17 February 1945 to 17 June 1957, both of which were forerunners of the R&B chart.
Louis Jordan was a talented singer with great comedic flair, and he fronted his own band for more than twenty years. He sang with some of the biggest singing stars of his day, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Jordan was also an actor and a major black film personality, appearing in dozens of “soundies” (promotional film clips), and making numerous appearances in mainstream features and short films. He was an instrumentalist who played all forms of the saxophone, but specialized in the alto, in addition to playing piano and clarinet. A creative and prolific songwriter, he wrote or co-wrote many songs that became influential classics of twentieth-century popular music.
Jordan’s original songs joyously celebrated the ups and downs of African-American urban life and were infused with sassy good humor and a driving musical energy that had a massive influence on the development of rock and roll. His music was popular with both black and white audiences, but lyrically, most of his songs were emphatically and uncompromisingly “black” in their content and in their delivery. Many of Jordan’s biggest R&B hits were unique enough that there were no hit cover versions, a rarity in an era when “black” records were consistently re-recorded by white artists, and many popular songs were released in multiple competing versions.
His songs were loaded with wry social commentary, coded references, and were a treasury of 1930s/40s black hipster slang. Through his records, Jordan was probably one of the main popularizers of the slang term “chick” (woman). Take, for example, the use of this term found in his 1946 recording of That Chick’s Too Young To Fry. Sexual themes were often featured on Jordan’s recordings and some songs, notably the shameless double entendre of Show Me How (You Milk The Cow), were so risqué that it seems remarkable that they were issued at all, especially by 1940s standards.
At the same time as Jordan’s success with Caledonia, the song was also recorded both by Erskine Hawkins and Woody Herman. The Herman version is important for its famous arrangement, including a unison chorus by five trumpets. Herman’s version, arranged by a young Neal Hefti, reached # 2 on the pop charts.
The issue of Billboard magazine for 21 April 1945 described the Erskine Hawkins’ version as “right rhythmic rock and roll music,” possibly the first use of the term “rock and roll” to describe a musical style. Hawkins’ version of Caldonia, featuring piano and vocals by Ace Harris, reached # 2 on the Billboard Juke Box Race Records charts and # 12 on the pop charts.
On the Billboard Juke Box Race Records charts, Frank “Sugar Chile” Robinson’s recording charted in 1949, peaking at #14. It did not chart on the pop charts.
James Brown recorded it in 1964 as his first release for Smash Records. His version, featuring an arrangement by Sammy Lowe, charted #95 on the pop charts.
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Louis Jordan And His Tympany Five Caldonia Boogie
Woody Herman and His Orchestra, vocals by Woody Herman Caldonia
Erskine Hawkins and his Orchestra, vocals by Ace Harris and band Caldonia
Frank “Sugar Chile” Robinson Caldonia