Bobby Bland (center) and his band at Club Handy in Memphis, ca 1950
You’ve heard the term “chitlin’ circuit” — the route that African-American stage musicians and singers took (and to some extent still take) to entertain audiences throughout the U.S.
But what exactly was the chitlin’ circuit in its heyday? What were its origins, and how did it operate? What was it like for entertainers such as Walter Barnes, Louis Jordan, Johnny Ace, and Ike Turner to take to the road, traveling sometimes hundreds of miles to a single gig, working hundreds of nights a year, from small rooms to ballrooms? How did the musicians and singers, with their roots in swing, jazz, and the blues, contribute to the birth of rock-and-roll? And what does all of the above say about race in this country during the twentieth century?
Those are good questions — questions that Memphian Preston Lauterbach seeks to answer in his multifaceted The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’N’ Roll (W.W. Norton).
But back to that term: chitlin’ circuit — the word “chitlin’” appearing in song at least as far back as W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” in 1917.
“It’s a reference point. It’s an intriguing phrase. It’s part of our American glossary of cultural terms,” Lauterbach says by phone from his home in Midtown. “But as far as a hard history of the chitlin’ circuit as an institution, nothing exists. Everyone’s heard the phrase. But what does ‘chitlin’ circuit’ mean? What was the reality, especially to black Americans? That’s the big question I tried to answer.”
It’s a subject Lauterbach has written about in the pages of Memphis magazine and its sister publication, the Memphis Flyer, when he was a staff writer a few years ago. Nothing, though, on the scale of this book.
Lauterbach takes readers back to the beginning, or beginnings, in “Bronzeville,” the name given to the area of any town with a concentrated black population served mostly by black-owned businesses: to Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis, to Houston’s Fifth Ward, and to Beale Street in Memphis. He introduces us to the nightclubs, the eateries, the numbers rackets, and the whiskey-running practiced by astute and hard-bargaining businessmen: men — such as Denver Ferguson in Indianapolis, Don Robey in Houston, and “Sunbeam” Mitchell in Memphis — who had the organizational skills and money and cross-country connections to send musicians and singers on tour. And he tells, most memorably, of what life was like on the road for entertainers subject to Jim Crow laws in the South and equally entrenched attitudes in the North and Far West.
How did we get from ballrooms to rock-and-roll, as the title of Lauterbach’s book indicates? Follow the circuit yourself from big bands to combos and from tuxedoed conductors to star vocalists backed by a hot rhythm section. Along the way, you’ll chart the rise of “race” records and of black-owned booking companies. Farther up the road, by the ’50s and ’60s: the “crossover” and industry-altering impact of Little Richard and James Brown.
But to tell the full story, Lauterbach had to get a handle on the many threads to this complex story. What made him take on the challenge?
“Back in 2003, I was working as a writer at Living Blues magazine and doing a feature on singer Bobby Rush,” the author recalls. “When Rush did a show in Eldorado, Arkansas, it was for me, an eye-opener, a scene out of time. People in the audience going crazy. Dancers in their sequined finery. Spotlights. Full-bore entertainment. The whole scene made me curious about the back story.
“But I wasn’t getting very far with that story. It was eluding me,” says Lauterbach. “I got a timely tip, though, from someone also interested in the chitlin’ circuit. He got me in touch with the 86-year-old Sax Kari [band leader, guitarist, producer, promoter, record distributor, you name it]. When I called Sax, he laughed at me on the phone. But he told me that he knew the guy who ‘invented’ the chitlin’ circuit. He laid out the whole world for me. And it’s not only about the music.
“He told me about kingpin Denver Ferguson — how Ferguson started as a racketeer, how he’d opened a nightclub in Indianapolis in the 1930s. He was a visionary. He had the cash flow. He saw the demand for big bands in the Deep South and in all kinds of venues — some that were legit, some that were nothing but requisitioned warehouses, barns. That was the beginning of the chitlin’ circuit that had eluded me.
“Sax Kari could’ve been telling me anything, but verification was available in hard documents — property records, newspapers. That’s what confirmed it. This story was doable. Until then, I didn’t know.”
