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The Music And Culture Of The Chitlin’ Circuit

A crossroads business serves as store, bar, juke joint, and gas station in th...

Above: A crossroads business serves as store, bar, juke joint, and gas station in the cotton plantation area, Melrose, La., June 1940.

A new book discovers the birth of rock 'n' roll in the black juke joints of the south, where artists like James Brown got their start. We'll talk with author Preston Lauterbach.

A new book discovers the birth of rock 'n' roll in the black juke joints of the south, where artists like James Brown, B.B. King, and Little Richard got their start. Author Preston Lauterbach finds out there was more than music on the "Chitlin Circuit," where gambling, prostitution, and bootleg liquor helped launch the career of black musicians from the 1930s through the 50s.


Preston Lauterbach is a music journalist and author of "The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll."

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're living to Midday Edition, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Rock and roll was at the heart of American music, and much has been written about where it came from, how it evolved, who can take credit for its edgy energy and passion. Music journalist, Preston Lauterbach, has written a new book that takes us through the clubs and black juke joints which introduces to us in intimate detail the Chitlin' Circuit, which is where he believes rock and roll really began. Let's start, I had never heard of the Chitlin' Circuit. What is the Chitlin' Circuit?

LAUTERBACH: It took some learning on my part too to figure that out. It is more or less the black music under ground. It is a sequence of night clubs that are located for the most part in the deep south. But also in some northern cities, Chicago, Indianapolis, Washington DC. Of course there's the famous Harlem theatre in New York, big theatre in Baltimore. So it ranges from being heavily concentrated in small places in the deep south on up to the bigger scenes and the northern theatres.

ST. JOHN: And who were some of the musicians that came through that circuit in.

LAUTERBACH: Virtually every important African American artist who came along from 1930 to 1960 would have done his time on the Chitlin' Circuit. James brown, BB King, Jimmy Hendrix came up as a guitarist in a number of bands. Little Richard.

ST. JOHN: There have been a lot of theories about where rock and roll started, and you believe it started on the circuit right?

LAUTERBACH: Yes. Absolutely. How it came about, think about popular music in the 1930s. It was big band dominated, both in black pop and in white pop as well. In black America, by far, the most influential figure was Duke Ellington. So everybody who came along in music wanted to emulate his swash style and sophistication. In 1942, that all changed an artist by the name of Luis Jordan became prominent. The major invasions he introduced, one, he took that big band style, that big band format and scaled it down. He just had a five-piece band. And during the big band era, the important components, are the things that were really showcased were the arrangers, the composers, and the hot soloists. Well, Jordan was a brilliantly clever lyricist and a silver smooth singer. So he emphasized the vocals and the small band sound that is the rock and roll template to this day.

ST. JOHN: Let's get a taste of some of that sound. Here is Luis Jordan, and this is a song from 1941 called knock me a kiss.

(Audio Recording Played).

ST. JOHN: Luis Jordan, a key figure in the Chitlin' Circuit. Describe the atmosphere at these nightclubs then, Preston.

LAUTERBACH: Well, the standard Chitlin' Circuit club could be anything like a small rural bar room on a highway in the middle of nowhere. Some of them were so small, you could roll dice in through the front door and hit the back wall. Some of them were quite rustic in their decor. But then some in the larger cities, places like the Bronx 53 cock club in Houston Texas was remembered as a lavish place with fine cuisine and wine, and also gambling and liquor and all the other fun that went along -- absolutely. Yeah. It was all part of the package.

ST. JOHN: You write with so much detail in the book, it really makes you feel like you're actually there. Now, as you describe them, motion you wills and king pins ran these clubs right? Tell us about some of the seedy under world characters that drove the clubs.

LAUTERBACH: I hate to call them seedy under world characters because I have a lot of respect for them. I found them to be innovative, creative guys. If you think about the economic opportunities that were available to African Americans in THE '30s and '40s, there wasn't a whole lot. Even a respectable professional like a doctor, attorney, or accountant just wasn't going to make a whole lot of dough. That life didn't appeal to the hustlers on the Chitlin' Circuit so much they went around that whole system and generated money either through operating a gambling racket, as one of my key characters in Indianapolis Indiana did, selling bootleg liquor as one of my characters in Memphis Tennessee did. Prostitution was another big generator for some of these king pins, and some of them just did it all. Well, these were the financiers and the producers for black America at this time. It is through people like this popularizing Luis Jordan, by showcasing him in Houston, Memphis, Chicago, all across the map that his fame really spread and that sound became so popular. And getting back to Jordan for just a second, that song that we heard, that knock me a kiss, is the big bang in the evolution of rock and roll. So you hear that, and you don't really think, now, that's just ridiculous and roll. You don't put that right up next to a van Halen record and hear the similarities. The important thing is, it kick started a whole series of innovations that really evolved into rock and roll. So Jordan was so popular he influenced people like, I mentioned James brown, little Richard, BB King.

