Hardcover, 13 page Introduction, 276 pages of text, 4 page Afterword, 3 pages of Acknowledgments, 21 pages of Chapter Notes, plus an Index. There's also a number of (small) b & w photos throughout the book, which give added depth to the text.
The so called "chitlin' circuit" played an unheralded, but important, role in the rise of blues/soul/r&b/r'n'r in the early days of America. It's both interesting and shameful that this particular area of music hasn't been explored at length before now. The author, Preston Lauterbach, has done a good job of exploring his subject beyond the surface, especially considering this is his first book.
The chitlin' circuit has historically been the domain (to some extent) of so called "second tier" performers. They were black artists who spent their careers (unless they were lucky enough to break nationally) performing in one small venue to the next, in the American South. Possibly because of these factors, this highly interesting area of musical history has never been given much of a look. The author not only has done some good research and writing, but has an empathy for his subject, which comes through in the book without coloring the story. His writing style is easy to digest without being overly simplistic. He tells the story, oftentimes letting the story itself unfold naturally, which highlights the subject.
The story begins in the 1930's, with what most people consider the beginning of a relatively small circuit of venues for small combos and sometimes larger orchestras. A number of well known artists got their start on the chitlin' circuit-including Little Richard, B.B.King, Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan, Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Ace, James Brown, Roy Brown, and a number of others-before they became nationally known. The book ends in the 1950's/1960's, with the advent of r'n'r, which spread through white America primarily thanks to radio. Lauterbach details the life and lifestyle of both the era and the performers, and the obstacles that had to be overcome by these struggling artists. The pay wasn't much, the working conditions were cramped and dirty, and the living conditions were sometimes worse. But the crowds who came to hear the music balanced out (to some extent) these unfavorable conditions. Lauterbach has interspersed details of the difficulties and rewards of the chitlin' circuit performers, and the sometimes shady people who were attracted to the possibilities of making money by exploiting the powerless artists. Woven together he paints an inside look into a world now (for the most part) long gone.
This will be a book for anyone interested in music in the South during the first half on the Twentieth Century, and/or the beginnings of r'n'r. Many people consider the chitlin' circuit to be the very beginning of r'n'r, before it was usurped and diluted by white promoters-who cleaned up the lyrics and used "non threatening" white performers to perform much of this music-to the then burgeoning teenage market. But on the chitlin' circuit, the music was immediate, the performers visceral, and the excitement fever pitched. This book will open a window to all that and more. Finally it's nice to read a nicely done book about a largely forgotten/unknown corner of the beginnings of r'n'r. Fans of this era and music will enjoy this book.
Almost twenty years ago, I listened every Sunday night to a program on local public radio called "The Blues Experience" hosted by Steve Hoffman. The program, in Steve's words, went "back into the alley, down into the roots, deep into the heart of the blues." Steve's blues experience opened up this music to me before, alas, the show and the station which presented it went the way of much public radio.
I was reminded of this old local blues program upon reading a new book by Preston Lauterbach, "The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock'N'Roll"(2011). The focus of the book is on the small blues combos including Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Amos Milburn, and Wynonie Harris that played small one-night stands across the South in ragged dance halls and bars in the 1940's and 1950s. In his radio show, Steve showed an evident liking for this period of the blues, and he featured it often. The book gave me a the opportunity to become reacquainted with this music after several years away.
The book considers singers and musicians as well as the black entrepreneurs involved in the production of the music. Lauterbach offers a look at African American community life during the 1930's -- 1950's before the Civil Rights Revolution. The settings and the characters vary. Much of Lauterbach's story takes place in three cities: Indianapolis, Houston, and Memphis. Indianapolis was the home of Denver Ferguson, who ran a policy scheme in the city, owned a nightclub, and organized a touring circuit throughout the South in which musicians played their gigs. In Houston, Don Robey became affiliated with Ferguson and soon became the most powerful figure in the blues in his own right with his clubs, recording studios and contacts. Robey had a strong presence in Memphis, as did two local entrepreneurs, Robert Henry and Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell. Engaged in a mixture of legal and illegal activities, these individuals, and their cities, played a large role on the Chitlin Circuit.
Lauterbach shows the nature of African American life in these cities and their entertainment strips. He also captures the many small towns and small out- of- the- way establishments, many without indoor plumbing or other basic amenities, in which African American musicians performed, generally only for a day at a time. Early in the book, Lauterbach discusses and rejects the prevalent notion that performers viewed the Chitlin Circuit as a chore, or a grind, or a drudge. Lauterbach agrees instead with one of his sources, an aged musician named Sax Kari, that the Chitlin Circuit "revealed people of vision and an industry of intricate, far reaching design that struck me as anything but shameful." (p. 9) While there is a great deal of grit, crime, and greed in Lauterbach's book. the overall tone is joyful and nostalgic.
Lauterbach discusses the lives of many of the bluesmen who performed on the Chitlin Circuit. Some of the names will be familiar, while others will be known to blues lovers, and others will be obscure. The well-known performers include James Brown, B.B. King, Little Richard, and Johnny Ace. The bluesmen include Louis Jordan, Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Amos Milburn, Roy Brown, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, T-Bone Walker, and others. Unfamiliar names to many readers will include Walter Barnes, who lead a pioneering band through the South in the 1930's and died in a tragic fire while performing in Natchez, Mississippi in 1940.
With the ease of accessing music on the Internet, I was able to listen to several songs Lauterbach discusses as I read. These include "Chicken Shack Boogie" by Amos Milburn, "Good Rockin' Tonight" in the original version by Roy Brown, in the follow-up version by Wynonie Harris, and in the cover by Elvis Presly, B.B. King's recording of "Three O'Clock Blues" and "My Song" by Johnny Ace. (Ace is remembered today because he foolishly killed himself while playing Russian Roulette. He was very popular in his day and his songs continue to be covered.) It will be hard to resist listening while reading this book, and I was thankful, for once, to the Internet.
Lauterbach argues that the Chitlin Circuit played a pivotal role in making rock and roll and that Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight" has a strong claim to be the first rock record. There are many contenders for the perhaps dubious distinction of founding rock. The better course, to me, is to enjoy these bluesmen for what they are while noting their impact on the latter style. Lauterbach does well in tying changes in the Chitlin Circuit and in African American music to larger social changes. The Depression, WW II, the shift from live performance to recording as the chief source of musical revenue, urban renewal, and the Civil Rights Movement all receive attention in this book for their impact on the blues.
The book is well and colloquially written as Lauterbach writes with relish and a love of his subject. I found the organization of the book confusing in places. It is easy to lose the thread of the story and the connection among the various participants. This book will appeal to lovers of the blues and to readers interested in African American history and in the South.
This was a work that kept me interested and excited to learn more about individuals who in total were responsible for Rhythm and Blues, which was later morphed into Rock-n-Roll.
The Chitlin Circuit referred to the grand tour of ever changing southern bars, taverns, holes in the wall, barbeque joints, and makeshift venues for dancing or simply those to showcase new black artists, while turning a substantial buck on the booze sold. The era described extended from about 1930 to the mid 1980s. At the beginning of that era, the featured performers had larger orchestras and preferred to play SWING, while the crowds would rather hear smaller bands that played R&B. The promoters agreed with the crowds as the guarantees were much smaller for bands than orchestras.
One of the added bonuses of this book were the numerous B/W photos of the many people who made this musical form popular. The author's telling of this story is done in a rapid fire staccato pacing. An example being "He modified what Mother Nature gave him to compensate for what Father Time took away." How can you not love a line like that. It was just so easy to see the scenes depicted through the author's voice. Even the chapter titles as "The Loser Goes to the Hospital, the Winner Goes to Jail!" has a certain panache and verve that sets the tone of the place and period. There were numerous vignettes of the many important personalities of the era that enabled you to get to know them on a more personal level. We get to know the history of how Riley King morphed into B. B. King, Richard Pennington into "Little Richard", John Alexander Jr. into Johnny Ace, Willa Mae Thornton into Big Mama Thornton and all the intrigue and events of the daily life on the circuit. This is a must read for anyone interested in that period of our history and it background and certainly for all interested in the roots of R&B. A great read!
on July 23, 2011
An enlightened account of an incredible, American phenomenon. Witty and sarcastic, poignant and concise, the author conveys a sense of being there not just writing about. A cross between Wolfe and Ellroy only well referenced and intelligent. Can't wait for Lauderbach's next effort.
on November 25, 2011
I was in the middle of reading another book when I saw this title on amazon. It was at that point I realized there is not much material dedicated specifically to the chitlin' circuit. I immediately set my book down to finish later and ordered "The Chitlin' Circuit".
Lauterbach's book is a fun, informative read about a time in pop music history that must have been in a constant state of chaos. I can only imagine all the personalities that were involved in the chitlin' circuit, as well as the frantic nature of making dates, trying to communicate back and forth, housing challenges, unpredictable venues, and keeping up with the constant change of popular music taste.
The book is well researched and I appreciate the specific names and locations. For example, among the events and stories I learned about included Walter Barnes and the song "The Natchez Fire," that Gene Gilmore performed about Barnes. This specific account shows that not every gig was fun and games.
