“The chitlin’ circuit story that unfolded through old newspapers, interviews with aged jitterbugs, torn scrapbooks, and city directories crossed unexpected backroads: the numbers racket, hair straighteners, multiple murders, human catastrophe, commercial sex, bootlegging, international scandal, female impersonation, and a real female who could screw a light bulb into herself — and turn it on. . . . These are the intertwined stories of booking agents, show promoters, and nightclub owners, the moguls who controlled wealth throughout the black music business. Until records eclipsed live shows as the top moneymakers, new sounds grew on the road and in nightclubs, through the dance business rather than in the recording studio. Though the moguls’ names are not recognized among the important producers of American culture, their numbers rackets, dice parlors, dance halls, and bootleg liquor and prostitution rings financed the artistic development of breakthrough performers.”
Though the circuit operated primarily in the South, its origins were in neighborhoods known as “Bronzevilles”: “black towns within white cities throughout the segregated North.” Lauterbach gives particular attention to the Bronzeville in Indianapolis, presided over by Denver Ferguson, the prosperous operator of a numbers game, whose other holdings included “a busy printing shop, a service uniform factory, and bits of real estate, including the Sunset Terrace and Sunset Cafe.” At the end of 1941, he and his brother Sea incorporated a company “to engage in the business of booking agent, promoter, sponsor and artists’ representative for bands, orchestras, shows, revues, sporting, theatrical and athletic acts, concerts, games, contests, dances, shows, and all other kinds of amusement enterprises.”
It was a long-winded way of saying that Denver Ferguson had gotten in on the ground floor as the chitlin’ circuit formed alliances with the burgeoning record business: “Bookers needed records to promote their bands, and record companies needed personal appearance tours to promote records.” Ferguson hooked up with Bluebird, which “recorded hard blues, which didn’t fly with the white audience” but were becoming bigger and bigger on the circuit, so “pushing Bluebird’s nationally known blues artists through Deep South blues country” was a natural for Ferguson. He had already been booking swing bands in the South, but there as elsewhere the big bands were dying: Wartime gas rationing made it prohibitively expensive to run large buses, and in any event popular taste was shifting to vocalists.
Lauterbach identifies Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five as the harbingers of change. His group was small and thus economically manageable, and his exuberant style — “he embraced the funny, confusing, violent reality of farm folk in the city” — played well in the small towns on the circuit. His first hit records, “Knock Me a Jug” and “(I’m Gonna Move to the) Outskirts of Town,” were made in the fall of 1941. The immense popularity he enjoyed has long since faded, but he was “the key role model to virtually every black performer for the next fifteen years.”
Jordan’s ascent “pushed the vocalist into the limelight” and made the band “an afterthought.” By the late 1940s “the sound Louis Jordan pioneered and popularized in the early part of the decade had all but pushed jazz out of the black pop picture,” though it needs to be noted that, with the emergence of bop at the same time, jazz began to move away from a popular audience and was becoming a form of art music, for better or for worse.
Though the artists who were shaping their music and their careers on the chitlin’ circuit during the late 1940s and early ’50s eventually became known to a national audience that crossed and transcended racial lines, at the time they worked in an almost entirely black world that was virtually unknown to the “pop” (i.e., white) world. When Billboard magazine in 1949 “renamed its African-American music bestseller list from ‘Race Records’ to ‘Rhythm and Blues Records,’ ” however, it was a sign of change. Still, Lauterbach makes an important point:
“Influential gatekeepers have tended to treat ‘rhythm and blues’ as a genre-defining term rather than what it was, a marketing phrase, shorthand for black popular music in whatever form happened to be selling. The standardized definitions of rock ’n’ roll, courtesy of institutions such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone magazine, emphasize a fusion of black rhythm and blues and white country-western sounds, as if the two styles brought distinct elements to a new mixture. While that certainly applies to Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, some of the first rock ’n’ roll stars as such, it implies a shared primacy that simply didn’t exist at the true dawn of rock ’n’ roll. While black music was clearly rockin’ by 1949, country and western fans delighted to the sounds of yodels, waltzes, accordions, fiddle, and steel guitars — great stuff, but not the stuff of rock ’n’ roll.”
What happened to the music that was nurtured on the chitlin’ circuit was, of course, what has happened to black music throughout American history: Whites discovered it, fell in love with it and adapted it — “covered” it, to use the music-business term — to suit their own gifts and tastes. The great musical wave that brought rock and roll into being in the mid-’50s certainly profited many black musicians, among them Little Richard, James Brown, B.B. King and Ray Charles, but the greatest attention and financial rewards mostly went to whites. After the rise of rock and roll, black music moved into the mainstream as it never had before, but the music business then, as now, was owned and operated by whites for whites.
Lauterbach reports that a few bits and pieces of the chitlin’ circuit can still be found, but it faded away as segregation began to loosen its grip on the South and paying black customers began to be welcomed in venues previously restricted to whites. On the whole this is a good thing, but the circuit was a vital part of black culture during its heyday, and its disappearance is to be mourned. It brought a lot of joy to people who didn’t have much, and it brought splendid music to all of us. Lauterbach’s tribute to it is welcome and overdue.
Jonathan Yardley is the author of “Second Readings: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited.” The contents first ran as a series of essays in The Washington Post.