By Tequia Burt
In an era when African Americans sat at the back of the bus and were banned from “Whites Only” establishments, the so-called Chitlin Circuit flourished. Driven by the entrenched racial segregation of the Jim Crow era, the circuit gave comics like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor their first shots at infamy and it provided playwrights like August Wilson with an engaged audience. It also gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll music.
“The Chitlin Circuit was almost an entirely African-American phenomenon,” says the author of “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Preston Lauterbach. “We’re talking about the black music business – black performers, black audiences – run by predominantly black businesspeople with a few whites in the mix. The circuit was basically the African-American segment of the entertainment industry during the days of segregation.”
A Juke Joint in the Chitlin Circuit
The circuit gave the architects of blues-fueled rock ‘n’ roll their start – icons like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers – in predominantly southern, black-only nightclubs. Even Gladys Knight performed in a house band on the circuit early in her career, playing at what she called “roadside joints and honky tonks across the South. No menus. No kitchens. Just a grizzly old guy selling catfish nuggets, corn fritters or pig ear sandwiches in a corner.”
And in the South, that’s exactly where black musicians played: hole-in-the-wall clubs, juke joints and roadside shacks. However, even though much of the circuit was located in the South, its origins can also be traced to big northern cities where pockets of African-Americans had migrated: The Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club in Harlem; the Regal Theatre in Chicago; the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore; and the Fox Theatre in Detroit were all considered a part of the network.
According to Ali Colleen Neff, assistant professor of Africana Studies at Virginia Tech and author of “Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story,” the Chitlin Circuit provided black musicians and performers, locked out of the mainstream white music industry, safe venues and an audience willing to go beyond convention. Black musicians could do things in front of a black audience that they couldn’t do in front of a white one. As they transformed southern rhythm and blues into a sound no one had ever heard, black performers had juke joints jumping as they swiveled their hips, growled into their mics and pounded their instruments.
“Black audiences in the circuit were highly participatory in creating these new genres,” Neff says. “You didn’t play anything to a black audience – who were often interested in empowering new, emerging forms of music – if they weren’t encouraging you to do it.”
The Bo Diddley Beat
It was on the Chitlin Circuit in the 1950s and ’60s that Bo Diddley fine-tuned his famous Bo Diddley beat, which is widely credited as the rhythm that makes up the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll music. While the syncopated beat, made up of three strokes/rest/two strokes (bomp-ba-domp-ba-domp, ba-domp-domp), is firmly rooted in African American slave culture, it can also be traced to drumbeats of the Yoruba and Kongo cultures.
“I mainly play chords and stuff like that and rhythm. I’m a rhythm fanatic,” Diddley said in “Rock & Roll,” the 1995 PBS series. “I played the guitar as if I were playing drums. That’s the thing that makes my music so different. I do licks on a guitar like a drummer would do.”
Diddley was not shy about experimenting on the circuit. He had women in his band; he played a rectangular guitar and included unconventional instruments like electric violins, maracas and washboards. And that famous beat went on influence everyone from Buddy Holly and Elvis to Bruce Springsteen and The Smiths. However, despite his massive impact, Diddley could never quite cross over to white audiences. George R. White, author of “Bo Diddley: Living Legend,” wrote: “Diddley remained firmly rooted in the ghetto. Both his music and his image were too loud, too raunchy, too black ever to cross over.” Even though white teenagers played his records on jukeboxes, radio station deejays were less enthusiastic. As were TV and movie execs.
While black musicians were able to innovate while touring the circuit, many realized that the real money was made playing to whites. Little Richard, who had worked the circuit for years, at one point touring in drag as Princess Lavonne in Sugarfoot Sam’s Minstrel Show, achieved breakthrough success in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti.” The hit was a sanitized version of a dirty ditty that he performed often on the circuit: “Tutti Frutti/Good booty/If it don’t fit/Don’t force it/You can grease it/Make it easy.” Little Richard knew those lyrics just wouldn’t fly in front of a white audience.
“People called rock & roll ‘African music.’ They called it ‘voodoo music,’” Little Richard told Rolling Stone in 2010. “They said that it would drive the kids insane. They said that it was just a flash in the pan.”
Much to the chagrin of their scandalized parents, white teenagers went crazy over flamboyant, pancake-makeup-wearing Little Richard. His more-wholesome adaptation of “Tutti Frutti” sold more than a million copies.
“I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me,” Little Richard added. “We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony – they were ‘white spectators.’ But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.”
Chitlin Circuit frontmen like Little Richard were instrumental in spreading rock ‘n’ roll to mainstream white America, but hardworking sidemen also had a part to play. The most successful to cross over was Jimi Hendrix.
After his discharge from the Army in 1962, Hendrix earned a living as a sideman for a few years, working for greats like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett and the Isley Brothers. By 1964, he was playing lead guitar for the Isley’s, recording the song “Testify.” Hendrix also played guitar for their single “Move On Over and Let Me Dance.” However, he left the Isleys, and the circuit, for good in 1965.
It was in the circuit that Hendrix was able to refine the style that made him famous, including playing solos with his teeth and behind his back on a right-handed guitar turned upside down and restrung for a lefty. He also sharpened his guitar-playing skills and perfected his sound, which was built on a foundation of rhythm and blues.
“It was a real place to be a professional musician, to learn, to grow as a performer, to evolve, to get better, to exchange ideas,” Lauterbach says. “There was no such thing as a media-made Chitlin’ Circuit star – there was no Chitlin’ Circuit idol, there was no corporation getting behind an individual. They had to get out there and kick ass every single night or they were screwed. It was a real survival-of-the-fittest type situation that forced the artist to be good, to be competitive in order to be able to make a living.”
The mainstream success of artists like Little Richard and Hendrix, coupled with the Civil Rights movement and desegregation, led to the Chitlin’ Circuit’s downfall. While it still survives today, featuring predominantly R&B acts like Bobby Rush, Clarence Carter and Denise LaSalle, it’s nothing like it was in its heyday in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
“The Chitlin Circuit has always been a tremendous source of pride for black musicians. It was never second best; it was where all of the best musicians were,” Lauterbach says. “Crossing over was always a way to make a better living, but the quality of the entertainment was absolutely second-to-none because it was where innovation took place, where new styles were made. This wasn’t any kind of backdoor situation at all; it was black-owned and black-operated for black audiences. Nothing second class about it.”
Originally published January 2016 on Reverb.com