Esteban Jordan: The Greatest Accordionist Who Ever Lived

Words by Isaac Herrera

Edited by Abigail Vela

Esteban “Steve” Jordan, born in Elsa, Texas, is the greatest accordionist who ever lived. But his artistry expanded to more than just his instrument. He was a chameleon of music. Jordan was able to invent his own unique sound, yet never abandoned his home-town roots.

 

There have been many trailblazing accordion players throughout history. Narciso Martinez, Tony De La Rosa, Paulino Bernal, Oskar Hernandez, Flaco Jimenez, and Ramon Ayala are all masters of the craft. But what separates Esteban Jordan from the rest of these acclaimed artists? His own legendary story begins, like many native to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, on a migrant farm. 

An older Hispanic man, known as Esteban Jordan, with an eye patch and long hair in a white long-sleeve tunic holding an accordion.
Steve Jordan posing for Hohner with his signature Hohner ‘Rockordeon.’

The Beginning

Tragedy struck early in Jordan’s life when the midwife assisting his birth treated him with faulty eye drops, resulting in nearly total blindness in one eye, making him unable to assist his migrant working family in the fields. He was left to the care of the camp elders, who introduced and taught him the musical style that would lay the foundation for Esteban’s future: Conjunto.

 

By age 12, Jordan was considered a child prodigy, mastering the guitar, the harmonica, and of course, the accordion.

 

In his early 20s, Jordan pushed the accordion out of the confines of its farmland Conjunto roots and instead used it like a mirror, reflecting any musical style he had an interest in. He was the first ever accordionist to blend the sounds of Conjunto music with rock & roll, blues, soul, funk, R&B, and country. When you listen to early tracks like “Squeeze Box Man” and “You Keep Me Hanging On,” you’re listening to a young genius who knows exactly what the accordion is capable of— absolutely anything.

“Squeeze Box Man” by Steve Jordan Y Los Hermanos Jordan.

The Legend

Jordan didn’t see the accordion as just a traditional folk instrument but more like an extension of himself: A part of himself that could be manipulated through amplified power and effect pedals like the fuzzbox or the echoplex pedals one would normally find at the feet of a lead guitarist in a psych rock band. He proved an accordion is not limited to any one sound.

It didn’t take long for Esteban Jordan to become a pillar in the burgeoning Tejano scene of South Texas. In the 15 years between 1971 and 1986, he released 16 solo albums. Jordan sang and played every instrument recorded on a handful of those albums. Every one of his albums serves as a masterclass in getting the working class to forget their sorrows for just a moment and say, “Vamos a bailar!” Like some kind of Tex-Mex Pavlovian test, you can almost smell the BBQ with no pit in sight whenever you hear a Steve Jordan song.

A cassette cover image with Esteban “Steve” Jordan dressed in a black ruffled shirt and holding a colorful orange accordion as he sits on rocks overlooking the ocean behind him. Red text next to him that says “La Camelia,” and the title of the cassette reads “Steve Jordan - La Camelia.”
Cover of “La Camelia” cassette by Steve Jordan via the Pharr Out Records Archive

Cumbias, huapangos, chotis, salsa, boogaloo, zydeco, polkas– Esteban Jordan could play it all. It’s one thing to be the greatest accordionist of all time, but putting technical abilities aside, he had the power to instantly have people on the dance floor the moment he squeezed his box. 

Just like no one sounded like Esteban Jordan, no one had style like him. The quaffed hair, the giant turquoise rings, the sequined and/or ruffled laced shirts, the leather boots, and, to tie it all together, the crocodile skin eye patch. Even if one had no idea who Steve Jordan was, finding an album of his in the wild would likely stop you in your tracks, simply due to the larger-than-life outfits he would normally dawn on his album covers.

The Influence

At the height of his career, he constantly supported and collaborated with artists like Santana, Jerry Garcia, Celia Cruz, and the most collaborative of the group, David Byrne of the Talking Heads. 