ST. JOHN: So as well the musicians, the motion you wills that ran these joints had a lot to do with what happened there. Tell us about sunbeam and his wife, Ernestine Mitchell.

LAUTERBACH: I loved getting to know them. They were the co-Memphis king pins. They opened a nightclub on Beale street that they opened after World†War†II. I lived in Memphis, and they always come across as like this mom and pop duo running a soda fountain. Very clean, and they always had a handout and a warm bed for musicians who were broke. Sun beam's racket was that he sold liquor. This is how he helped BB king to get famous. BB king was a struggling musician in Memphis Tennessee when he came under sun beam in the late '40s. Sun beam would provide these package deals to musicians, where he would provide the entertainment, BB King, who was just getting hot at this time, and draw 500 people to the dance haul. All of them would invariably want a pint of whiskey. So it's like similar set up, sun beam's wife, Ernestine, as my source told me, minded the hos. She was a madame. I hope the FCC ejection seat doesn't kick me out for that.

ST. JOHN: We understand that.

LAUTERBACH: So sunbeam provided the liquor, and his wife managed a group of ladies who also provided entertainment at these shows. They had a whole series of clubs in their network throughout Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. They showcased all of these artists who this way became big in black America.

ST. JOHN: So the whole scene was pretty wild, obviously. And one person who sang about that was Roy brown. Tell us why he was important to the scene.

LAUTERBACH: A crucial figure. One, getting back to the differences between -- before Louis Jordan and after Louis Jordan, during the Ellington phase, everyone wanted to emulate that swash, sophisticated uptown city life for black southerners who had migrated into big cities, and just how funny and chaotic and strange it was. Roy brown was a singer from New Orleans. He worked for -- well, initially during the World†War†II era, he worked for a brothel in Galveston Texas. Of the owner of which had a connection at the local radio station and wanted Roy to come up with a little jingle to sing on the radio to tell them, you know, come on over to this joint and have yourselves a good time. So he came up with a song called good rockin tonight.

ST. JOHN: It just so happens we have that song. Let's listen to it right now.

(Audio Recording Played)

ST. JOHN: So let's Roy brown with his jingle of come along down, have a good time. 1947 huh?

LAUTERBACH: Absolutely. And the key invasion there as y'all heard was the use of that phrase, rockin'. Before Roy brown made that such a big national hit, rockin' was more of a sexual catch phrase. With Roy brown, he molded it into more of a lifestyle. He was all about the good times that were had in these nightclubs that thrived on the circuit, and that incubated this music. So he sang before honestly about all of the antics and used the real lingo that people on the streets were using then.

ST. JOHN: Gosh, yeah.

LAUTERBACH: Including rockin', that's when that phrase really bloke out.

ST. JOHN: And that lasted. So another name we are all very familiar with is little Richard who worked that circuit. Now, apparently he was a female impersonator.

LAUTERBACH: Yes, absolutely. Though everybody is familiar with little Richard. Not everybody understands his fundamental chitlin' circuitness. He is part of this great tradition on the circuit of female impersonators. This was something that was practiced was going to have some entertaining female impersonators. And this is one of the ways that Richard got his start. He could not -- he couldn't navigate, couldn't move in high heels. And so he would get dressed up in his wig and his gown and then put his heels on, sitting on the stage behind the curtain, and the other people in the band would have to pick him up and set him on his heels so that he could stand. So I don't know that he moved very much. But he got up there and did his thing as Princess LaVonne. That was his name.

ST. JOHN: Let's hear his song, Tutti-Frutti.

(Audio Recording Played).

ST. JOHN: All right. Little Richard, doing his thing. Now, that song had to be changed before it went mainstream?

LAUTERBACH: The original lyrics are not fit for public radio. But I urge everybody to look them up and get a kick out of that.

ST. JOHN: All right. Now you make a very good case for the Chitlin' Circuit as the source of rock and roll music. Why do you think that it's so rarely given credit for that?

LAUTERBACH: Well, I think it has more to do with the way that rock and roll history has been written and viewed. The people who largely are responsible for telling the story of rock and roll have tended to view it as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. A lot of -- it came along in that generation, so they viewed things through that integration scope. And they wanted to see it as an aspect of a -- a healthy aspect of American culture, of white people and black people doing something together. The truth is that historically, all of this music came along first in black America before white people adopted it: And it really became known as rock and roll.

ST. JOHN: Tell us now what has happened to the Chitlin' Circuit? Does it still exist?

LAUTERBACH: Oh, yeah, yeah. It still exists. Still -- well, now it's in ghetto nightclubs. Back in its heyday, that I write about in the book, they were all primarily downtown nightclubs. But it's still primarily in the deep south, the artists today are people that sing mostly about the misadventures of middle aged romance. Viagra blues and that type of thing.

ST. JOHN: So we've been talking about Preston Lauterbach, who is a music journalist, and author of the Chitlin' Circuit and the road to rock and roll. Thank you so much for coming in, Preston.

LAUTERBACH: Thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it.

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