Cities shape music, we know, but how does music shape cities? To be specific, how can a DIY music industry heat up urban economies, enliven public spaces, foster local idioms and local traditions of artistic practice, and even create jobs? This question suggests the policy criteria adopted by creative-city analysts, as well as the legacy asserted by musicians and fans of punk rock and hip-hop. But they can be insightfully posed toward an older, less documented, but undeniably influential era of popular music: the chitlin’ circuit of jazz, blues, and soul music that flourished in the American South from the 1930s to the 1960s.

This is the titular subject of The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, a fantastic book of music history by Preston Lauterbach (W.W. Norton, 2011). Most histories of black music frame the topic through the lens of particular genres, musicians, or record labels. Lauterbach takes a different tack, focusing on the many nightclub owners, promoters, publicists, do-gooders and street hustlers who brought live music and racous good times to the black neighborhoods of the Jim Crow South. No single musical movement or figure held the stage over the period Lauterbach studies, from the late 1920s to the 1960s. Indeed, such creative dynamism, he argues, gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll—not the circuit’s primary destination, but a legacy too often overlooked by music audiences and critics—in its continuing evolution as a base for soul and (finally, it seems) blues music today.

While music buffs should count The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the best music writing lists of 2011, the book can also be read as urban theory of how an oppressed people’s cultural practices—musical performance, nightlife rituals, and economic activities (legal and illegal)—can put cities and regions on the map, so to speak. Lauterbach documents how, in a historical context of Jim Crow and African migration from the agricultural countryside to industrial cities, a subaltern music industry established, extended, and deepened a regional geography of venues and affiliated activities that supplied entertainment and collective validation to black communities. Studying the chitlin’ circuit reveals the cultural significance of cities like Indianapolis and Houston that usually go unexamined by urban theory (or, for that matter, much 20th-century African-American history). Arguably, the chitlin’ circuit revived Memphis, a legendary center of African-American cultural production, whose black district inspired W.C. Handy’s seminal jazz trilogy (“Memphis Blues,” St. Louis Blues,” and “Beale Street,” written between 1912-16) only to stagnate over three decades of police harassment and political oppression. Like alveoli in an expanding lung of black culture, the chitlin’ circuit developed African-American markets and created community consciousness across small cities and podunk towns in the South. How many of us can locate, much less say we’ve visited, all the cities where the chitlin’ circuit touched down?

No dot on the map was too large or small: Ardmore, Muskogee, Oklahoma City, Taft, and Tulsa, Oklahoma; Houston, Longview, and Tyler, Texas; El Dorado, Hot Springs, and Little Rock, Arkansas; Monroe, New Orleans, Shreveport, and Tallulah, Louisiana; Greenville, Hattiesburg, Jackson, McComb, Vicksburg, and Yazoo City, Mississippi; Dorthan and Gadsden, Alabama; Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Cordele, Macon, Savannah, and Waycross, Georgia; Jacksonville, Pensacola, St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Tampa, and West Palm Beach, Florida (pg. 50).



There are several so-called chitlin’ circuits where different forms of black performance culture have flourished under the radar of mainstream (white) commercial culture. The comedy chitlin’ circuit gave us Redd Foxx, Dolemite and Richard Pryor; the drama circuit has most recently launched Tyler Perry into bigtime success. At times these have merged with the live music chitlin’ circuit that Lauterbach documents; before the Depression, they all came together in a black vaudeville circuit that also included dancers, novelty acts, and burlesque entertainment. Whatever the type of performance, the chitlin’ circuit refers to a low-budget scale of venue where black performers play primarily for black audiences. These are pointedly not the great theaters of Harlem, Chicago, and other industrial cities where African Americans moved en masse over the Great Migration of the early 20th century, but rather the no-frills dancehalls, roadside shacks, storefront backrooms, converted churches, and other utilitiarian spaces that black entrepreneurs could wrangle in the segregated south. Circuit veteran Sax Kari remembers:

Chitlins to black people were like caviar to Europeans. It’s played out now, but it was a delicacy. The average chitlin’ dinner was a dollar. You could go to one place and buy supper, drinks, and see an orchestra perform. It doesn’t exist now as it did then. Back [in the 1940s] you had big bands, anywhere from ten- to twenty-piece bands that had to squeeze themselves into a corner if there was no bandstand. There were no inside toilets at many of the places; you had to use privies. Now, when you got into a place that had running water inside, why you were fortunate. They sold ice water. They didn’t have air conditioners; they had these big garage fans: two on the bandstand and one back at the door. These were wooden buildings on the outside of town; there were very few concrete buildings or places in town. It was seldom you’d find anyplace for blacks that would hold more than six hundred. The people’d be damn near on top of you. We’d get the brass and reeds on the back of the stage and get the drummer and rhythm section down front where you could see over their heads. You would play for two and half hours straight, then take a thirty-minute break, then come back and play for the next hour and a half. Four-hour gigs (pg. 10).

As this suggests, the chitlin’ circuit entailed hard work for musicians in unpretentious settings—hardly the glamour associated with famous venues like New York’s Apollo Theater, much less the urban theaters and big-time nightclubs that commercial crossover to white audiences brought. Additionally, there was the unrelenting hustle associated with touring the circuit. Another veteran, drummer Earl Palmer, recalls circuit bands as “always traveling, working one night stands. Barely getting by, but [sounding] good. The raggedy bands, we called them, big raggedy road bands” (pp. 91-2). Laterbach writes, “The chitlin’ circuit’s pounding succession of one-nighters kept bands on the road, sleep-deprived and sardine-fed, for hundreds of miles a day through poor weather and past cops who took exception to a Cadillac limo or flexi-bus full of slick black dudes” (pg. 159). For this exhausting and often risky musical life, the pay-offs were playing raw and uncensored music before audiences itching to let loose the daily burdens of racist America, hopefully ending the evening with a few dollars in your pocket, and living the dream of the musician’s life.

A few stories and sounds drawn from over six decades of the chitlin’ circuit illustrate the diversity and ethos of the music performed on the chitlin’ circuit, as well as Lauterbach’s gifts as a raconteur, historian, and critic:


The International Sweethearts of Rhythm 

The all-girl International Sweethearts of Rhythm began, similarly to their stablemates the Carolina Cotton Pickers, in the late 1930s as a moneymaker for the all-black Piney Woods Country Life School near Jackson, Mississippi. Piney Woods founder Laurence Jones assembled the group and bestowed the “international” tag to emphasize the Chinese sax player, Hawaiian trumpeter, and Mexican clarinetist in additionn to the fourteen African-American girls in the group. Rae Lee Jones, whom the school assigned to chaperone the girls on their travels, had convinced the ladies to throw off their amateur status mid-tour in early 1941, astutely pointing out that they could top their Piney Woods-mandated eight-dollar-per-week salary. They absconded to Arlington, Virginia, under the guidance of real estate developer Al Dade, who assumed their management. Piney Woods principal Laurence Jones did not take the news well. He reported the band bus stolen and several of the band’s underage members missing. The Sweethearts ditched the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and made it to Memphis, where a roadblock netted the fugitives. Four of the girls returned to Piney Woods, and the decidedly square Laurence Jones threatened to withhold diplomas from the rest. They seemed to prefer Dade’s tutelage, who reportedly introduced them to the wonders of makeup. He lodged the refugees at his property, redubbed “Sweetheart House,” and they called him daddy. Clearly in need of a positive role model, the Sweethearts joined forces with Denver Ferguson as one of the first major acts at Ferguson Brothers Agency. Tiny David, a three-hundred-pound, proud lesbian vocalist, joined the group just prior to “one of the greatest one night tours ever staged by any attraction,” as did Toby Butler, the group’s first white member. The Sweethearts had as many nicknames as members of a male orchestra, counting “Rabbit” Wong, “Vi” Burnside, and “Trump” Gipson among their membership, and claimed to have musical chops on par with any bunch of no-good men. Still, the ladies understood femininity’s value to the blues crowd. As vocalist Anna Mae Winburn sang, “I ain’t good looking and I don’t have waist-long hair, but my mama gave me something that can take me anywhere” (pp. 82-3)