Nor, it’s a good guess, did Lauterbach know, growing up in California, that he’d be authoring a history of the chitlin’ circuit, though he admits that in high school in San Diego he was an “Elvis freak,” complete with an Elvis license plate on his car, and that his musical interests go back to the earliest blues recordings.
History in general was always an interest too . . . visiting sites of historic importance, imaging how things were. By the time he moved to Oxford, Mississippi, he was “hooked into Deep South culture.” “It felt like home,” Lauterbach says.
Memphis has been home now for six years, with his wife, Elise — a member of the English faculty at Rhodes College and daughter of Dorothy Gunther Pugh, founder and artistic director of Ballet Memphis. They have two children (with a son named Sax).
Memphis plays a major role in The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll. And how could it not with figures as prominent as Beale Street promoter Robert Henry, bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, player and producer Willie Mitchell, radio personality Nat D. Williams, and especially Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell?
Memphis plays a major role in The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’N’ Roll. And how could it not with figures as prominent as Beale Street promoter Robert Henry, bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, player and producer Willie Mitchell, radio personality Nat D. Williams, and especially Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell? It was Mitchell, along with his wife and business partner Ernestine, who opened a rooming house and club above the Pantaze Drug Store at the corner of Beale and Hernando, site of all-night jam sessions and “head-cutting” contests between competing musicians.
Some may subscribe to a “mom-and-pop” version of Sunbeam and Ernestine’s promotion of Memphis music and the concern they showed for the city’s musicians, but that view only undersells Mitchell’s importance, according to Lauterbach.
“Sunbeam was a man of tremendous vision,” he says, “even if he was running all kinds of underworldly things. I wanted to emphasize how Sunbeam and all these promoters on the chitlin’ circuit managed themselves in the world.
“Blacks at the time had zero political power. But these hustlers rejected that. They thought: ‘I’m going to go out on my own. I don’t have to be white-regulated.’
“That was fascinating to me: that some of the best and brightest in black America had underworld operations to maximize their talents. B.B. King, for example, got his start as an advertising tool for Sunbeam’s bootlegging racket.”
And what of Beale Street today and the major avenues and venues in other cities that gave birth to the chitlin’ circuit?
“The pawnshops, the alleyways, the whores that once were Beale . . . such richness and depth to life,” Lauterbach said with an almost wistful note in his voice. “Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis? Parking lots and strip malls. The storefronts of the ’30s and ’40s: gone.”
The sounds of the chitlin’ circuit, however, survive, even if they are often thought of as “old-folks’ music.” But a few younger people are always in the audience, Lauterbach says. “Those young people like being there, celebrating the history of it. And if there are those ashamed of the scene as a kind of throwback, most people accept it for what it is, and party on.”
Class Act: He didn’t play an instrument. He didn’t move much onstage. He couldn’t read. But he could sing and did sing — on the chitlin’ circuit and on record (more than 500 songs on 30 original albums).
He is Robert Calvin Bland, better known as Bobby “Blue” Bland, and he’s earned every blues award in the business and every superlative from those who write about music: “Bottled lightning” is how Dave Marsh described Bland’s “Cry, Cry, Cry.” “Harrowing” is how John Floyd in the Memphis Flyer described Bland’s “Lead Me On.” And “master” is how Gary Giddins summarized the man himself. That Bland — born in Rosemark, Tennessee; reared and still based in Memphis — has never had a full-length biography seems impossible, but he has one now in Soul of the Man (University Press of Mississippi) by Charles Farley.
Bland did not grant Farley interviews for the book. And Farley delves deep — perhaps too deep for general readers — into Bland’s recording career and band lineups. But there’s no denying the value of this overdue tribute to the man whose soul-searching combination of blues, gospel, jazz, soul, and country was backed by the sterling arrangements of his onetime bandleader, Joe Scott.
As in Preston Lauterbach’s book, Houston promoter and record-label owner Don Robey, among a whole host of others, figures prominently in Soul of the Man. And Farley doesn’t overlook (nor does he overdo) Bland’s drinking and womanizing on the road. Center-stage throughout, though, is that voice and the modest man behind the voice, both on and beyond the chitlin’ circuit.