“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.
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.
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.