Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll absolutely knocked me out. It is a well-researched history of, well, of the road leading to what we know and love as rock ‘n’ roll, but don’t let “well-researched” and “history” scare you away. His book is damned entertaining, a true page turner.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. The book made both the Wall Street Journal’s and Boston Globe’s lists of 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2011, was chosen one of the best music books of the year by NPR and as a best book of the year by the Onion AV Club.
Mr. Lauterbach was kind enough to take some time out from work on his next book to answer some questions.
I’ve heard “The Chitlin’ Circuit” since I was a kid, i.e., “Jimi worked the chitlin’ circuit,” etc. What the heck was it?
It was the network of black nightclubs where Little Richard, Ray Charles, James Brown, B.B. King and so many other black artists began their show biz careers. In the book I cover from the 1930s to the ’60s, when cities and towns were sharply segregated. Most black business activity took place on one black Main Street, which people called The Stroll, and every stroll had a kingpin who ran local gambling, liquor, prostitution, or all of the above. These ladies and gentlemen also ran nightclubs and promoted dances and they were the true backbone of the chitlin’ circuit.
How did it come into being?
The key figure in its breakthrough was a journalist-bandleader named Walter Barnes. Using his contacts with the Chicago Defender, the national black newspaper of the day, he organized tours for his big band through the South. This happened in the mid-30s. He published stories from his tours, week by week, listing all the key intelligence that a black band would need to safely tour–where to eat and sleep, and the names and locations of promoters and venues. This was not common knowledge, so his journalism was like a guide to traveling the South while black, safely.
A couple years after he began publishing this data, he complained about there being too many orchestras down South–Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson — so his breakthrough made a huge difference to the black music business at that time. All the bands made their money in live performances and there were very few plum gigs like what Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway worked. Barnes died heroically on stage on the circuit, sacrificing himself for his fans like no other artist in the history of American music.
I’ve always thought those old clips of grouchy old white guys talking about “that deviant rock ‘n’ roll what’s destroying our kids” were pretty funny, especially with Bill Haley playing in the background. But man, those early days really were dangerous. Can you talk a little bit about how vice and crime factored into the birth of rock ‘n’ roll?
Well, vice financed the whole circuit, helping to make the clubs where bands played profitable and providing backing for up and coming artists. Fights and killings in the clubs were routine and the atmosphere of clubs provided one factor that distinguished early rock ‘n’ roll. Listen to Roy Brown’s “Boogie at Midnight,” recorded in 1949, and you’ll hear all that good ambience as he sings about brawling, boozing, and screwing — all features of a night on the circuit. Crime influenced artists as well. Little Richard’s father was murdered right at the beginning of Richard’s careeer, and it’s said that the need to support his family and the aftereffects of that crime pushed Richard into rock ‘n’ roll.
The mob were even sort of responsible for the popularity of jukeboxes, weren’t they?
Yeah, they knew the entertainment business very well. I’m researching my second book now and learned that they even controlled the player piano business, at least in Memphis whorehouses, way before the age of the jukebox.
But yeah, the jukebox was a key promotional tool for circuit artists and the first one to exploit it was Jimmie Lunceford, who sent an advance man to every town his band was scheduled to play. The advance man put Lunceford records on every black cafe jukebox to get everyone fired up for the coming Lunceford show.
Every generation thinks it invented sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. What are a couple of stories that would surprise readers who think Elvis brought danger to rock music?
Well, I think he did bring danger to rock music, as far as white audiences knew about it, but that’s another story.
One of the wilder stories I heard involved an artist named Jimmie Liggins. His big hit was “Cadillac Boogie” a very nice rocker. In 1949 he was performing at a skating rink in Jackson, Mississippi when a fight broke out. The fight became a gun battle, and before everyone had a chance to stampede, one of the stray gunshots blew Jimmie Liggins’ cheek clean off of his face. He was standing right there in the spotlight. A friend of mine was playing saxophone for Liggins and said he looked down and saw a piece of Liggins jawbone on his shirt.
You peg Johnny Ace as a sort of fulcrum point, i.e., before Johnny Ace black artists made their money on the road and after Johnny Ace it was more about recording. What changed?
Well, most of it is too complex to really get into here, but the bottom line is that the tragic story of Johnny Ace, who either killed himself or was murdered in the dressing room of the Houston city auditorium on Xmas 1954, intrigued white listeners enough to buy his records.
Perhaps the whole situation was envisioned and carried out by Johnny’s manager Don Robey. He is a key figure in the story, one of the most intelligent, tough men in the history of the entertainment business.
One of my favorite episodes in the book involves James Brown and Little Richard and describes how the former earned his nickname. Can you talk a little about that?
Ooh, I think that one’s copyrighted. In any case, I was really stunned and excited by many things while researching the book, and the story of Little Richard and James Brown was right up there. I will say the fact that they both developed at virtually the same time in Macon, Georgia, under the same kingpin-promoter, attests to the artistic vitality of the circuit.
For the last 10-15 years we’ve heard over and over that the music industry is dying thanks to the Internet. Do you think that’s true, or is it just shifting back to a performance-based rather than recording-based industry?
Artists will continue to make music and search for ways to get paid doing it. The death of the industry is a very good thing for creativity.
Is the Chitlin’ Circuit still around?
Oh yes, that’s how I learned about it and got into it. It is a fun, vibrant, scene: cheating songs, Aztec sun god jumpsuits, big-assed dancers in sequin, and that’s just Bobby Rush’s show.
The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll is available at Amazon, your local bookseller, and these online outlets:
Wait! Don’t go yet! Reading The Chitlin’ Circuit without listening is like eating peanut butter without the jelly. Here’s a “Deep Cuts” primer of some of the incredible music Lauterbach covers in his book: http://wp.me/p1caRd-vA