The Chitlin’ Circuit: Life, Death, and a Musical Revolution (Blues Stories, 14)

A Review of Preston Lauterbach, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

[NOTE:  As Blues fans know, the “chitlin’ circuit” kept the Blues alive after World War II and helped ensure that this form of African American music would be available in the small towns and cities of the South. According to Preston Lauterbach, the “chitlin’ circuit” label originated as a pejorative term: “Artists were relegated to the chitlin’ circuit. Working it was a grind. Even its title was depressing, derived from what black people called the hog’s small intestine, the cuisine of relegation.” (9) Yet, it was the chitlin’ circuit, initially developed during the 1930s, that ultimately “nurtured rock ‘n’ roll from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s.” (12)]

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Well known black orchestras, like those fronted by Duke Ellington and Count Basie, backed by the white mob (or “syndicate”), performed mainly for white audiences in large venues in Harlem and elsewhere. Less prominent groups, like Walter Barnes’s “Royal Creolians,” played in the black section of town (AKA “Bronzeville”), the center of which was referred to as the “stroll.” Barnes, who was also a columnist for the Chicago Defender, saw an opportunity: using his Defender column to hype his orchestra, the “Midget Maestro” barnstormed throughout the smaller black, southern venues during the Great Depression. Yet, Barnes and other black orchestra leaders were pretty much on their own, as far as publicity went, at least until the arrival of white-controlled juke boxes in every black southern café, which provided “a valuable new outlet for artist promotion, and an overnight pop-culture phenomenon.” (44) Unfortunately, any hope Walter Barnes might have had of revolutionizing black music came to a sudden end when he, members of his orchestra, and more than two hundred customers perished in a fire at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi, on April 23, 1940, an event memorialized musically by, among others, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf.

The "Midget Maestro"

The “Midget Maestro”

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The true pioneers who created the chitlin’ circuit were promoters like Denver Ferguson in Indianapolis, Don Robey in Houston, and Sunbeam Mitchell in Memphis. These men, using money derived from both legal and illegal sources, organized tours by orchestras, comedians, singers, dancers, virtually any performers who might appeal to rural and small town African Americans. Supported by record companies, “shadow promoters” in local communities, and the black press, these musical entrepreneurs created a circuit of endless tours, sending shows on the road for months at a time in a series of one-nighters that operated under very primitive conditions. For example, contracts issued by Denver Ferguson “specified that a [local] promoter provide a public address system but made no mention of modern plumbing,” and, while Ferguson insisted on a “guaranteed fee” for his agency, the talent “operated with little room for error.” (91)

For a variety of reasons, the impact of World War II on the entertainment market seemed to threaten the future of black clubs, at least until the arrival on the scene of Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. Not only did Jordan emphasize a smaller band than the pre-war aggregations, but he also highlighted his own role as soloist and diminished that of the band. Following in Jordan’s wake came dynamic performers like Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. As a result, the language used to describe their music was altered: what the white press characterized as “rhythm and blues,” black fans increasingly described as “rock.” (118) Moreover, the traditional structure of Blues verses also changed, and songs “took on a hook-heavy narrative quality.” (144)

Louis Jordan

Louis Jordan

By the late 1940s, thanks to the development of the chitlin’ circuit, talented black musicians no longer had to leave the South for Chicago or New York in order to make a name for themselves. In this context, Lauterbach traces the rise of performers like “Little Richard” Penniman, Jimmie Lunceford, and, especially, Roy Brown, who made the “tough, lewd lyrics” that characterized chitlin’ circuit music, staples on Billboard’s charts by 1949, “two years before . . . 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 Roy’s composition ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight.” (168)

Roy Brown

Roy Brown

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A resident of Memphis, Preston Lauterbach devotes considerable space to the post-World War II musical history of his hometown, especially to the role played by Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell and his wife Ernestine, who established the Mitchell Hotel and the Domino Lounge, and sparked a musical renaissance. Mitchell, described by one who knew him as “a nice man, but dangerous” (185), made money at first by arranging to transport into the dry state of Mississippi “sex, gambling, bottled-in-bond booze, and entertainment by the rising stars of black music.” (187) In Memphis, too, radio station WDIA , “the first station entirely committed to programming for the black audience” (197), emerged as a regional powerhouse, as well as the launching pad for Blues legend B.B. King.

When Tennessee’s Democratic U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver investigated the business operations of Indianapolis’s Denver Ferguson in 1949-1950, Ferguson, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, shut down his booking agency, a decision that, by removing Indianapolis from chitlin’ circuit contention, had the unintended consequence of “blowing Memphis wide open.” (205) A loosely-allied group of Memphis performers, the “Beale Streeters”— B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Joe Louis Hill, Johnny Ace, and Bobby “Blue” Bland— thought they had seen the future, in the person of Dave Mattis, who had established Duke Records there, but Houston’s Don Robey duped Mattis into a partnership with his own Peacock Records, and then dissolved the agreement with a pistol. Although Robey’s Peacock label signed charismatic performers like Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton, keeping them in line was by no means easy. In fact, according to Lauterbach, Robey’s company “became a dysfunctional family where the stern father was driven to distraction by his gay son and alcoholic, lesbian daughter.” (233)

Another of Robey’s Peacock stars, Johnny Ace, “accidentally” committed suicide on Christmas Day, 1954, which gave Robey the opportunity to show just how much he’d learned about promoting music on the chitlin’ circuit. Ace had been in the process of “crossing over” to broader pop stardom at the time of his death, and Robey promptly offered an eager public a Johnny Ace “greatest hits” album. So popular was Robey’s deceased star that, when Billboard proclaimed 1955 “The Year R&B Took Over Pop Field,” the publication gave the late, great Johnny Ace much of the credit for that development.

