“Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick” is how novelist Zora Neale Hurston once described the strategies devised by African Americans to survive and thrive in a repressive racial environment. One such “crooked stick” was a marginalized black music scene that would ultimately transform American culture. It’s a surprising story — by which I mean a little-known one — and Memphis journalist Preston Lauterbach tells it with verve in The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll.
See also: Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll.
The chitlin’ circuit, named for the hog intestines eaten by slaves for survival (and considered a soul-food staple by some), was the network of mostly Southern dance halls, nightclubs and movie theaters that made up a booming entertainment industry for the artists, audiences and promoters who had been shut out of the American mainstream by Jim Crow segregation. Lauterbach chronicles the rise of many artists beloved by fans of blues, jazz and R&B — among them B. B. King, James Brown, Louis Jordan and Johnny Ace. He also brings to life the men (for the most part) behind the scenes, who built this circuit of some crooked sticks indeed, often intertwining music promotion with shadier pursuits such as gambling, bootlegging and prostitution.
The first half of The Chitlin’ Circuit traces the roots of the circuit back to Walter Barnes, who juggled dual roles as a Chicago bandleader and columnist for the Chicago Defender (and whose music and journalism careers alike thrived under the patronage of gangster Al Capone):
As Barnes worked from town to town down South, he noticed a pattern. Any place with a sizable black population … centered on a main thoroughfare, a world unto itself. The maestro, in his hep vernacular, called it “the stroll.” He dashed off dispatches from every stroll he hit on the 1936–37 tour, leaving behind a neon-and-mud portrait of black Main Street in the South—the unfolding filaments of the chitlin’ circuit.
Tragically, just as the circuit that he had helped launch was starting to take off, Barnes was burned to death in a dance-hall fire. More than 200 other musicians and audience members perished alongside him that April 1940 night in Natchez, Mississippi, victims of a local impresario who had boarded up the windows (and barred all but the front door) to discourage gatecrashers.
That “scruples lite” approach typified opportunistic club owners such as Denver Ferguson, who followed Barnes’s dispatches from the front as a sort of virtual roadmap to black entertainment dollars. After getting into bootlegging and numbers-running on the Indianapolis stroll in the early 1930s, Ferguson in 1940 founded a more legitimate business — a talent-booking agency — to put a gloss on his illicit deeds.
Ferguson also masterminded a shadowy network of regional promoters across the South, who handled local logistics for the music acts he sent out on tour. Other promoters then came along and tapped into Ferguson’s network, extending its reach into artist management and record production. This enabled local visionaries — music promoters such as Don Robey in Houston, Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell in Memphis and Clint Brantley in Macon — to launch the national careers of artists from Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown to Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Richard.