The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll
by Preston Lauterbach
W. W. Norton & Company, July 2011
Reviewed by Adele Annesi
Acclaimed journalist and editor Preston Lauterbach brings to vibrant life and lasting memory the black musicians, promoters, and media moguls of the late thirties and early forties who blazed The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll.
Born in Virginia, raised in California, and hailing now from Memphis, Lauterbach has a visceral feel for a topic whose influence is as far-reaching as his roots. His storytelling shines brightest in profiling the personalities who made up the circuit, and in drawing connections between their lives and their contributions to music and society that outsiders would certainly miss.
Lauterbach begins with a visit to 86-year-old blues and jazz legend Sax Kari. Through vivid description and tales often told with the benefit of Kari’s perspective, the story unfolds of an intricate network of venues where black entertainers could perform with acceptance and some safety at the height of segregation, and where many carved a niche indispensable in the history of music.
Leading his audience along the chitlin’ circuit’s circuitous and sometimes clandestine route, Lauterbach largely follows the path of booking agent and talent promoter extraordinaire Denver Ferguson, whose list of black promoters working only with black acts could guarantee the booking of a band’s entire tour. Ferguson’s list was the circuit. His entrepreneurial savvy gave it juice, and chitlins (chitterlings, cooked pig intestines) were the soul food that epitomized it. Lauterbach’s portrayal of Ferguson reveals an astute operator who knew how syndicates worked and who would rather “make a hundred dollars crooked than a thousand dollars straight.”
Not only did the circuit need money, it needed the support of the media. Lauterbach renders “midget maestro” journalist musician Walter Barnes with a three-dimensional quality that highlights the author’s skill as an investigative journalist and biographer combined. Lauterbach’s clever comparison of Barnes with pianist, composer, and big band leader Duke Ellington contrasts their divergent paths — Barnes on the circuit and Ellington on the main track. Yet, Barnes’ smart, prognostic columns for the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most influential black weekly newspaper then and still kickin’ today, shaped the music world and, as Lauterbach notes, fostered Barnes’ career in the process.
Even with its colorful personalities center stage, the circuit would have been nothing without the stage itself. Lauterbach offers detailed descriptions of clubs and joints from Brownsville to Baton Rouge, Houston to Harlem. Occasionally, the sheer number of people and places slows the story. Yet, to do the circuit’s complexity justice, the many stops along the way must be there, and Lauterbach makes of them a highly readable compendium.
Although some chapter transitions are less clear, the author excels when he brings a personality into focus. The standout portrait is of Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman. Lauterbach paints an engaging composite of this singer, songwriter, musician, recording artist and actor who was key in the transition from rhythm and blues to rock and roll. Lauterbach’s colorful yet balanced portrait of Little Richard in all his flamboyant sexuality and showmanship showcases the entertainer’s talent with style and grace, and in selecting Richard to portray in such depth, Lauterbach successfully bridges the transition to rock and roll espoused in the book’s title.
The story of the circuit might not have become a story except for the author’s reportorial instinct. His initial research revealed the chitlin’ circuit as a grind, a place of exile and relegation, but his explorations, like his profiles, reveal a people of vision who capitalized on marginalization to create an industry of “far-reaching design.” It took obstinacy and endurance to hew such an outcome from oppression, and it took a love of excitement and fun. Lauterbach throws the spotlight on the shadows of the past “across a cityscape that no longer exists,” on the black musicians of the day and their audiences whose indomitable sense of enthusiasm often enabled them to make the worst of times the best of times.
At the close of the book, the chapters grow shorter, and like a postman with miles to go before he sleeps and musicians with miles to go before they play that last set, Lauterbach has gigs to record and musicians to do justice to. The book accomplishes this goal, and it is likely to stand as an inclusive review of the lives and times of the chitlin’ circuit on the way to rock and roll.