Amos Milburn

Milburn and his gang of five played every Houston joint, the Peacock, the Boston Lion, and the Big Apple, but they harbored a special affection for a rustic camp outside the city replete with picnic grounds, sixteen cabins for rent, and a commissary that served deep fried shrimp, steak, and chicken all night. Though formally known as Sid’s Ranch, Milburn cooked up a theme song for the place called “Chicken Shack Boogie,” a sure enough portrayal of a classic chitlin’ circuit dive. Milburn lays down friendly, half-spoken verses, elaborating on the shack’s out-of-the-way location and humble architecture, then leads his band through torrid instrumental breaks to illustrate the fun all would have. On stage, Milburn perched at the enge of the piano stool nearest the audience, turned his body toward the crowd, pumped that right leg, lashed his pompadour toward the keyboard, tore through his set, and ruined the audience for anyone less charismatic than T-Bone [Walker]. As a jazz quartet leader who was to follow Amos at the Keyhole recalled, “He was supposed to open for us, but we couldn’t go on” (pp. 124-5).


Roy Brown

“Boogie at Midnight”… captures [Roy Brown’s] group’s explosive form fans heard on the epic 1949 tour. As he had with “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Roy sang it as he saw it on the chitlin’ circuit in “Boogie at Midnight,” in Billboard’s description, “a frantic, shouting, hand-clapping, job that sounds like cash in hand.” The song rocks harder than Roy’s previous records, and would become his biggest hit to date, peaking and no. 3 on the Billboard R&B chart. You can hear rock’s New Orlean’s brass roots, the sanctified hand-clapping and choir chanting Roy brought to the sound, and Roy and [saxophonist Leroy] Batman [Rankins] pushing each other higher up the rafters. No more compelling document exists of rock ‘n’ roll as it was made on the chitlin’ circuit (pp. 166-7).


Marvin Sease

A former gospel singer named Marvin Sease wrote a song called “Candy Licker” in the late 1980s, and has enjoyed steady chitlin’ circuit headliner status since. More than mere song, “Candy Licker” is a sometimes belligerent, ten-minute liberation of cunnilingus from black man taboo, sung from the perspective of Jody, a mythical lover conjured from the mists of Yoruban trickster lore. Jody does what othr men do not deign discuss. Even more subversively, he cares about female satisfaction. Jody calls out the sorry-ass men who won’t go down. A sharp ploy, considering the conventional wisdom, dating to the 1930s, that black women buy more blues records than black men do (pg. 5).



Many of the performers described in the book are known to fans of American black and/or roots music; a good number of them (like the highly successful Carolina Cotton Pickers who barnbusted the South through the 1930s and 40s) never recorded, which only underscores the great contribution of Lauterbach’s research to American music history. But the book’s broader relevance to urban research is twofold.
First, Lauterbach contextualizes these musicians’ careers within the broader fabric of the black South under Jim Crow. His attention to the details and texture of black life, its historic events and subtle shifts over the decades of the Great Migration, is often astonishing. Dig the evocative poetry of this extended passage introducing 1920s Indianapolis, home of one of the chitlin’ circuit’s central characters:

In 1920, Denver [Ferguson] moved into a small home at 412 West North Street, abutting the Avenue’s south end. He’d arrived with enough money to open the Ferguson Printint Company, and after some initial success running the business out of the house, he set up shop nearby at 322 Senate, overlooking Indiana Avenue, which would hold Denver’s headquarters for the next twenty-five years.

