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Book review: Preston Lauterbach's The Chitlin' Circuit: And the Road to Rock 'n' Roll  

Early in Preston Lauterbach's remarkable book, he writes about contemporary singers who still carry on the old chitlin' circuit traditions in clubs, civic centers and rodeo arenas in the Deep South — singers who serve up songs like "Everything I Like To Eat Starts With a 'P'," "It Ain't Cheatin' Until You Get Caught," and "Candy Licker." All right, I thought, this isn't gonna be one of those whitewashed "early rock mythology" versions of American music history. Which is great because it's honest. One thing about the "roots of rock & roll" — to use a well-worn name for the myriad threads that gradually wove themselves into early rock — is that those roots were tangled, down and dirty, definitely "underground," and nearly always an antidote for "respectable" mainstream culture — which also means that the club owners and promoters were often found on the wrong side of the law.

The chitlin' circuit was an informally linked network of clubs, mostly in the South, that catered to African-American audiences, primarily in the pre-Civil Rights era. Remnants of the circuit still exist today (evidenced by the "Candy Licker" guy), but its heyday was from the 1930s through the 1950s. Lauterbach shines his brightest light on the start of the circuit, through the early 1940s, and then focuses on its influence in the early development of rock & roll.

Entertainment at chitlin' circuit clubs was, by and large, the kind of music that eventually became known as rhythm and blues (R&B). This was a new genre the artists were gradually inventing as they went along, mixing gospel and pop influences with the blues, and often adding quirky personal touches. The chitlin' circuit, and the music that grew there, were among the now-distant fountainheads of rock & roll, along with northern doo-wop groups, western swing and, eventually, rockabilly. And as Lauterbach reports, the circuit's clubs were, more often than not, run by guys who weren't saints.

They couldn't afford to be saints — the club business made money, but it was a hard grind — and, besides, that's not who they were. We're talking racketeering, bootlegging, police bribery, scandals, shootings and broken jaws; a number of the owners also ran whorehouses, some of which were "skinning joints," i.e., places where the prostitutes were "more inclined to knock johns unconscious and pick their pockets than actually screw anyone." A rough crowd.

Lauterbach writes about several chitlin' circuit entrepreneurs, but zooms in on men like Walter Barnes, a Chicago Defender columnist who led the way to forming the circuit in the 1930s; or the incredible Denver Ferguson, an Indianapolis gambling kingpin who wound up in control of much of the circuit in the 1940s; and local music/gambling/whatever chieftains in Memphis, Houston and other Southern locales.

Lauterbach doesn't just focus on the entrepreneurs who drove the circuit, of course. He's right there with the musicians, struggling to make a living, hoping they'd be paid, sweating in overheated clubs, adjusting and reshaping their acts to please the customers. The list of artists who started on the chitlin' circuit is long and filled with legends like Little Richard, Johnny Ace, James Brown, B.B.King, T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris, Amos Milburn, Louis Jordan, Gatemouth Brown, and many others. Their stories are variously moving, heartbreaking, and joyful. In fact, even though the book is stuffed with sweat, sin, grit and greed, the general ambiance is one of celebration, thrills, and even nostalgia. Lauterbach's hard-boiled hipster style, verging on noir, brings to life the visceral kick of the musicians' playing, while providing a thorough, deep history that must have been a monumental labor of love for the author, considering how piecemeal the history of the chitlin' circuit has been until now.

In the end, this book firmly establishes the chitlin' circuit as a crucial force in American music history, and particularly as a critical element of rock & roll's development. With terrific writing, thorough reporting, and great firsthand stories, Lauterbach produced a book that will no doubt become an essential part of the American music history canon. Beyond the book's academic credentials, it's also a big, fun read and an exhilarating look at an exciting — and yes, gritty as hell — era that still influences music today, both in attitudes and rhythms.

The Chitlin' Circuit: And the Road to Rock 'n' Roll

by Preston Lauterbach (W. W. Norton, 352 pages, $26.95).

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