The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock’n’Roll
by Preston Lauterbach (Norton hdbk 338 pp)
Review by Andy Childs
If ever a book needed to be read with a comprehensive selection of 40s R&B and 50s rock’n’roll within reaching distance it’s this one. Indeed, this is my excuse as to why this month’s column is so lamentably late – every chapter sent me burrowing into the depths of my record collection looking for records by the likes of Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris and Amos Milburn, just three of many names that feature prominently here in what could be viewed as a revisionist study of the beginnings of rock’n’roll.
The chitlin’ circuit was, and to a certain extent still is, the ever-changing network of clubs and venues across the U.S. that was built and controlled by entrepreneurial African-Americans, catered almost exclusively for black audiences and kick-started the careers of almost every black artist who, lauded or otherwise, shaped the history of jazz, r&b, rock’n’roll and practically everything in between. It was an entertainment world born out of racial segregation and the need for the migrant black population of the U.S. to create an outlet for the astonishingly fertile bed of talent that was poised to shape the future of music. For some it was also a way to try and make a lot of money and for others it obviously represented a powerful statement of legitimacy to the dominant white cultural elite. That the full extent of the chitlin’ circuit’s influence on popular music has not been properly recognized up until now is both surprising and scandalous but Preston Lauterbach does a brilliant job not only in placing the achievements of these artists and the assorted scoundrels who shaped their careers in their proper context but also in bringing them to life in a way that is as entertaining as it is informative.
The introduction, where we meet the key to Lauterbach’s researches – the splendid Isaac Saxton Kari Toombs sets the tone and quality of the book. And then, as the beginnings of the chitlin’ circuit in 30s Indianapolis are recounted we read of Denver D.Ferguson – the only black booking agent of the time and his brother Sea who ran Denver’s numbers racket which funded his business. Chicago-based journalist, bandleader and friend of Al Capone, Walter Barnes was another influential figure in the black swing world (as opposed to the white swing world led by “the fortuitously christened” Paul Whiteman) and he and Duke Ellington, who rarely played to black audiences, toured in parallel worlds. Barnes also wrote despatches from the road and was crucial in publicizing the clubs in the black districts of most major U.S. cities, districts that mostly centred on a main thoroughfare or “stroll”, what Lauterbach terms “the unfolding filaments of the chitlin’ circuit”.
The history of the circuit further unfolds in a series of encapsulated biographies of Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford and Louis Jordan and the transition, brought about by artistic and economic trends from big-band swing music to paired-down small-band rock’n’roll. The hoary old problem of identifying the first ever ‘rock’n’roll’ record is discussed but of course never fully resolved and the further development of the music is traced through the careers of Joe Turner, Amos Milburn, T-Bone Walker, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Roy Brown, Little Richard, Earl Palmer, Johnny Ace, Ike Turner – all of whom started out on the chitlin’ circuit and can all lay claim to being present at the birth of rock’n’roll. And while a lot of these names are now well-known Lauterbach is thorough enough to give us a more rounded picture of what went on by offering snapshots of the some of the background figures involved and in particular the more unorthodox but highly influential movers and shakers who pulled the strings – people like Don Robey, owner of Peacock Records whose shady reputation is given credence by a startling story involving his thuggish takeover of Duke Records and his supposed connection in the death of Johnny Ace, and Clint Brantley, legendary talent scout and promoter who seems to have perfected the art of ‘police protection’.
If I have one minor criticism of the book it is that by touching on the careers of so many artists who started out on the circuit (were there in fact any black musicians and singers who didn’t?) and moving swiftly across the country where the chitlin’ circuit operated – Chicago, Indianapolis, New York down to Memphis, New Orleans, Macon and Houston in Texas and back and forth through the 30s to the 50s, a certain degree of coherence in the narrative is lost. As packed with information and anecdote as it is perhaps it could have been a bigger book as well – I would like to have read more for instance about how radio and record companies transformed the black music business and more about how the power struggles between promoters, agents and record company owners played out and the black music industry was absorbed into the mainstream. A slight quibble though born out of a desire to know more about the themes that this book reveals and addresses so engagingly.
