“The chitlin’ circuit” has been a much-used phrase in music writing, referring to the linked chain of black, largely Southern small-town bars and roadhouses where longstanding soul, R&B, and blues artists make their living and everyday people take a load off from theirs. But amazingly, no one has looked into its roots in book-length detail until now. More amazingly, Memphis journalist Preston Lauterbach uncovers so much detail that he opens new doors in pop-music scholarship as well as American (and African-American) cultural history.
Lauterbach researches like a hardcore academic, tracking down and interviewing family members of late circuit bigwigs such as Denver Ferguson, the Indianapolis numbers-game tycoon who cleverly printed baseball tickets at his own print shop—because who doesn’t write numbers on baseball tickets? Ferguson eventually codified the Southern touring route first pieced together by self-promoting bandleader and Chicago Defender jazz columnist Walter Barnes, who used his bully pulpit to book shows down South and wound up drawing the chitlin’ circuit’s first map.
Lauterbach gathers colorful stories about those men, as well as later circuit stars such as Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, and Little Richard. He’s also a keen stylist, loquacious and hard-boiled, equally effective at evoking the dirty street life of “the stroll”—the main drag of black neighborhoods—and setting the context for a musician or recording. Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” changed the tenor of rhythm & blues in 1947: Lauterbach writes, “Roy hollered it as he’d seen it in joints like the Black Diamond. The music abandoned T-Bone Walker’s restraint and Louis Jordan’s measured cool… He sang, at plaster-cracking volume, about the pleasures of drink, receiving fellatio, watching females brick-fight, rocking the joint, and tearing its roof off. These were scenes from the stroll.”
Lauterbach also depicts stunning acts of racism—in the 1920s, “The rise of Indianapolis’s black population coincided with a Ku Klux Klan revival,” complete with music of its own: “KKK Records pressed titles such as ‘Daddy Swiped Our Last Clean Bed Sheet And Joined The Ku Klux Klan.’” Yet out of necessity, moneymen such as Ferguson and Houston’s Don Robey—who produced crucial records by Bobby “Blue” Bland—grew wealthy off the steady, but not spectacular, money the circuit had to offer. Step by step, entertainingly—and at last—Lauterbach shows how and why.