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 review 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........