Preston Lauterbach: The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll

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The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll

Preston Lauterbach

368 pages

ISBN 0393342948

W. W. Norton


Preston Lauterbach's meticulously researched and present The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll turns a bright light on what might be considered the Higgs Field of rock and roll, that is the history that gives indigenous American music its mass (or weight in this metaphor). It is the story of the enterprise, evolution and, finally, extinction of a way of life that was largely fueled by Jim Crow and segregation, in both the geopolitical North and South. Urban black neighborhoods typically had a central avenue where African-American-owned business thrived, including entertainment halls.

These "strolls" were ubiquitous and included Desiard Street in Monroe, La., Second Street in Muskogee, Okla. and Ninth Street in Little Rock, AR. In the larger cities, the flourishing of black commerce was even greater: Fifth Street in Macon, Ga., Central Avenue in Tampa, Fla., West Dallas Avenue in Houston; Rampart Street in New Orleans; Auburn Avenue in Atlanta; and, central to Lauterbach's account, Beale Street in Memphis. The various bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and concert halls found on these various strolls constituted a multi-territorial travel circuit for the many local bands and musical acts performing between 1925 and 1955. The "Chitlin' Circuit" was an umbrella term used to describe this collection of performance venues throughout the country where African-American bands could play unmolested during the withering racism of Jim Crow.

Lauterbach approaches his subject chronologically from the mid-1920s and the establishment of the Indiana Avenue "stroll" in Indianapolis to the rise and decline of the Memphis Hi Records rhythm section in the late 1970s. The The story includes the equally important "territory bands" and individual musicians and the managers and promoters who took care of the business end of arranging performances. As a result, much more than music is discussed. Much of what is called the Chitlin' Circuit was funded or orbited a well- established numbers trade, drugs and alcohol (pre- and post-Volstead Act) and prostitution, giving the later pronouncement "sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll" the proper validity and context. No, the Rolling Stones did not invent them. So needless to say, whether musician or manager on the Circuit, these people were larger-than-life characters all.

On the promotion side of things, Lauterbach introduces us to to the Ferguson brothers, Denver and Sea, who, together, integrated entertainment and promotion the Indianapolis "stroll" of Indiana Avenue, where, after opening a printing business, the pair opened the Trianon Ballroom, Royal Palm Gardens, the Cotton Club, and Sunset Terrace Ballroom and started the Ferguson Brothers Booking agency, creating a business paradigm reproduced by Don Robey in Houston (who also added the Duke, Peacock, Back Beat and Songbird record labels to his financial interests), Sunbeam Mitchell on Memphis' Beale Street., and many others producing collectively the "Circuit."

The musicians who "were relegated to the chitlin' circuit" are largely unknown today, having performed in the shadows of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Billy Eckstine. Central to Lauterbach's story was Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians, who barnstormed the circuit between the late 1920s and 1940, when Barnes and a large part of his band perished in the famous Natchez Dancehall Holocaust. Barnes and the Creolians did record some Brunswick sides in the '20s and '30s, but made their money largely on constant touring. Another artist who did the same was Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, who, on the heels of Aaron Thibeaux "T-Bone" Walker, bar-walked his way across the United States, finally recording for Robey's Peacock Records in the late '40s and continuing long after sunset on the Circuit. Brown died in 2005.

Bandleader Louis Jordan looms large in this book because of his pivotal role in the band format changes during the period. When the heyday of big band began to wane, Jordan whittled his band down to the Tympani five, ushering in the era of small bands and giving rise to rhythm & blues (as opposed to the be bop of the small, East Coast jazz combos of the same period) and its eminent evolution into rock and roll. Jordan's music of the late '40s and early '50s is considered by many the first rock & roll. While Jordan was riding the arc of his influence down, Macon, Georgia-native Richard Wayne Penniman was singing sanctified in The Church of God on Sunday and dressed as a drag queen the remainder of time on the circuit before recording Here's Little Richard (Specility) in 1957 and charting six Top-100 Billboard singles from that single recording.

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