Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll, by Preston Lauterbach

You've probably heard the term "the chitlin' circuit" before--the network of theaters and nightclubs throughout the South where black artists performed for black audiences.  It's rather surprising that only now (well, in 2011--I've been putting off writing this for way too long), we're getting the first book on the subject.

Preston Lauterbach originally set out to write about the modern-day chitlin' circuit, and post-hip hop blues artists like Marvin Sease and Bobbie Rush.  If you've seen Martin Scorsese's The Blues (the Road to Memphis chapter) from a few years back, you probably remember Bobbie Rush.  He's the Jerri-Curled bluesman who has a crew of big-booty strippers dancing on stage with him.  Hey, I'd still like to read that book if he ever gets around to it.  But, as he describes in the introduction, Lauterbach ended up telling a different story.  It's a story about the black neighborhoods in cities throughout the South.  The Strolls, as they are called by one of the main characters, Walter Barnes.  Barnes is a bandleader, and also a syndicated columnist for the black newspapers that are published in various Southern cities.  He uses one job to promote the other, and report on the great bands touring through these segregated strips, bands led by Jimmy Lunceford, Tiny Bradshaw and other road dogs who were barnstorming through the South while Duke Ellington was playing his cushy gig to all-white crowds at the Cotton Club in Harlem (not to be confused with the Cotton Clubs that were in half the strolls in the South). The descriptions of some of the acts, taken from press and flyers, are intriguing to say the least:  "Slick White 'The Colored Caruso,' Dorothy Jackson 'Rope and Acrobat Dancer,' Whistling Bruce 'A Real Novelty,' Ophelia Hoy 'Like Aged Whiskey Always Good,' and Sonny George 'The One Arm Dancing Sensation'...Funny Bone Ferebee, Aarzanya 'Queen of the Jungle Dancers,' Leroy Watts and Chocolate Jones, and The Lee Twins, a dance team...A fellow known as Iron Jaw, 'the man who not only dances with a table clasped in his teeth, but who seats a woman at the table."

The Strolls were hotbeds of capitalism, fueled by underground markets in booze, dope, gambling, pussy and numbers rackets, run by black kingpins who were making solid money and showing folks a hell of a time.  "Segregation and Prohibition: the laws and customs implemented to keep men like Sunbeam, Milt Barnes and Hardface [three of the nightclub kingpins in Mississippi] in line instead made them wealthy playboys."  So really, this book covers just about every subject that I find interesting: rock, jazz and blues, entrepreneurialism, underground vice economies, the culture of the South, and racial politics.  Lauterbach seems to have had as much fun researching all this as I had reading it.  He digs through the archives of old black newspapers, the advertisements and columns, and especially the carnival barker self-promotion of Walter Barnes.  By the time Barnes' story ends, on page 77, you will be hopelessly hooked.  Not to spoil anything, but if you listen to a lot of old blues records, you've probably already heard that story.

As The Big War heats up, big bands go out of style.  They're just too expensive, although you do get the great story of the all-girl big band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, who managed to fill a void left by male musicians off fighting the war (would be a great subject for a movie, that one).  But it's Louis Jordan who really sets things in a new direction, touring with a small band and putting on an energetic stage show and basically giving birth to the music known either as rhythm and blues or rock n roll.  I've always kind of felt like you could just as easily say that rock grew out of swing as out of the blues.  Not that the two concepts (blues players playing fast and loud vs. swing players stripping down to small bands) are mutually exclusive, and those definitions are slippery anyway, but Lauterbach's reporting bears out my theory.  Over the rest of the book, he describes the rise of first-generation rockers like Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Amos Milburn, T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown, Ike Turner, Jackie Breston, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (all too briefly), B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Little Richard and James Brown, as well as the promoters and producers they worked for, the clubs and communities they performed in, and the shifts in the market (from records being used to promote tours to tours being used to promote records) that they witnessed.  There are some cases where the most fun story maybe wins out over the most accurate.  For instance, Lauterbach recites Esquerita's stories of how Little Richard stole his act after the two cruised each other in a bust stop as if they were fact.  I believe Little Richard denies this story.  At any rate, the stories of Little Richard are the most entertaining in the book.  I'm sure you can get a lot of this stuff if you've read a standard Little Richard biography, but, never having done so, I was hooked, from the stories of his days performing in drag to his rivalry with James Brown.  In fact, my favorite concerns a tour with James Brown opening for Little Richard.  When "Tuttie Frutti" hit, Little Richard abandoned the tour for better-paying gigs out West, but the promoter booked the tour anyway--with James Brown performing as Little Richard, and Bobby Bird performing as James Brown.

(It seems to me you could get a pretty good book out of the thesis that rock n roll and be bop developed parallel to each other, but from the same cultural changes--they both represent the rush of urban life, both pared down to small bands to save money, etc.  I dunno, there's something there.)

Later in the book, we get stories of soul singers like O.V. Wright, and the founding of Stax Records in Memphis, but we also get the sad end of the Chitlin' Circuit, and of black communities in the South.  Actually, rather than sad, I should say "bittersweet."  It was, after all, desegregation that started the process.  Urban renewal and convenient police "morality" ("When Denver Ferguson introduced the numbers game in the mid-1920's, cops were satisfied to take bribes and look the other way.  A quarter-century later, police on the same beat hassled every Negro social function from craps games and private parties to double dates.") helped finish the job.  The subject of how segregation allowed black cultural communities to thrive despite exclusion from mainstream society is a complicated one.  In the documentary Order of Myths, about an area in Coastal Mississippi where Carnival celebrations were still segregated in the early 21st century, several people (all white, if I recall correctly) are heard to say that black folks prefer it that way, which is probably kinda bullshit, but also possibly kinda true, in that without that segregation, there would simply be no real place for blacks in Carnival celebrations.  So having exclusively black neighborhoods zoned out was a blow.  Urban renewal further crippled the circuit: "The idea was to replace blight with vibrancy, but urban renewal in practice often replaced functioning minority neighborhoods, initially with high-rise public housing and then, after the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, with interstate highways."  Man, you could go from the end of this book seamlessly into the beginning of Can't Stop Won't Stop.  

One complaint...well, not really a complaint, but the narrow focus on music leaves an awful lot of ground uncovered, as Lauterbach acknowledges in a tantalizing sentence: "The different threads of Chitlin' Circuit action have their stories too--the comedy Chitlin' Circuit that spanned from Butterbeans and Suzie to Redd Foxx, Dolemite and Richard Pryor, and the drama Chitlin' Circuit that August Wilson championed, where Tyler Perry got his start."  I would LOVE to read a book on those subjects.  Somebody write it, please!

One other oddity that I can't resist pointing out: in a discussion of Klan activity in Indianapolis: "In addition to their usual political strong-arming and intimidation tactics, the White Knights here dabbled in popular culture.  KKK records pressed titles such as "Daddy Stole Our Last Clean Bedsheet and Joined the Ku Klux Klan" and "The Bright Fiery Cross" (sung to the tune of "Old Rugged Cross"), both accompanied by "The 100% American Orchestra."  The blood-red label was stamped with the company's fiery cross logo, and the address--"Best in Klan Music, The American, P.O. Box 871, Indianapolis, Indiana."  Haven't found the song yet, but I did catch this image from an online auction site.  Of course, it was a gun auction site. 


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