 

Esteban Jordan assisted with the soundtrack to the movie “True Stories,” directed by David Byrne, and was featured on the Talking Heads album that supported the film. His accordion skills are featured in “Radio Head,” a Tex-Mex-inspired track that definitely drew inspiration from Jordan’s genre-blending abilities. Five years later, an English rock band, On A Friday, was looking for a name change, so they turned to David Byrne and Esteban Jordan for inspiration. On A Friday changed their name to Radiohead. This is not just a fun fact for your next game of Six Degrees of Separation, but it also proves that Esteban Jordan’s footprint on music history is so much bigger than we may know. 

 

 Talking Heads – Radio Head (feat. Steve Jordan)

The Performer

Many can attest to how electric Steve Jordan was as a live performer. Thankfully, two of his greatest live performances weren’t lost to time but were captured professionally on two separate occasions at two different times in his career. In the late ’70s, he was asked to play Austin City Limits Live to promote his album “Canto Al Pueblo.”

 

His live performance of “A La Heavy” exemplifies his natural abilities as a musician and a performer. He introduces the track by stating, “This is a number titled “A La Heavy”…” Which was a cheeky nod to the ever-growing popularity of the Tex-Mex vocabulary. His intro is followed by laughter from the audience as he joins in the laughing himself. It lays the foundation perfectly for what the audience is about to hear, a perfect blend of disco and polka: Two genres that, at first, sound like you’re mixing water and oil, but in the mind of a master accordionist, they are a perfect match.

A Hispanic man in a white long sleeve shirt and black eyepatch playing the accordion live at the top, and a white man wearing a jersey with the number 4 playing the guitar at the bottom. The man at the top is Esteban Jordan, and the man at the bottom is a member of the English rock band Radiohead.
Radiohead got their band name from a song which not only featured Esteban Jordan but inspired from the genre he helped create: Tex-Mex.

20 years later, a documentary series based in the Netherlands called “Rhythms of The World ” centered a portion of one episode around Esteban Jordan playing at a San Antonio NightClub. A personal favorite, this video shows an older, seasoned Jordan commanding the dance floor. Couples, young and old alike, spinning and twirling to the cumbia rhythm. The song he’s playing, “La Cumbia De Chon,” is a track taken off the 1986 album “Turn Me Loose,” one of Jordan’s major label releases, as well as one of his last attempts to break through to a mainstream audience with his eclectic sound. It’s a perfect album, arguably his best work, and is an absolute Tejano classic, but sadly, it wasn’t the mainstream success that Jordan hoped for.

Steve Jordan – “La Cumbia De Chon” LIVE

The Future

Esteban Jordan passed away in 2010, but his popularity has only grown in the last decade. Record collectors have his early albums at the top of their ‘holy grail’ list. One album in particular, the before mentioned “Canto Al Pueblo,” is among his most rare. A perfect copy could fetch anywhere between $400 to $500. In fact, it’s so hard to find that his die-hard fans in Japan decided to press hundreds of bootleg vinyl copies for themselves. Each of Jordan’s albums is worthwhile, but “Canta Al Pueblo” is especially incredible. All of the instruments on the album are played by Jordan, all of the songs are produced by Jordan, and the album was released on his private record label, El Parche. “Canto Al Pueblo” is a Tejano disco-funk odyssey through the mind of a man who knew no musical boundaries, an undeniable masterpiece of a record, and definitely worth the price of admission. 

Many have tried to compare Esteban Jordan to other greats. Steve Jordan was the (enter legendary artist here) of the accordion, but it’s time to give the man his own flowers. No one, before or since, has pushed the limits of the accordion and Tejano music like him. Jordan’s accordion style was, and is, unmatched. With the explosion in popularity and interest surrounding the accordion, many are discovering Jordan’s music for the first time. This can only mean one thing: more amazing music to come in the future from those who have been inspired by the greatest accordionist of all time, Esteban Jordan.

A colorful mural of musician Esteban Jordan, painted smiling in bright yellows and blues, holding a bright pink accordion. There’s a sunset background with a yellow sun over a blue ocean and a bright pink sky.
Mural outside Hybrid Records in Corpus Christi, via Carlos Cooper (owner)

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