From Denver’s office, the Avenue streetcar line stretched horizon to horizon. The trolley clambered along the cobblestones, where the last stubborn carriages frustrated motorists. Buildings on the Avenue’s south end near Denver’s shop were brick, some oxblood red, others sandy brown with black flecks, two and three stories tall. They extended from two storefronts to a half-block wide. They housed junkmen, fish and game shops, clothiers, and cobblers. Striped canvas and painted tin awnings reached from the façades over the sidewalk, shading the concrete in the absence of trees. After sunset, electric lights, five milky-glass globes on an iron post, a half-dozen per block, wiped away the darkness in soft yellow puffs. Avenue men dressed the same, in long-sleeved, collared, white shirts, suspenders, and dark trousers. A few sported vests; fewer wore suits. The greatest variety was seen atop their heads: newsboy caps, ivies, derbies, bowlwers, straw boaters, and fedoras. Ladies’ fashion functioned primarily to keep male imaginations active. Continuing up the street, broad brick buildings shrunk to double storefronts, with one- and two-story, tin-roofed wooden buildings interspersed among them. The architecture appeared increasingly modest farther up toward Fall Creek—raw plank shops and homes that would have blended in fine on an unpaved thoroughfare in the Old West.

The Avenue’s first picture-show house, of corrugated iron, stood on bare ground. Each evening’s show began with a fresh scattering of wood shavings to absorb the torrents of tobacco juice. The nearest thing to an orchestra in those days—a trio of piano, violin, and fiddle—sawed through the night at Vinegar Hall, where patrons dipped whiskey from a communal barrel. Another of the era’s recreation spots, Bob Parker’s Hole in the Wall, occupied the entire second story of a quadruple storefront. It was remembered only as “an institution of wide notoriety,” a truly awesome distinction in this open town.

People lived above Avenue storefronts, where it stayed loud, and then spread throughout the rooming and shotgun houses along the cross streets. By 1920 most residential blocks adjacent to the Avenue were nearly 100 percent black. Sprawling family homes were divided to board the latest arrivals, and black families filled rooms where once a single white body had slept. Migrants adapted old Kentucky architecture to its new, high-density urban setting. They dug wells around back, and in one tenement installed a two-story privy that upstairs tenants had to reach by braving a wobbly, splintery footbridge. In winter, coal smoke from stoves and furnaces blackened the foggy, chill air, and ashy-gray snowmelt sloshed in the gutters. In summer, the fragrance of tomato plants punched through the humidity.

The Jews hung on around Indiana Avenue—Abraham Tavel and the Sachs Brothers ran their pawnshops, and the Schaeffer cleaners and Kappeler jewelers still did business—but the migrants had begun to transform the strip and were deep in the process of making it their own. Small-town Kentucky ways translated well to the Avenue. People lived intimately, publicly. Most homes lacked comfort, so folks spent their time visiting, out on the porch, walking the street, or lounging in a café, many of which served “Kentucky oysters,” local code for hog intestines. Consequently, the track buzzed night and day. Everybody living on top of and in front of each other lent the weekly Indianapolis Recorder a penetrating vitality. It kept a second-story office halfway between the pawnshops and the hospital, where it saw and reported on everything. You might open it Saturday afternoon and learn who your sweetheart was seeing on the side, go find the cheaters in a café, cut their asses in front of everybody, and end up in the next edition (pp. 18-21).

Second, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll documents the story of the music industry that organized the circuit. It’s a story with a generous share of hustlers, criminals, and the temptations of the musicians’ life—elements familiar to readers of Frederic Dannen’s Hit Men and Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback—but the businesses and hustles generally operated beneath the high-stakes arenas of the mass record industry and mainstream radio.

