Rock and roll was not a music born as much as hatched, incubated, according to Preston Luterbach in his fascinating new book “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll” (W.W. Norton), along the back roads and small town “strolls” of the deep South.
The chitlin’ circuit was home to nearly every African-American musician making a mark on American popular culture beginning in the early 1930s. It was, and remains so to this day, a series of small clubs, juke joints and dive bars that gave black Americans a place to play, drink and, in nearly all venues, gamble. In fact, most of these clubs in the early days were secondary businesses for their owners, who often were numbers runners, bootleggers or brothel owners.
That’s not likely to surprise anyone with even the slightest knowledge of how music developed in this country. Crime has always been part of the entertainment world in America. What is surprising in Lauterbach’s book is just how deep that attachment was between these businessmen and crime. Even Al Capone has his hand in the chitlin’ circuit, but that’s quite a story unto itself.
Lauterbach’s is a book full of interwoven stories about the circuit and the men (mostly, but there were plenty of women making money in these clubs) who made the chitlin’ circuit so critical to the development of popular American music. There was Denver Ferguson in Indianapolis, who as a printer ran the numbers racket in that Indiana’s city’s “Bronzville” neighborhood and was one of the first to recognize that more money could be made through entertainment.
Or Walter Barnes, a Chicago bandleader and journalist who, through his newspaper writing showed the way for other black Americans, writing essentially a primer for them on how to navigate through the Jim Crow South. Or Sunbeam Mitchell, a Memphis bootlegger who put together a string a clubs in Mississippi, not so much to bring the rural state music, but because Mississippi was dry and Mitchell could sell more of his booze through his newly developed club circuit.
And perhaps the most widely known chitlin’ circuit promoter, Don Robey of Houston, whose management of players like Louis Jordan and Johnny Ace led directly to what became known to the white world as rock ‘n’ roll.
Lauterbach spins a great yarn with “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll.” His writing is quick and rapid fire, giving the book a rhythm not unlike some of the music he writes about. His book captures the hardships and triumphs of performers like Jordan, Amos Milburn, Roy Brown, Ike Turner and Little Richard, each critical to what ultimately became known as rock ‘n’ roll.
Preston Lauterbach (left) will join T. Michael Crowell on Sunday, Aug. 21, on Offramp at 6:30 p.m. on KSDS Jazz 88.3 to chat about his “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll.