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The Chitlin' Circuit: Road to Rock & Roll Ran Straight Through Houston

Above: Walter Barnes and the Royal Creolians, the first kings of the Chitlin' Circuit

Most music critics, writers, historians, and aficianados in Houston don't think this city has ever gotten enough credit for its contributions to blues, soul, and, the Holy Grail, the birth of rock and roll. Well, roll over, Beethoven, and dig Preston Lauterbach's The Chitlin' Circuit: The Road To Rock 'n' Roll.

Lauterbach's meticulously researched volume -- he spent eight years between "the light bulb coming on in my head" and the book finally going to the publisher -- is a must-read for those who revel in the minutiae and the back stories of rock and roll's pioneers. Houstonians of many stripes should rejoice in this wonderfully colorful history of an era that has always been talked about but seldom actually fleshed out in print in an understandable, sensible order.

The volume is chock full of barely believable characters, some straight out of Amos and Andy with a bit of Shaft thrown into the mix, some torn right from the pages of an Eliot Ness tale of G-men, bootleggers, hustlers, muggers, thieves, murderers, and crooked cops and politicians. The book can compete with any crime page-turner.

Only about ten pages involve stabbings or shootings, about the same number of pages devoted to police/civic crackdowns. As an insight into the ever-evolving black culture in the South, the book is on a par with anything in print about the time, the era, or the scene.

Rocks Off caught up with the 38-year old author at his home in Nellysford, Virginia.

Rocks Off: Had you zeroed in on the title when you started the book?

Preston Lauterbach: No, I just had a general idea that nothing definitive had ever been written about the chitlin' circuit, which we still hear about today albeit in a different form. I think any of us who have an interest in blues, jazz, and rock and roll have encountered the term chitlin' circuit but there's never been a definitive, researched history of it.

RO: So when did the "road to rock 'n' roll" part of your title dawn on you?

PL: That emerged in Houston. I was following Robey's activities through the bands he promoted (via Informer ads for his dances at the Auditorium) and saw the shift from Ellington, Fatha Hines, and Basie in the late '30s/early '40s to Louis Jordan, Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers, Wynonie Harris, and Roy Brown in the mid- to late '40s, and realized I was watching the evolution of pop in fast forward.

RO: What put you on this mission?

PL: I would get tips from people. They'd tell me some amazing story about some aspect of the circuit. And you never know with these older people if it's pure truth, have they sort of forgotten the truth versus what the story has now become in their minds, or, in some cases, it's just a story with no basis once you check it out further.

But when the editor of Living Blues magazine told me "go talk to Sax Kari," which is the opening scene of the book -- my meeting him at his trailer house/studio -- I realized okay, I've got a story here that has to be written. Anyway, I called Sax and started talking to him about my idea to do a history of the chitlin' circuit and he said, "I worked for the man who invented the chitlin' circuit." I thought, "wow,' I'm on a very interesting trail here and I need to follow it."

RO: What was it about that meeting that lit your fuse?

PL: I had never heard of the bandleader Walter Barnes, who became the first big act on the circuit. I'd never heard of Denver Ferguson, the Indianapolis numbers operator, clubowner, and talent promoter who put the circuit together, who began the whole chitlin' circuit thing from his print shop and later his club in Indianapolis. This was completely new information to me.

If you had told me that Indianapolis was going to figure so heavily in the birth of the circuit and the eventual birth of rock and roll, I just would not have believed it. But Sax educated me about the stroll (slang for the main avenue in the black parts of cities and towns), how these areas had begun and prospered. And he knew so much because he had worked for Denver Ferguson.

 

Above: Jimmy Liggins, who was shot in the jaw at Mississippi chitlin' circuit gig

RO: What's one story or tip you got that you didn't believe but found to be true?

PL: Someone told me a story about Jimmy Liggins getting part of his face shot off at a gig and I thought, "That's crazy." But I was in Jackson, Mississippi going through back issues of the newspaper and a headline jumped out at me, something like "Blues Singer Shot In Face at Local Club." And sure enough, it was Jimmy Liggins and the story was true. That was one of the big surprises in writing this, how much coverage the circuit and what was going on had gotten in the written record.

RO: Like you, we were fascinated with Indianapolis's prominent place in the history, but an even more pleasant surprise for us was the depth and breadth of the history you unearthed about Houston.

