Ken Nordine (1920 - 2019)
February 16, 2019 4:14 PM   Subscribe

"The Voice of God," Ken Nordine, passed away today at age 98 Ken Nordine was one of the greatest voice artists of all time. You may not know his name, but assuredly you know his voice.

Ken passed away today at the age of 98. He was both a legend and a great guy, and a major influence on my aesthetic life. I first listened to Word Jazz 34 years ago, and it profoundly affected me. It still does.

Ken was always a product of his Midwest roots, never abandoning Chicago for LA or New York despite the ease with which he could have made that transition. Ken produced his own work from his home studio on the north side of Chicago, recording Word Jazz and other landmarks of audio art for decades. When the internet came on the scene, he jumped on that outlet for his prodigious artistic productivity, as well.

Word Jazz

On Wikepedia


You can listen to Word Jazz on Spotify and TIDAL and maybe other streaming sites. You ought to do that. If you have not heard Ken Nordine, I envy you. If you have, then I suppose you love him already.
posted by JimInLoganSquare (60 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, shit.
posted by Gorgik at 4:18 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]


what an engaged and delightful creator, a model for aging well, in my view.
posted by mwhybark at 4:24 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

posted by soundguy99 at 4:27 PM on February 16

Despite my lifelong love of radio and spoken word, I never really got Nordine. But, he both made a lot of people happy and helped advance an artistic field that I love. That's worth celebrating.

posted by eotvos at 4:30 PM on February 16 [6 favorites]

I swear he used to do the commercials for our little regional grocery store chain back in the 80s.
posted by great_radio at 4:33 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Grateful Dead w/Ken Nordine - 3-11-93 - Rosemont Horizon ( A.K.A.: The Rosey Whore )
posted by mikelieman at 4:34 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]

One of the weirder excerpts from a pretty weird and wonderful career: Colors, word jazz commissioned by a paint company initially for a short series of radio spots but later expanded to a full album.

The Chicago Sun-Times' obituary for Ken interviews Laurie Anderson, who among other things describes having dinners with Ken, his wife, and Laurie's husband Lou Reed. Can you imagine what it must have been like to overhear the dinner conversation between three of the most creative and distinctive voices of the 20th century?
posted by ardgedee at 4:36 PM on February 16 [16 favorites]

Aw, flibberty jib. .
posted by phooky at 4:40 PM on February 16 [8 favorites]

posted by acb at 4:40 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Damn. Back when Joe Frank died, I thought "Well, at least we still have Ken Nordine."

posted by carmicha at 4:41 PM on February 16 [8 favorites]

By the way, how are things in YOUR town?

In my college days, I did my college radio station's "Dr. Demento Style" radio show with my collection of weird records, and one of my favorite finds was a collection of Ken Nordine's Word Jazz. I was disappointed at how little the college audience appreciated his work. But then, his voice was enlisted to do a series of commercials for Levi's, accompanied by seriously psychedelic visuals. And one of them was semi-based on one of his word jazz pieces - the whimsically titled "Flibberty Jib". Now that got some people's attention.

Then, I went to work part-time screening the phones for weekend talk shows on a major L.A. radio station. How major? They acquired Ken Nordine's services to record the station IDs and show intros. I didn't ask for much while I was employed there, but I begged for them to get Nordine to record something for ME... just to hear THAT VOICE saying "Wendell"... but it was not to be.

I had brushes with fame involving some big time radio personalities and voice actors, but the one I got close to yet never actually me... was Ken Nordine. And that's how things are in MY town.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:15 PM on February 16 [13 favorites]

My wife and I got to hear Ken live at an Irish bar in the Chicago suburb of Evanston in 2001 or 2002. Paul Wertico was the percussionist, which in other contexts would have been the star attraction, but that's just how Ken brought it. Ken's wife was in the audience, too. They clearly loved each other. But that said, Mrs JiLS holds dear that she saw Ken look RIGHT AT HER during the performance. He was quite a guy. I will never compete with him.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 5:32 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

Another ex-DJ here who started doing radio before Dr. Demento. I had a vinyl copy of Word Jazz and would play a little bit of it between songs...and always got a few "what was that?!?" calls at the station when I did.