In his coda, Lauterbach states that “no underground American music scene has survived nearly as long or accomplished as much as the chitlin’ circuit” and we can be grateful that he has written a book that recognizes its importance and reflects its vitality.
Now back to those Louis Jordan records……..
BYRDS : Requiem For The Timeless Vol 1
by Johnny Rogan (Rogan House hdbk 1,200 pp)
…..the continuing saga.
The Byrds’ residency at L.A. Club Ciro’s in March 1965, where although they apparently played erratically and probably nervously, did however prove to be a breakthrough event for them. Celebrities attended in their droves including Bob Dylan with whom the band bonded in mutual admiration. They were definitely on an upward trajectory. The recording of their debut album Mr.Tambourine Man followed – without the help of session men but with an amusing cameo bust-up between Crosby and Jim Dickson. Then a U.S. tour supporting the Stones and Mr.Tambourine Man at No.1 in the U.S. album chart. Rogan goes on to reveal how their initial success was all but derailed by no less than Sonny & Cher, how the Vietnam draft threatened their future, how the glitz and excess of the Columbia Records Convention in Miami gave them an arrogant, music-biz-warped edge and, crucially, how they inspired Dylan to go electric.
Beset by illness and equipment problems their first UK tour was not a success though and Derek Taylor performs miracles to rescue their reputation. He also rescues them and their new-found pals The Beatles from the clutches of the FBI back in L.A. in one of the many colourful anecdotes that make this monster of a book so readable. Other incidents of note involve Peter Noone, Van Dyke Parks, Dylan, and P.F.Sloan and I would love to have been a fly on the wall as Gene Clark put forward his theory about how the 1960s were just a re-run of the 1920s to an obviously bemused Kim Fowley. A constant thread in all this narrative of course is the fact that David Crosby was probably the world’s most entertaining arsehole at the time and in the hands of a writer as skilful as Rogan he takes his rightful place as one of rock’s larger-than-life characters. We’re up to page 194 and the end of chapter twelve and I’m still hooked. More next time….
Also next time………
‘Everything Is An Afterthought : The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson’ by Kevin Avery, and ‘A Perfect Haze : The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival’ by Harvey & Kenneth Kubernik. I didn’t have time to finish re-reading the Lionel Bart book or Clinton Heylin’s ‘All The Madmen’ but will try and feature them next month as well.
Out now and recommended….
‘Gram Parsons : God’s Own Singer’ by Jason Walker – an updated and fully revised edition of the book first published by Helter Skelter in 2001 and worth reading alone for the interview that Walker conducted with Michael Martin who was Phil Kaufman’s co-conspirator in Parsons’ cremation.
On the horizon………
A remarkable and unlikely story, already the subject of a TV documentary, radio programme and several magazine articles, is that of Pannonica Rothschild, the ‘Jazz Baroness’. Her great-niece Hannah Rothschild publishes ‘The Baroness : The Search for Nica the Rebellious Rothschild’ on May 3rd (Virago) her account of her great-aunt’s 28 year-long ‘adoption’ of Thelonious Monk and her benign and supportive influence on the New York jazz scene of the 50s and 60s. It promises to illuminate one of the more eccentric corners of jazz history. And also in May, the publication of Wilko Johnson’s autobiography ‘Looking Back At Me’.
In my review last time of Bill C.Malone’s excellent book on Mike Seeger I mentioned in passing a fanatical record collector and musicologist named Dick Spottswood who introduced Seeger to the world of old, weird America. My good friend and eminent music scholar Keith Smith of course knew all about Mr.Spottswood and kindly forwarded the links below, the first an intriguing interview with the man and the second a link to his radio show that goes out on WAMU’S Bluegrass Country in Washington D.C..