The content is full of colorful characters and accounts of scheming and drama. Pop music history buffs will certainly devour this book in no time. It's also accessable to the casual music fan. "The Chitlin' Circuit" is begging to be made into a miniseries or a documentary! Ken Burns are you listening!?
on March 17, 2012
I'm a nut for learning about where my fave sound comes from. This book filled a big gap in the timeline: from the 20's up to the (primarily) mid 50's. This is an important book because it tells the sorry of the names (business men and musicians) and places that that started to birth the sound of rhythm and blues, and as such ... that copy-cat sound that took all the fame and glory ... Rock and Roll.
Read this if you want to fill in the cracks between the country blues and the early days of what/who became the stalwart rock and roll sound/influences (B.B., Fats, Chuck, Bo & Little Richard). It is a well documented read of the backroads and bit players that made it possible.
History can be a lonely place for the folks that get relegated to the margins, but should truly get the respect of the headlines, or at least, the lore. This book sees that their place in the timeline is noted and their influence understood.
Sadly, the book does bring to light the damage left in the wake of a sweeping urban renewal could leave. It was a sad coda to hear the story about how Beale Street had the soul sucked from and an rebuilt as a tourist attraction.
on March 26, 2012
If you have any interest in the blues and its influence on the fledgling rock n' roll, you will learn a great deal about the "progression" of the blues from the dance halls to the recording studios. As the post-war economy forced larger traveling bands to downsize to smaller, more affordable combos, the style and rythmn of the music changed accordingly. The vocalist, for example, took center stage, as music transformed from "swing" to a mixture of jazz and blues. Chitlin' Circuit is a well written chronicle of a period in time that I wish I could have witnessed first hand. Preston Lauterbach's book is the next best thing to being there.
on March 20, 2012
In this book Preston Lauterbach has dug deep into the origins and the workings of the chiltlin' circuit, a place of mystery that I knew by name as a signifier for down-home music and what I imagined to be wild and behaviour you wouldn't take down-home. I know a great deal more now because Lauterbach's scope of research and ability as an historian is astounding. For a writer in 2011 to have found the information and pieced together the puzzle that is contained in this book is a remarkable achievement.
For work of this kind I am always on the lookout for errors that will tell me the real depth of a writer's research and commitment. I'm not an expert but I can pick a faker, all I found were a couple of very minor factual errors; Mr Lauterbach is the real deal in music history and I hope that he continues his commitment.
Aspects of the book that I really liked were finally Roy Brown getting due credit for his achievements. I also liked that we weren't spoon-fed the R&B + C&W = Rock and Roll myth again. Elvis Presley while a significant artist and cultural influence had nothing to do with `creating' Rock and Roll, that work was done. Presley's significant achievement was the brief popularising of rockabilly; music which he quickly abandoned (as the public did) in favour of the already existent Rock and Roll. I love Elvis, but I also love those who came before and who Mr Lauterbach pays tribute to in this book.
After all this praise of the book I have to say that the Lauterbach's writing style needs some work. At times I found the book a little difficult to get through and I am ready to admit that it may just be me, or maybe that there is so much new that you need to take it a little slowly. I found the writing overall a little too earnest, and the attempts at humour often a bit forced. The writing style overall made me work a little bit too hard when it should have carried me along for the ride.
It is Preston Lauterbach's first book and a great achievement. His writing will improve, his research and historical analysis skills are there already. I recommend this book to people who really care about the multi-layers that went into the creation of rock and roll and want to look past the standard simplistic history.
on September 5, 2011
Lauterbach writes with an engaging, incisive manner, and while each chapter flows into the next, they can all stand alone as mini-essays about this fascinating cultural phenomenon. Admirably, Lauterbach doesn't flinch from conveying the complex racial dynamics of this history (or even his own account of it). The Wall Street Journal praised this book for uncovering "a story as sensational as any day-glo circuit-show poster...The era's hepcat lingo (`ork' for orchestra, `ofay' for `white') and hard-boiled, noir ambience give Mr. Lauterbach a tune he can carry....the book is at heart a well-researched valentine to a lost world of seedy con men, promoters and club owners, the power brokers and hustlers who made the `circuitry spark.' "
on December 24, 2012
Mr. Lauterbach has given us the gift of an insightful history of a little know corner of American culture. Yes, this book is about the development of Black Music in the 20th Century, but is also a parallel story of the United States. It is told through the stories of larger than life entrepreneurs, brothels, jake joints, juke joints, Bronzevilles, gambling houses and the tides that gave rise to the development of the road for black musicians. The Chitlin' Circuit was the backbone of Black Music. Without it I doubt we'd ever see James Brown or BB King. From big bands to blues combos, this book covers it all and gives a very strong argument for Rock and Roll's birth from the Mother Circuit. But It Now and celebrate Mr. Lauterbach's genius.