Perhaps in some way the chitlin’ circuit should be understood as an accidental consequence of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the the south, for it was in the North, and in black Americans’ reverence for the artists and writers associated of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Remainssance, that a peculiar market niche emerged which the Southern chitlin’ circuit would serve. In the 1920s, Harlem and Chicago were strongholds of black swing orchestras (Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie) who performing for white audiences in big-city theaters of the North under the booking monopoly of the mob, a.k.a. the syndicate. The white criminal underworld had successfully forced its way into a mutually beneficial relationship with the white record companies: syndicate bookers needed records to promote their bands, and the Northern record companies needed personal appearance tours to promote their recording artists.

If a black musician wanted even to entertain this level of success, they would necessarily have to pursue their livelihood in the North. Conversely, since all the lucrative markets lay in the North, the big swing orchestras had little need to visit the Jim Crow South. African Americans in the South participated in black commercial culture via Northern output: recorded music and literature, including black periodicals, like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, that were “a forbidden pleasure, an ally from the outside world, and a trusted source for style points” (pg. 39).


On the stroll: Walter Barnes 

The end of Prohibition, the incarceration of mob kingpins like Al Capone, and the nosedive in consumer spending with the Depression brought this system to a steady close over the 1930s. Lauterbach argues that the first to perceive the commercial rewards of bringing Northern music to the South was Walter Barnes, a bandleader at Chicago’s Cotton Club and a Southern migrant himself. Fortuitously, Barnes wrote a column on the black big-band scene for the Chicago Defender, which he unashamedly used to publicize his own orchestra as well as his more famous peers. More importantly, Barnes’ column was the Twitter of its day (if you will) for the scattered territory bands of Black America:

These colorfully named orchestras worked according to the lean scale the Depression imposed. Many held a hotel ballroom residency and broadcast from there over low-watt radio stations, then toured as far as their reputations and broadcasts carried. Around these acts grew the rudimentary infrastructure of the Southern black dance business: dusty dance halls, hustling dance promoters, and hucksterish dadvance men, who went around drumming up gigs and publicity. In the absence of full itineraries, they barnstormed, packing into a Ford AA bus or Model A Woody, tying their instruments down to the roof, to catch gigs as they could…. They sent Barnes their locations and provided as much of a plan for the future as they had scripted: “Lee Trammell and his Spotlight Entertainers are barnstorming Arkansas. Skeet Reeves is traveling in advance. The unit will route for northern states in March and may be reached this week at Stuttgart, Arkansas.” Though he began as Chicago orchestra columnist and self-publicist, Barnes rapidly became central dirt dispatcher for traveling black jazz bands. Barnes’s readers learned the whereabouts (and names) of Dittybo Hill and his Eleven Clouds of Joy, Herman Curtis and his Chocolate Vagabonds, Walter Waddell and his Eleven Black diamonds, Jack Ellis and his Eleven Hawaiians, Belton’s Society Syncopators, Smiling Billy Steward and his Celery City Serenaders, and A. Lee Simpkins’s Augusta Nighthawks (pg. 40).

Barnes’ column relayed musical news from black America’s dispersed enclaves, or what he called in his hep lingo “the stroll”: racially segregated black districts of Southern cities that were economically self-sustaining (at least until the era of desegregation and urban renewal). His dispatches also proved to be highly valuable “road intelligence” when he decided to tap these distant markets with his own Chicago band. Barnes toured the South regularly from 1932 until 1940 (when he and 208 others died in the famous Rhythm Club fire in Natchez, Mississippi). While on the road, he published boosterish dispatches from the Southern cities he plays in, thereby publicizing the urban markets for black entertainment and and the scattered venues, lodgings and services open to black musicians:

We are now driving down Desiard Street, the stroll in Monroe, [Louisiana]. . . . The Red Goose Barber Shop is the place where all the boys have their grooming down. . . . Lovely Brown’s Beauty Shop is where all the ladies get fancy waves for the dances. . . . The Grog Cafe is the dining place of the profesh, and what good, Southern, home-cooked meals they serve here. . . . The Frog Pond ballroom located at 1003 Desiard Street is the most beautiful and spacious dance palace here (Walter Barnes, December 1936, quoted on pg. 53).

