By James Calemine
Every few decades a book like The Chitlin’ Circuit And The Road To Rock ‘N’ Roll emerges. This definitive story of The Chitlin’ Circuit–a subculture of mostly southern African-American musicians, business owners, gamblers, cutthroats and bootleggers that operated from the late 1920s into the 1970s–exists in these 300 or so pages.
The book illuminates the sociological and economic backdrop of our country during segregation, World War II, the Civil Rights movement and the innovative ways these cultural purveyors generated revenue. Lauterbach documents the founding fathers of ‘The Circuit’ like Denver Ferguson from Indianapolis, Don Robey in Houston, Walter Burns of Chicago, Clint Bradley from Macon, and how they created an economy outside white America. Lauterbach traces musical roots, musicians and the financiers in the slippery and lucrative Chitlin Circuit operations.
These close-to-the-bone stories reveal lives of the trailblazers on the chitlin circuit that composed a coordinated tour of sawdust ballrooms, dice parlors, juke joints and neighborhood bars throughout the south and beyond. This book describes in detail the societal intersections of business, vice and entertainment that shaped American music. The clubs in the South allowed musicians to perform, eventually record albums and maybe get heard on the radio. By reading this book, you’re running with the real pioneers and outlaws of black American music.
The long list of musicians trailblazing and functioning on the periphery of the circuit include Ella Fitzgerald, Big Bill Broonzy, Champion Jack Dupree, Oscar Brown, Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy, Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, John Coltrane, Erskine Hawkins, Earl Hines, Chuck Webb, Paul Stott, Jay McShann, Roosevelt ‘The Honeydripper’ Sykes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, T-Bone Walker, Ray Brown, Louis Jordan, Cecil Grant, Wynonie Harris, Floyd Newman, B.B. King, Ike Turner, Isaac Hayes, Little Richard, Lowell Fulson, Big Mama Thornton, Elvis Presley, Rufus Thomas, Al Green, Willie Mitchell, Oscar Dennard, Fred Ford, Phineas Newborn Jr., Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bobby Rush, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Marvin Cease, Hank Crawford, James Brown and a load of others.
Lauterbach’s stark prose hypnotizes the reader with insightful, gritty, humorous and tragic stories within every paragraph. The book’s inertia becomes evident at the peak of ‘The Circuit’ in 1947. Then it’s onto black radio, big money and eventually rock & roll. Lauterbach combs through the streets of Memphis, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Dallas, Atlanta, Macon and hundreds of other towns in the South that fit into ‘The Circuit’ route. Tales of the rivalry between Little Richard and James Brown, the death of Johnny Ace and musicians that eventually recorded at Stax and Hi-Records serve as my favorite parts of The Chitlin Circuit.
Lauterbach details how black music began to cross over to white audiences in the mid-50s, and then folks began to call it rock & roll. He rides the chitlin circuit right up until the late 60s when America’s social climate changed, the circuit infrastructure crumbled and urban decentralization began. The Chitlin Circuit And The Road To Rock ‘N’ Roll counts as one of the most entertaining and historic books about the roots of American music. Read it.