PL: Houston doesn't get near enough credit for its contributions. Not only were all these great players from there, but black Houston had a business infrastructure, mostly in the form of Don Robey, and it had, for black America, plenty of disposable income. Don Robey's been portrayed by most historians as rather one-dimensional, a hood who was not above using violence to get what he wanted.

But as I interviewed and researched in Houston, it became highly apparent Don Robey was hugely responsible not only for the success of his record label and booking agency, but he had the intelligence to come up with a scheme that made his part of the circuit, which eventually stretched from Houston to San Antonio all the way to New Orleans, work like a well-oiled machine. It's no stretch to say Don Robey is one of the key players in the birth of rock and roll.

RO: Langston Hughes wrote about Memphis Minnie playing electric guitar in a joint in Chicago in 1941 that sounded very much like one of the beginnings of rock and roll. What do you see as a seminal event with Robey and Houston?

PL: Robey broke Louis Jordan nationally with gigs in Houston and New Orleans in 1942. Jordan had been playing clubs and living in the Midwest, but he was not a superstar until Robey brought him south and put his brilliant public-relations talents to work building up Jordan.

So when Jordan finally played the Bronze Peacock after building up his reputation out on the circuit, that gig vaulted him above everyone else almost instantly. And then he followed up within the week with an even wilder reception in New Orleans. They don't call Jordan the "Grandfather of Rock and Roll" for no reason.

 

Above: Louis Jordan, the Grandfather of Rock and Roll, with his Tympany Five. Their 1942 gig in Houston pushed them to superstar status

RO: What was it that separated Jordan from others, that vaulted him to the top?

PL: He redefined how to be a band. Louis sensed the end of the big band era coming. Economics alone were weighing the big bands down, the payroll, the buses, the uniforms, the overheard. He pared his group down to five plus him, and he learned how to make just as much of a racket as the big bands but with fewer pieces.

He also changed the meaning of stardom in music overnight. Before Jordan, the superstars were the band leaders -- Duke Ellington, Count Basie -- or great soloists. But when Jordan and his small ensemble started to do their thing, suddenly the singer is the star. That traces directly back to Jordan. And this is very much a thing that was happening in Houston.

The Chitlin' Circuit: Road to Rock & Roll Ran Straight Through Houston

RO: Robey is often sneered at here as something of a thug with a gun in his pocket, but in your view he was much more.

PL: Look, there's music and there's business. No business, no music. Robey had the vision to see the parts and pieces. You can see him grow into being an important executive in a business where nice guys don't last. In the '30s he did it with his clubs and his mastery of his part of the circuit, his ability to make deals with other kingpins on the circuit like Denver Ferguson which expanded his business as well as theirs.

In the '40s he smartly moved into talent promotion and talent scouting, and by the '50s he was booking acts, recording them, selling their records, and keeping the always-present publicity machine singing the praises of his acts and their recordings. You can say what you want about Robey, but he didn't survive and flourish and command the sort of empire he developed by being a one-dimensional hoodlum.

He had the foresight, the eye to dress Gatemouth Brown in a tuxedo. He helped break B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Memphis guys who didn't explode until Robey brought them to Houston. Robey understood talent, he understood image, and he understood money. The circuit and the performers would likely never have been nearly as successful as they became without that man.

RO: Just a hypothetical, but what do you think of the idea of no electric guitar, no rock and roll?

PL: Hmmm... Well, I guess I'd say that whatever stardom is, it certainly would have been much different had the electric guitar not become the most prominent instrument. But looking back at the earliest rock and rollers, there's Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, and none of those acts were electric guitar-driven. And guitar is not the lead focus in Jordan's ensemble.

On the other hand, T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown, both Houston-based much of their careers, showed how sexy the instrument could be. No one taught Robey how to make someone a star, so, again with his association with T-Bone, Gatemouth, B.B. King, Robey proves his eye for talent and how to promote it.

RO: What else sticks in your mind about Houston in this story?

PL: The huge part Houston played as a laboratory for the beginning of rock and roll. Clubs like Don Robey's would have these after hours jam sessions where people like Sister Rosetta Tharp, Roy Brown, Nat King Cole, Amos Milburn, B.B. King would all meet.

And all these people were playing from Memphis to Houston to New Orleans to Indianapolis, so the exchange of musical ideas among all this gathered musical genius that regularly converged on Robey's club is certainly one of the main test tubes for the development of rock and roll.


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