In the South, Barnes worked with regional promoters whose names would become eventual legend in chitlin’ circuit lore: Don Robey of Houston’s Third Ward; Frank Painia, former barber and owner of New Orleans’ famed Dew Drop; Clint Brantley of Macon, Georgia’s Cotton Club (and future manager of James Brown); Bill Rivers, Cracker Johnson, and Charlie Edd in Florida; and so on. But in the 1930s, their operations were largely unconnected and limited to an intra-state area, maybe a few states. It was Denver Ferguson, an Indianapolis booking agent, who coordinated these promoters into a single industry and thus, Lauterbach asserts, deserves credit as “the man who invented the chitlin’ circuit” (quoting Sax Kari, pg. 5).


Stickin’ his neck out: Denver Ferguson

Originally a printshop owner, Ferguson first became a mover and shaker in the Indianapolis numbers racket by printing daily lottery slips that resembled harmless baseball scorecards. His career in musical entertainment started with a tip about a lucrative parcel of Indiana Avenue real estate across the street from an unannounced future housing project. Here he built the Sunset Terrace, which flourished in the 1930s amidst the Depression, cutthroat rivals, and corrupt police, until a 1940 nightclub murder brought enough heat to lead him into a somewhat safer venture, talent booking. In 1941, Ferguson opened the Ferguson Brothers Agency to serve a bigger and remarkably underserved market for entertainment.

Denver, knowing well how the syndicate controlled black bands in the big Northern Cities, built his circuit in the territory Walter Barnes had pioneered for black bands in 1932 and virtually closed with his death in 1940. Unlike the syndicate, Denver put the black audience first, a simple variation at the core of his innovation. Denver knew the black South intimately… Denver understood the ways black neighborhoods functioned, and he knew that because of racial segregation, all-black enclaves existed in every excuse for a town. Whether he had read Barnes writings or not, Denver was in touch with the stroll concept and its prevalence across the map. He brought his own street-financial expertise to the enterprise. The money principles of the numbers game applied: the Negro individual lacked financial resources, but the stroll possessed collective wealth in nickel and ime increments. Add those nickels and dimes, multiply by numerous bands playing different joints simultaneously with a percentage of proceeds from each flowing back to Ferguson, repeat nightly, and you come to see, as Denver correctly surmised, that there was serious cash down there (pg. 87).

Ferguson puts his printing press to use printing advertising materials and tickets to be couriered to future tour stops. His publicity machine also benefited from a board member placed within the black periodical Indianapolis Recorder. J. St. Clair Gibson, a.k.a. “The Saint,” relayed tall and flattering stories about Ferguson acts, such as the “creation myth” of one reasonably overlooked King Kolax, for black America via the Associated Negro Press wire:

They were holding a jam session at the Savoy Ballroom one night in the month of May 1940 . . . and all the cats had their axes sharp for some deep cutting. . . . As the session started and the cats started swinging . . . a young fellow came up from out of nowhere and asked to sit in. . . . This young fellow with his horn under his arm hit the stage in two jumps and told the pianist to take “Honeysuckle Rose” in E flat. . . . This kid raised his horn toward the ceiling and started blowing and for 10 choruses he kept them jumping, hitting the high notes with a different riff for every chorus. When this kid had finished, one of the old timers said, “There is your new King of the Trumpet” and this new king was King Kolax (J. St. Clair Gibson, July 31, 1943, quoted on pp. 85-6).

Perhaps the most game-changing of business practices that Ferguson introduced involved his method for securing effective local promotion across a staggeringly expansive region. Lauterbach writes that Ferguson “stuck his neck out,” sending his people on the road and making many roadtrips himself to enlist the dispersed regional promoters from the territory-band circuit or “make” them (instruct a well-placed novice) himself.

