SOUTHINGTON — After a 10-month stint in prison on drug charges in 1995, Milton L. Jordan said he was praying for “new tools” to turn his life around. Performing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” at a Red Lobster karaoke session in California, Jordan realized he’d found one.
“People who were leaving were coming back. People were coming out of the kitchen to see who was singing,” said Jordan, 70. “I noticed the attention the song got. I said, ‘Thank you God, I’m going to take this and run with it.’”
Jordan, who lives in Southington now, turned impersonating one of his musical heroes into a career that has him touring in Europe yearly with Stars in Concert.‘Your Big Break’
For a few years, Jordan and his wife Cara Rogers hosted karaoke nights in southern California with Jordan performing as Louis Armstrong in contests. Jordan’s day job was construction, and the early mornings at the time made staying up for late gigs difficult. Rogers thought Jordan was such a match for the jazz singer and trumpet player that she urged him to audition for “Your Big Break,” a talent show created by television host Dick Clark.
Jordan sang just a few words at the audition in 1999 before being sent home. He thought he’d gotten cut until he heard from the show’s producers a few weeks later. Jordan was surprised, saying he’d only gotten to sing five words.
“They said, ‘That’s all we needed to hear,’” Jordan said.
While he didn’t win the grand prize on “Your Big Break,” the show did turn out to be just that for Jordan. The exposure there got him a spot with Oprah Winfrey, during which Dick Clark surprised him via satellite video with the news that Legends in Concert, a tribute show company, wanted to add the Satchmo impersonator to their lineup.
“They loved it. They want to hire you to be a part of the show,” Clark told Jordan during the Oprah episode in 2000. “Yesterday you were in construction. Tomorrow, you may be a huge star.”
Rogers never doubted it.
“It’s his calling. I might have been part of it happening but I think he would have gone into this or something musical regardless. He’s an entertainer,” she said.Learningentertainment bybeing entertained
Jordan grew up in Columbus, Ohio singing at his Baptist church and with musical ambitions common among his family and friends.
“The Motown thing was big, everybody wanted to be a singer,” he said.
Louis Armstrong in a particular was a favorite in Jordan’s house growing up in the 1950s and 60s. If the singer was on TV, everyone watched.
“The name Louis Armstrong would stop arguments in my house,” Jordan said. “You know you’re going to come away smiling, he was such an entertainer.”
He also grew up admiring entertainers like Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and more, who could represent a host of characters.
“I’ve always been an imitator of people even in the neighborhood I grew up in,” Jordan said.
He described himself as a concert chaser during his hippie days, seeing top acts of the 1970s in all kinds of genres.
“I’d like to think I learned to entertain by being entertained,” Jordan said.Performing in Europe
For a while Jordan toured around the United States with Legends in Concert. Now he’s with Stars in Concert, a company that tours in Europe and offers impersonators for Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, the Blues Brothers and others.
“I worked with a Marilyn Monroe that would fool Joe DiMaggio,” Jordan said.
For his set, Jordan does all the vocals while video and instrumentals of Louis Armstrong and his band plays on screens behind him. He’s taken on the whole persona with the mannerisms, gestures and costume of the singer. While Jordan has a white beard when he’s not on tour, he’ll go clean-shaven for his gigs and add hair to complete the look.
“I can’t take people to the Louis Armstrong address but I can get them in the neighborhood,” Jordan said. He describes his work as homage to Armstrong.
He and his wife have lived all over the country but moved to Connecticut to be closer to her parents who live in Cheshire.
Jazz is popular in Germany and many of his shows are there. Louis Armstrong, Jordan said, was able to infuse blues into other genres which hadn’t been done yet in his time.
One of those concerts drew Danny Barcelona, the drummer of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars. Barcelona told Jordan that the concert made him feel “like old times.”
“That was one of the highlights of my life,” Jordan said.
His set list includes some hits like “High Society,” “Hello Dolly” and “When You’re Smiling.” Of all the songs, “What a Wonderful World” may have the widest recognition and has an important message, according to Jordan.
“It catches everybody, everybody knows that song from young to old,” he said.
“We’ve become so preoccupied with everyday life we forget to look at God’s artwork,” Jordan said. “We forget to look at the artwork before our eyes.”
Jordan will travel to Europe in October for his next tour.Understandingaddiction
Whether on tour or not, Jordan said he looks for opportunities to talk to groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Having experienced addiction, he said he’s got credibility with those going through it that others don’t.
Jordan’s mother died when he was 19, leaving him “pissed at the world.” In the music scene that Jordan followed, drugs were part of the lifestyle.
“We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re having fun,” he said. It wasn’t until after his incarceration that he realized he was headed down a dark road.
“I was tired of lying to myself,” he said.
Jordan said he’s now scrupulously law-abiding.
“I don’t even jaywalk,” he said.