The Chitlin’ Circuit: Celebrating a Secret History of American Music

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 11.01.11 in Spotlights

For years, the Chitlin’ Circuit – the network of mostly-Southern, mostly-rural clubs where black artists performed from the 1930s into the ’60s – has been an elusive element in music history, often referred to but rarely examined. But with The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Memphis music fan and historian Preston Lauterbach brings it out into the open. Boy, does he bring it out into the open. Researched and written with tenacity, intensity and insight, The Chitlin’ Circuit celebrates a cast of characters – businessmen and musicians alike – whose endeavors constitute a secret history of American music, and without whom such better-known figures as B.B. King, Little Richard and James Brown would doubtless have had very different lives.

Two of the first were Walter Barnes of Chicago and Denver Ferguson of Indianapolis. The former was a rather undistinguished yet self-important bandleader and journalist whose touring dispatches for the weekly Chicago Defender established the notion of “the stroll” (main street) of the “Bronzeville” (black business district) neighborhood in Southern cities. If Barnes was able to make a living working those strolls until he died onstage in the infamous Natchez Fire of 1940, Kentucky native Ferguson institutionalized the strolls to create the beginnings of a circuit for black performers in the South. The industrious, self-disciplined Ferguson parlayed profits from his numbers operation into Indianapolis nightclubs owned by himself and his brother Sea, which led in 1941 to the establishment of the Ferguson Brothers Agency. They booked the many black acts who weren’t considered marketable to whites by the Syndicate agencies which controlled the likes of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday; FBA also handled the occasional black act, like Jimmie Lunceford, who was big enough to play white venues but who declined to play ball with the Syndicate. The Ferguson roster included territorial bands like Tiny Bradshaw’s, hard blues stars like Roosevelt Sykes with St. Louis Jimmy and names still largely foreign to this day such as King Kolax (whose bands spawned Gene Ammons, Earl Palmer, John Coltrane).

By sending acts like these on extended Southern tours, Ferguson created what was eventually dubbed the Chitlin’ Circuit, an extensive string of hole-in-the-wall joints where the music grew increasingly raucous and uninhibited to better complement the omnipresent sex, booze, drugs and gambling. The circuit was run mostly by African American criminals who mirrored the white mobsters running the larger live-music industry that shunned earthy black acts. They included Don Robey of Houston, proprietor of the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club, then Buffalo Booking Agency and, finally, Peacock and Duke Records and subsidiaries. (His evolution followed the path of the black music business as the emphasis shifted from performing to hit records.) During and after WWII, as big bands grew smaller and more closely resembled the rock ‘n’ roll groups to come, Ferguson sent Louis Jordan on his first major tour through Robey’s territory; Robey also developed Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and was instrumental in the early careers of B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and countless others. Lauterbach gives additional attention to key entrepreneurs like Sunbeam Mitchell and Bob Henry of Memphis and Clint Brantley of Macon, who essentially launched both Little Richard and James Brown.

In 1947, the powerhouse, gospel-steeped singer Roy Brown released “Good Rocking Tonight,” which became a Chitlin’ Circuit anthem – his ode to a Galveston whorehouse, it extolled “rockin’” less as just sex than as an entire lifestyle – especially after the even more thunderous Wynonie Harris cover became the bigger hit. Rhythm and blues, as the style was called, was a direct forerunner to rock ‘n’ roll, spawning everyone from boogie pianist Amos Milburn to Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, and the Chitlin’ Circuit continued on through the late ’60s and soul music. It was brought down by a complex variety of factors, including Civil Rights and integration, package tours, the opening of Northern venues to Southern acts, the Southern fraternity circuit and more. Yet its last vestiges continue today in the South, providing venues mostly for soul-blues acts like Chuck Roberson, Denise LaSalle, the late Marvin Sease and the rosters of labels like Malaco and Ecko.

In telling his tale, Lauterbach sometimes goes a bit overboard. His contention that the earliest rock ‘n’ roll was not a white imitation of R&B, but R&B itself, is an easy one to make, and he’s far from the only one to do so. But it’s an impossible one to sustain in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary – rockabilly, doo wop – from white Southerners as well as Northerners and Westerners. Still, that’s about the most serious criticism I can make, and there’s no doubt that R&B and the Chitlin’ Circuit had incalculable influence and an enormous direct role in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Lauterbach’s advocacy is delivered with passion, empathy and wit as he brings a secret history of American music to light and gives that history’s makers their just due. Finally.