Denver approached his relationship with these far-off promoters just as he had his numbers runners on the Avenue. If a promoter failed to pay Denver or his act according to the terms of their deal, then Denver would drop them from the circuit. No need for violent reprucussion. He could always make another promoter. He wanted his freelancers, either in the street or on the circuit, to recognize the long-term value of their arrangement. He wanted them to see that they would make thousands more dollars with him over time than the few hundred they’d make off with by disappearing with the proceeds of a single dance. If they were incapable of this, let them go, Denver said. This was the closest thing to loyalty he could breed (pg. 88).

Characteristically, he would sell each promoter blocks of shows across their region, which would encourage them to tap all their established venues and then find some more. The concerned parties—regional promoters, local venue operators, and his own performers—would then be linked together with a contract of Ferguson’s devising. The tradition on the chitlin’ circuit was to pay performers “first money in the door,” which promised next to nothing if a gig was poorly attended. Ferguson transformed this incentive structure into a mutually reinforcing association:

Denver negotiated for his talent to ensure that the act, and agent, got paid before anyone else regardless of attendance. Denver and the promoter settled on a guaranteed fee. Denver extracted a deposit from that figure, paid before the show to “guarantee” the appearance… refundable only if the artist failed to show. If the gig proceeded smoothly, Denver kept the deposit and the artist kept the remainder of the guarantee, which the artist collected from the promoter at intermission. The promoter kept an amount equal to the artist guarantee, and if profits exceeded payouts, the artist and promoter split the surplus, according to the term of their deal referred to in contractual lingo as the “privilege,” often, but not always, 50 percent. A chunk of this also went back to the boss. A Ferguson-employed road manager (who might also be the bandleader, as in the Carolina Cotton Pickers’ unfortunate case) accompanied the agency’s acts to count heads in the dance hall and then wire the cash into Denver’s pockets—just like an Avenue numbers runner (pg. 90).


The circuit starts rockin’ 

With more cities and towns to play in, the far-flung chitlin’ circuit set in motion big changes for black music in the South. World War II was an important catalyst. Wartime mobilization put blacks to work at rates not seen since before the Depression; thus, folks had some money in their pockets to spend on entertainment. The war froze the record industry for several years, as jukebox factories converted to martial production and shellac rationing brought record manufacturing to a stop in 1943. Thus, black demand for entertainment in the South would be channeled into live entertainment. These were about as good a set of circumstances in which black musicians could pursue a career, and the chitlin’ circuit began to overflow with performers.

Finally, wartime allocations hasten the decline of the big jazz orchestras, as the Office of Defense Transportation imposed a bus ban as part of fuel rationing, a direct blow to the traditional means of big-band transport. The end of the war saw blacks lose work en masse, and the subsequent dampening of entertainment demand meant club owners could no longer afford big orchestras’ fees. Smaller units were best adapted to these circumstances; with fewer musicians to pay, savings could be passed on down to ticket prices. The meteoric rise of Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five, the small jump-jive combo fronted by a zany bandleader, to the top of BillboardMagazine’s “Race Records” charts in 1943 illustrated the decline of the jazz swing orchestra in black America’s popular music (this music would remain beloved to mainstream white audiences for many more years).

Instrumentation would change with the shift to smaller bands; vocalists and electric guitar would especially benefit in the musical space opened up. Guitar and saxophone would symbolize a new aesthetic. Now, the music rocked, and the lyrics would often say as much, most famously in Roy Brown’s 1948 smash hit “Good Rockin’ Tonight”; Lauterbach asserts this was the first rock’n’roll record (albeit before the genre had such a name) to come out of the chitlin’ circuit and reach major commercial success.

