Having exposed the innards of the chitlin’ circuit — largely through extensive research in the vibrant black press of the time — Lauterbach explores how this demimonde revamped the sound and style of African American popular music. Singer-saxophonist Louis Jordan hit the big time by touring the chitlin’ circuit relentlessly, fronting the Tympany Five, a band that captivated audiences with its tight, blues-drenched groove. So effective was Jordan’s combo that he is credited with helping to usher out the big-band era. His rise to stardom was likewise instrumental in shifting the promotional focus from bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie to singers such as Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown.
And what of the “rock ’n’ roll” in Lauterbach’s title? The road leading to it comes into focus with Jordan’s popularity and the breakout success of the artists who emulated him. The music they made — rooted in the blues, designed to fill a dance floor — reflected the lives of the working-class blacks who flocked to chitlin’-circuit shows. Words such as “rock” and “roll” — originally sexual metaphors — came to signify the music’s good-time feel and propulsive beat.
Vocalist Roy Brown, for example, celebrated a down-home world ruled by a funky blues sound. In Lauterbach’s eyes (and ears), Brown’s songs emblematized a musical and cultural shift. That was especially true of one of Brown’s own compositions, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which hit #1 in 1949:
[Brown] brought tough, lewd lyrics—the essence of the chitlin’ circuit song and a staple of rock ’n’ roll ever since—from down in the barrelhouse to the top of the Billboard charts from coast to coast … two years before Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed initiated popular use of the phrase rock ’n’ roll, four years prior to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” and five years before Elvis Presley covered … “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”
White audiences were not always willing or able to attend chitlin’-circuit shows, but they could and did buy the records that emerged from this sub-rosa world. By the late 1950s, ironically, that crossover appeal had begun to lower the curtain on the classic era of the chitlin’ circuit. The so-called “urban renewal” of the 1960s then scrambled the circuit’s geography, as the strolls that Walter Barnes had discovered and lauded two decades earlier were bypassed or bulldozed. And the civil rights movement’s push for integration, in some ways, erased the circuit’s last reason for being.
Thanks to Lauterbach’s enthusiastic appreciation, however, the once-lost history of the chitlin’ circuit has now been reverently recaptured.
Robert H. Cataliotti, a professor of American literature at Coppin State University in Baltimore, produced and annotated “Classic Sounds of New Orleans,” a Smithsonian Folkways CD.