Johnny Ace

Johnny Ace

But Robey (and Johnny Ace) had help in pushing R&B over the top, from Macon, Georgia, promoter Clint Brantley, who “groomed not one but two of the most innovative, celebrated artists in American popular music,” Little Richard and James Brown. (242) Although Denver Ferguson was a genius at mass-marketing and Don Robey knew how to make money, only Clint Brantley was able to intuit, at least according to Lauterbach, “what the audience would like before the audience liked it.” (243)

* * * * *

When rock ‘n’ roll took off in the mid-1950s, the record producer and the disc jockey replaced the chitlin’ circuit promoter as the motive force in black music. Although the back-breaking one-night stands on the chitlin’ circuit continued for some (see, for example, the treatment of modern-day chitlin’ circuit road warrior Bobby Rush in Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner’s fine film, The Road to Memphis, in the series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues [2003]), record sales enabled other performers to make not just money, but a fortune, and without spending three hundred nights a year on the road. As if losing some of its top performers to the recording studio was not bad enough, the chitlin’ circuit also was victimized by what federal and local governments called “urban renewal,” which almost invariably resulted in building interstate highways through those areas in southern towns and cities where juke joints and dance clubs formerly had flourished.

Bobby Rush

Bobby Rush

Yet, although record sales gradually replaced the gates at venues on the chitlin’ circuit as indicators of popularity, the chitlin’ circuit survived, after a fashion. “Sunbeam” Mitchell moved his club from Beale Street to South Memphis, and, years later, a faux version of Beale Street rose from the ashes to draw tourists to an antiseptic recreation of the original that had very little to do with the chitlin’ circuit. Instead, the surviving chitlin’ circuit became “an underground haven for music that evolved the wrong kind of black for the mainstream: bluesy and erotic. Race segregated it in the old days; tastes would segregate it from now on.” (290)

Lauterbach uses the terms “blues,” “rhythm and blues,” and “rock ‘n’ roll” almost indiscriminately, at least until the “Afterword.” There, Lauterbach, apparently reluctant to bring his study to a close, offers brief summaries of the later lives of some of the key figures in the growth, decline, and renewal of the chitlin’ circuit. And, in his treatment of Louis Jordan, whose preference for a smaller band ultimately, in Lauterbach’s view,  paved the way for the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, Lauterbach offers Jordan’s pointed summary of the origins of rock: “Rock-n-roll was not a marriage of rhythm and blues [to] country and western. That’s white publicity. Rock-n-roll was just a white imitation, a white adaptation of Negro rhythm and blues.” (294) Amen, brother!

* * * * *

By the time I finished this beautifully written book, in other words, I realized that the second half of Lauterbach’s title, “the road to rock ‘n’ roll,” was just as important as his emphasis on “the chitlin’ circuit.” Although I was a little disappointed by his sometimes sketchy treatment of the connection between the chitlin’ circuit and the Blues, I still admire the power of Lauterbach’s tale of the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. And the illustrations are striking, especially the cover photo. This book will last. It should appeal to anyone interested in the Blues in general, the “chitlin’ circuit” in particular, or the links between the Blues, the “chitlin’ circuit,” and rock ‘n’ roll.


“That’s What They Want”: Jook Joint Blues–Good time Rhythm & Blues, 1943-1956. London: JSP Records, 2010 (JSP7796). This cd helps suggest the atmosphere of many a “juke joint” on the “chitlin’ circuit.”

B.B. King & Bobby Bland–Together for the First Time . . . Live. Universal City, California: MCA Records, 1974 (MCAD-4160).

Lightnin’ Hopkins. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Records, 1990 (CD SF 40019).

The Sky is Crying: The History of Elmore James. Los Angeles: Rhino Records, 1993 (R2 71190).

B.B. King: Live at the Regal. Universal City, California: MCA Records, 1964, 1997 (MCAD-11646).

The Very Best of T-Bone Walker. Los Angeles: Rhino Records, 2000 (R2 79894)

Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings. Universal City, Ca.: Chess/MCA, 1993 (CHD-9344). A classic album, both on Southern Blues and on Muddy Waters’ career.

Mississippi Blues: Rare Cuts 1926-1941. London: JSP Records, 2007 (JSP7781). Once more, with feeling–four cds of early Mississippi Blues that will carry you back to the early days of the “chitlin’ circuit” and rural “juke joints.”

Chicago: The Blues Today. Santa Monica, Cal.: Vanguard Records, 1999 (172/74-2).

The Road to Memphis. A Film by Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner. In Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. (2003).

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Delta Blues, History, Muddy Waters, Research, Southern History, TBone Walker, The Blues, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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