Ken Nordine and Vincent Price were tied for my favorite voices. Still are....
posted by CrowGoat at 5:40 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

Apple cider is for idiots.

posted by invitapriore at 5:52 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


Colors is truly visionary. It's baffling, sprawling, and unexpected, even after years of listening to it. I think of it more than almost any other record. Almost every color brings to mind a Nordine bon mot if I focus my attention on it, especially beige and green. I am still looking for my truly intelligent green. The album was a fixture of my late teen years, one of the records that I was eager to show people. Unlike just about every other record I tried to show my friends, it was nearly always a source of sincere delight. The pitch sounds terrible - a honey-voiced ad-man doing beatnik poetry! - and yet his recordings are easily contenders for the best beat works on record. He had an incredible gift and he made the most of it.
posted by vathek at 6:01 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]

He was the definitive 'surreal Levi's commercial' narrator of the 70's and 80's, sometimes seemingly answering himself in a telephone-effect 'internal monologue' voice. Weird.

As a result. whenever I see a Levi's logo, I always say "Lee-VAIHS!" to myself
posted by zaixfeep at 6:06 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]


One of the NPR stations in Seattle used to play some Word Jazz once a day between segments back in the late 80s. I didn't know what it was until I asked about it on the green and someone clued me in to Ken Nordine.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 6:15 PM on February 16

posted by fitnr at 6:37 PM on February 16

posted by hap_hazard at 6:42 PM on February 16

the green

But somewhere in Green,
Is a green here and there that has something to say:
A truly intelligent green,
A green with some integrity,
That's the kind of green for you and me

posted by Going To Maine at 6:48 PM on February 16 [9 favorites]

I remember his trippy Levi's commercials also, and the way he would whisper certain words, like

"Dacron Polyester"
"Dacron Polyester"

I didn't hear his Colors record until I was in college, and it's pretty amazing. What a creative soul.

posted by droplet at 7:11 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]


i've been mourning today. i grew up with his voice!
ah, he had a good run. i will take heart in that. i think tonight i may re-watch Fearless Frank - which, though the director and star both disown it - is one of my favorite films of all time. imagine, as a teen, long a fan and long before the internet, finding an absurdist superhero movie on late-night TV, with Nordine as both the narrator and in a small role! i have introduced many friends to that grand voice, over the decades. i am glad he was with us for so long.
posted by lapolla at 7:11 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

someone told us what we wanted to be , it was candy for the mind .
posted by hortense at 7:22 PM on February 16

I love him from the Poe audio anthology, including his lovely version of "The Conqueror Worm"
posted by LucretiusJones at 7:33 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

He was one of Tom Waits' great heroes, of course. They even recorded a couple of tracks together.
posted by Paul Slade at 7:40 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

A true Chicago icon.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve always understood his work, but it has never failed to move me.

Isn’t that the point of art?

Ken Nordine’s home studio tour, a video from 2010.
posted by SteveInMaine at 8:00 PM on February 16

posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 8:07 PM on February 16


From Sesame Street to Ninja Tune appearances, his voice was a clarion that knew its strength and opted to play in the margins.
posted by myopicman at 8:41 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

posted by skyscraper at 9:04 PM on February 16

Aw, damn. Nordine was one of the sounds of my growing up (seriously!) Soooo trippy and so captivating. A real wizard.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:08 PM on February 16

Ken Nordine promoting...a pinball machine.

posted by JoeZydeco at 9:34 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

One of my (many) favorites was his 'cover' of Jabberwocky from Through the Looking -Glass and What Alice Found there.

posted by falsedmitri at 11:11 PM on February 16

posted by quazichimp at 11:11 PM on February 16

Another marker from my life in Chicago is gone. I remember listening to him late at night on WBEZ. Thing is, I’m not sure that’s correct. But it feels like he ought to have been on at midnight, never mind reality.
posted by lemon_icing at 3:10 AM on February 17

He used to come on in the wee hours on a college radio station that I listened to. The combination at that time of the (very) early morning was amazing.
posted by aleph at 3:39 AM on February 17

posted by kuppajava at 7:26 AM on February 17

posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 8:04 AM on February 17

Introduced to his work by a college roommate - it's the good stuff.

posted by The Vice Admiral of the Narrow Seas at 8:46 AM on February 17

posted by pt68 at 8:52 AM on February 17

posted by the sobsister at 9:42 AM on February 17

I'll always think of Olive when I hear his name.
posted by Candleman at 10:16 AM on February 17