The shift to smaller bands in turn changed black musicians’ employment circumstances. “After Louis Jordan’s rise pushed the vocalist into the limelight, the band became an afterthought,” explains Lauterbach. “Early rock star-attractions Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, T-Bone Walker, Cecil Gant, and Ivory Joe Hunter traveled without bands. Hell, anyone could be the band, as long as the star, whose voice you heard on the jukebox and face you’d seen on the posters, was there on stage” (pg. 116). For most chitlin’ circuit musicians, finding a gig no longer involved joining a roadworthy band, but rather being in the right place when touring musicians came to town. This was the context in which Memphis’ musical juices began flowing again:

By [1949], area band activity all ran through Sunbeam [Mitchell, the main promoter in Memphis], as the Mitchell Hotel became an informal musicians’ employment agency, a regional chitlin’ circuit hub. Like New Orleans’s Dew Drop, Dallas’s Empire Room, and Indianapolis’s Sunset Terrace, bandleaders organizing tours of the region would check in at Sunbeam’s cantina to find musicians to hire. Rain or shine, night or day, someone could be found (pg. 193).

From this setting, unknown Memphians could occasionally become overnight stars (e.g., Johnny Ace, who hit big in 1952 with “My Song” only to by his own gun in a mysterious accident two years later). Thick with local talent, Memphis would be the site of America’s first radio station with an all-black music format: WDIA, “73 on your dial,” in October 1948. A Mississippi guitarist named Riley King would get a DJ slot on WDIA as “Bee Bee King,” ultimately to become blues legend B.B. King. Memphis musicians would transform and blues and “rhythm & blues” (Billboard‘s new name for its former Race Records chart) into soul music on local record labels like Stax and Hi. The rest, of course is history.



The story goes on, with a significant chapter closing as the record industry eclipses the chitlin’ circuit to make stars out of Southern musicians like Little Richard, James Brown, and Al Green.  But for urbanists, what’s especially interesting about the chitlin’ circuit—and there’s no reason to think this has changed significantly, although the caliber of venue (at least the quality of its construction) has slowly upgraded—is how much it got the whole of each far-flung black community involved in the local show. It’s well known how central were music, performance, and nightlife for segregated black America at this time in history, but Lauterbach offers new insights into what happened before each gig. In “making” his promoters, Ferguson would explain in considerable detail how to enlist local businesses (“the black barber and beauty shop, restaurant and bar” [pg. 88] and assorted hustlers into the work of promoting each show. Today, the old concert posters and window placards collected blues and roots music afficianados evoke the neighborhood publicity machine that Ferguson set in motion, and which still gears up for new generations of booking agencies and promoters pushing chitlin music below the commercial radar.

The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll
 documents some unexpected aspects of tearing down the fourth wall between performer and audience. In touring stops too small to support black hotels, promoters would plug out-of-town musicians into home-style accommodations. “We couldn’t stay in the white hotels,” bandleader Andy Kirk recalled. “I’m glad now we couldn’t. We’d have missed out on a whole country full of folks who put us up in their homes, cooked dinners and breakfasts for us, told us how to get along in Alabama and Mississippi, helped us out in trouble, and became our friends for life” (pg. 90). The local economies that grew to support touring musicians (let’s not forget local tailors to mend uniforms, auto mechanics to fix the cars…) saw their parallel within the club. In these “nondescript places” (as Sax Kari called them), nightlife amenities were rarely provided in-house. Providing the suppers, cold beer, garage fans, frontdoor security and the like would be tasks outsourced to local residents.

Maybe it’s tempting to overstate the solidarity among musicians, their employers, audience and community. The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll has its share of backstabbing, violence both threatened and real, and mundane exploitation—and that’s just inside the club. Lauterbach is appropriately unsentimental about how racial oppression and economic misery could be the parents to the desperation, predation, and self-destructiveness found in so many ghettoes. Still, this book testifies to the fact that the backbone of the gemeinschaft that the chitlin’ circuit instilled in so many black districts of the South lay not just in folks’ love for the music, but in the economic networks—often legit, sometimes informal, and once in awhile just plain criminal—that emerged in each city and town to make the show go on.