Saturday, November 12, 2011

"The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll" by Preston Lauterbach

This book is probably one of the best, and most complete, accounts of the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit". For the uninitiated, the "Chiltin' Circuit" was the area of the country, back in the 1930's through the early 1960's, where African-American artists, such as Big Joe Turner, B.B. King, Little Walter, Little Richard, Louis Jordan, Gatemouth Brown, James Brown, and all the rest, toured. They played in out of the way places with names like The Bronze Peacock, The Two Spot, The Dew Drop Inn, and the Hi-Hat. The "Chitlin' Circuit" has influenced as many people as Tin Pan Alley did in its heyday.

The author, Preston Lauterbach has done a wonderful job in looking back a little bit further than "Cadillac Records", which was a wonderful movie. But, that film assumed that the average viewer knew most of the basics, and so some viewers were left wondering how much of that film was real, and how much was fiction. Truth be told, "Cadillac Records" is just the visible "tip of the iceberg" in the story of Rhythm and Blues as it morphed into Rock and Roll.

The story of the “Chitlin' Circuit" began much earlier, back in the earliest days of the Great Depression. Mr. Lauterbach has managed to connect all the names and places in the story of the road, and the music, which would become rock and roll. And what a story it is!

From the back roads "juke joints", to the theaters and nightclubs in the larger cities, the author has written a complete portrait of the life and times of the performers who would change music forever. Even the beginnings of the Powerball are covered in this book.

Gambling was a big part of the scene on the "Circuit", with "baseball ticket" lotteries abounding, along with dice games and cards. One of the oldest forms of gambling was the "pea shake", which involved the use of a hollowed out gourd, filled with peas that had numbers written on them. The player shook the gourd and rolled the peas out. The bets were already in on 5 number combinations, with an extra digit that could be played for a bonus. Sound familiar? It should. When the authorities in Indianapolis finally shut down the baseball card lotteries in the early 1970's, they were unsuccessful in shutting down the "pea shake" game as a form of legal gambling. Finally, in 1992, they simply supplanted it with the Powerball Lottery. Within 2 short weeks, Indiana had the largest selling Lottery in the nation, and remains so today. See why I love this book?

The chapters covering Little Richard were especially interesting to me. I have always wondered how an African-American, living in the Jim Crow era, could have become so obviously gay, and yet rose to such heights in the field of entertainment. That riddle is explored here, with truly insightful results. Richard Penniman was just part of a long tradition of black transvestite acts, beginning with his stint as Princess Lavonne. Unable to walk in heels gracefully, he was carried out to the microphone each evening before the curtain rose. In a few short years he would become known simply as Little Richard.

Little Richard took a page from a performer named Esquerita, whose real name was Eskew Reeder, Jr. According to Little Richard, Esquerita taught him many of the piano rolls which would become his own trademark.

It would seem that the author has left no stone unturned in a quest for a truly accurate depiction of both the "Chitlin' Circuit" itself, as well as the times, and social mores, which gave birth to it.

Initially, the "Chitlin' Circuit" was the brainchild of an African-American nightclub owner Denver Ferguson, who was also a racketeer. His specialty was the numbers rackets in Indianapolis. At the same time, in Chicago, bandleader Walter Barnes was busy on the road, playing dance halls and hotels. He wrote a column for the Chicago Defender each week, detailing life as an entertainer on the road.

As the 1920's gave way to the Depression Era of the 1930's, many clubs closed for want of business. The end of Prohibition didn't help, and also seems to have been a factor in the development of the "circuit". As the 1940's, and World War Two came into play, the bands became smaller "combos", which themselves became the template for most of today's rock bands. Big band jazz had more or less become "small band blues".

Louis Jordan came on the scene in the 1940's, along with Roy Brown, and this is where the music really starts to take off. Roy Brown recorded a cover of Wynonie Harris' hit record "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1948. That record, which would later be covered by Elvis, was like the spark that lit the kindling. In spite of this, he has still not been inducted into, or even nominated for, membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Listen to the recording here;

There is so much to learn from this book about the evolution of Rock and Roll, it's almost impossible to do a coherent review. But I would be remiss if I left out something about Don Robey and Johnny Ace. They both had guns. Don Robey used his for negotiating, like the time his partner, Dave Mattis, wanted to quit. It all involved his share of profit from Johnny Ace's "My Song" in 1952, which was released on Duke Records. When he arrived at the Bronze Peacock unannounced to inquire about the money, Robey placed a .45 on the table, gave him $10,000, and that ended any further negotiations. The record was #1 on Billboard within a month of it's release, and had generated much more than $10,000 for Dave Mattis, but the presence of Don Robey's .45 on the table was a persuasive end to any differences of opinion.

Meantime, Johnny Ace, born John Alexander, Jr. had developed a strange little habit of his own, which involved a .38 snub nosed revolver. He liked to play Russian Roulette with it, claiming that he had it rigged so that nothing could go wrong. Things seemed to be going along just as planned, with nothing happening, until one night, when it finally did. It was in 1954, at a time when Johnny Ace had not been placing well on the charts. Rumor has always had it that Don Robey, his manager, somehow rigged the gun that night, switching the bullets around. There is motive for this thought. The year before, in 1953, Robey noticed that right after Hank Williams' untimely death, "I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive" shot to #1 on the country charts. He may have considered the death of Johnny Ace to be a good career move, although it is doubtful that Mr. Ace would have agreed with him. Listen to Johnny Ace singing "Never Let Me Go" here;

I actually ran this book by Eddie Ray, at the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, in Kannapolis, to get his take on the subject. Mr. Ray should know, he was there in all of the places mentioned in this finely researched, and well written book, and with many of the artists themselves. A quick scan of the book passed muster, and he will be reading it shortly. That, in itself, is high praise. Visit the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame online at the following link;

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