Meet Preston Lauterbach, Author of CHITLIN’ CIRCUIT AND THE ROAD TO ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

     Publisher’s Weekly praises Lauterbach’s writing to be as “energetic as a Little Richard song,” and names Chitlin’ Circuit one of the  Top Ten forthcoming music books.

     The book also received a starred review in the June 2011 Booklist: “A major achievement and an important contribution to American musical history,” as well as a starred review in the June 1 Library Journal: “A great read, well written and insightful. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the seedy history of American popular music.”

     Yesterday, SLR contributor Adele Annesi posted yet another raving review about Chitlin’, so we thought you might like to meet the man behind all the excitement. With the book ready to hit shelves July 18, author Preston Lauterbach discussed his writing process with Adele, as well as the interesting path that led him to write about the blues (plus what lies ahead!). Enjoy.

     SLR: You had a sense there might be a story even though the initial research revealed the chitlin’ circuit as a pretty desolate place. What about the subject matter drew you in and kept you going?

     PL: I knew that the story had substance, I just wasn’t sure enough of it had survived to the present day either in people’s memories or archives, but as I kept asking questions and kept searching, more and more intriguing leads emerged. The major challenge in attacking the subject of the chitlin’ circuit from square one was the lack of any kind of framework.

     If you’re writing a book about the Civil War, you know it started in 1861, or if you’re writing a biography, you know your subject’s key dates, or could very easily establish that information. With the circuit, though it clearly had a rich history–anyone who knows anything about Ray Charles, B.B. King, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, or James Brown knows that those artists got started on the chitlin’ circuit–it took me years to establish the basic framework of the story: how/where/when it began, who organized it/participated. The obsession that comes with this type of search kept me going.

     SLR: As a journalist, you no doubt write longer, more in-depth pieces, but what aspect of the process of writing a first book did you find most challenging, and why?

     PL: Pacing and structure. In some sections of the story, I fly through a few years in the space of a few pages, and later I spent about three chapters in 1947. That has to flow right for the reader to feel in-step with the story. The structure was a greater challenge. It’s not an uncomplicated story, with important things happening with different people in different locales at the same time. The story features a large cast of characters and is set in multiple locations. The fact that everyone and everything in the story functioned in a unified form as the chitlin’ circuit holds it all together, but it was still a challenge to make it flow smoothly.    

     SLR: What types of roadblocks did you encounter during the research and writing, especially as a white author expounding what might be considered a black topic?

  PL: It’s definitely a black topic. I can’t say I encountered anything but enthusiasm from the people I interviewed, many of whom shared very sensitive material with me. Some people I wanted to interview did not feel mutually, but that happens, and I never felt it had to do with my skin color. The best thing that any nonfiction writer can do with his/her subject is to get out of the way and let the sources tell the story, and that’s what I did. People got that. They knew it was an important and untold story and appreciated me for taking a shot at it.
     SLR: The chitlin’ circuit had a circuitous and sometimes clandestine route. Any anecdotes you’d like to share?


   PL: The key that unlocked the circuit’s story was found in a badly abused trailer near an orange grove outside Tampa. I’ll leave it at that.
     SLR:  What unexpected insights about the circuit — and human nature — did you learn along the way?
      PL: This was not an unexpected discovery as far as human nature is concerned, but I was surprised at how deeply intertwined the vice trade and music business have been in black America. I’ve heard comparisons of the music business to organized crime, but it was just the same people: the men and ladies who ran bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution rackets were also the key promoters and financiers of the most important artists, business ventures, and venues on the circuit.
     My favorite of these was the husband and wife duo of Sunbeam and Ernestine Mitchell who ran a club on Beale Street in Memphis. Their joint is one of the most important sites in American music history, the laboratory of the Memphis sound, where B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Phineas Newborn Jr., started their careers. Well, Sunbeam illegally sold bottled whiskey, and ran gambling joints throughout west Tennessee. He partnered with hustlers throughout Mississippi to provide outlets for both his whiskey and these up and coming young artists he represented. His wife ran women to all these places.

     How did they get away with all this, as black people in the South in the 1940s and 50s? Buy the book! 

      SLR: At several points in Chitlin’, the image was evoked for me of the film The Hustler, and you’re next book is the hustlers’ history of Beale Street, which W.W. Norton plans to publish in 2013. What aspect of this topic peaked your interest, and how do you plan to differentiate that book from this one?
     PL: Beale’s time frame is a lot longer, 1866-1970, and its setting is a lot simpler, most of the action takes place in a two block area. The subject matter is wider, though, including not only the street’s amazing musical heritage, but also its underworld activities and civil rights history. My richest resources so far have been FBI documents and interviews with old street hustlers. I’ve learned how to play with loaded dice, how to work a short con, and how to pick pockets. Anyone who digs The Chitlin’ Circuit will love Beale

     SLR: Have you considered writing fiction?

     PL: I will try it at some point, but my next two projects, including Beale, are nonfiction, and it’s so much fun. 
    SLR:  Thanks for your time and for sharing your thoughts with our readers. Anything you’d like to add?


     PL: Thanks for the provocative questions. I’ve enjoyed this.

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