First I ever heard that voice was on the radio in 1967 - he did this great PSA they'd only play in the wee hours about quitting smoking, the interior monologue of a smoker with insomnia who finally drives out to the nearest 24-hour convenience store (which were very rare at that time) to buy a pack of cigarettes, only to get home just as his alarm goes off.
posted by Rash at 10:19 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

He also provided his voice to a promo video for the Video Toaster... later referenced in MST3k. (The description of that last video links to an excellent interview with him as well.
posted by m2ke at 10:19 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]

Thank you for all of the Colors, and never down on Brown. I've got so much more to check out of his.
posted by moonbird at 11:59 AM on February 17

Well, this sent me looking for a favorite or two. I came up with "I love a groove", and "alphabet/numbers". Both of those could be inserted into a party playlist, and flow right in without getting too outre.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:33 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

"...never down on Brown." posted by moonbird

Lot of overlap with "Muddy", my favorite color at the minute is "Grey".
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:36 PM on February 17

One of my formative influences. It was a long, sonorous, impressive life, that one.
posted by sonascope at 1:26 PM on February 17

I first heard his Desolation Theme and it broke my heart in two.
posted by CheapB at 2:44 PM on February 17

Back in the 80s, I worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant, and on Sunday night they closed and I would do the weekly top to bottom cleaning of the kitchen. Ken Nordine and Joe Frank were my sole companions on those nights.
posted by ambulocetus at 3:50 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]

sometimes seemingly answering himself in a telephone-effect 'internal monologue' voice.
A less-cool connection to Nordine: I used the telephone-style-filter-effect when I was professionally engaged performing and recording local commercials, most often to turn something which should've been two voices into a "having a conversation with myself" mode. But one time, in a spec spot for a flower shop, I recorded myself chanting "Flowers, Flowers, Flowers!", adding the filter effect and slowing it down 20-25% (the only way I could lower my vocal timbre to anywhere near Nordine level), then playing it back between lines of the short script. I was proud of my work for five minutes, then the salesman and the client heard it and were deeply unimpressed. It never got broadcast and I didn't put it on my 'greatest hits' reel, but I still occasionally get nightmares where I'm being attacked by Ken Nordine saying "Flowers, Flowers, Flowers!"
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:53 PM on February 17 [3 favorites]

posted by chance at 7:31 PM on February 17


Haven't heard it for years, but I still occasionally have snippets of "7 Ways of the Meek" pop up in my head. Now I guess I'll have to listen to it again!
posted by inexorably_forward at 7:32 PM on February 17

Does anyone remember a piece he did about walking through a library?
posted by chance at 7:34 PM on February 17

You may not know his name, but assuredly you know his voice.

I learned his name – since I'm one of those people who read the credits on album covers – when he did, quite effectively of course, two cuts (with Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz) from Pinocchio for Stay Awake (1988), a record subtitled "Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films."
posted by LeLiLo at 9:28 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

posted by davejay at 12:12 AM on February 18

I wonder how much he was influenced by Lord Buckley; similar concept executed quite differently.
posted by TedW at 5:58 AM on February 18

posted by Legomancer at 1:51 PM on February 18

I was down a different rabbit hole last night and found this industrial film from Zenith Radio Corporation...circa 1955. Just thought I'd leave this here.

20 minutes of dramatic Ken voiceover work! And television sets!
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:37 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]

I just found out about this. I absolutely thought he would have already been dead, but...98! Just not as semi-visible as Kirk Douglas, I suppose.

But what can you say? Golden voice.

Lord Buckley was a little earlier, but had been doing his act for longer. Nordine always struck me as a little more commercial, and certainly working for clients. This was all in the birth days of standup but before Lenny Bruce and Rod McKuen, so there was still a lot of variation in the microphone arts. Ken's voice is simply burned into the DNA of certain of us of a certain age, and in the good way, and many times the never-heard-of-him way.

He was Beatlesque in his way. Colors is the jam, Word Jazz the ancestor, and many years later all would inspire descendants including McKuen, not to mention every deadpan riff and MC schtick since 1955. Buckley didn't have that kind of impact and was really just kind of his own thing. Ken Nordine is emulated by the entire voiceover industry to this day, in addition to all the other cool and cooler stuff he did.
posted by rhizome at 8:56 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]

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