Roots of Rock and the Chitlin Circuit

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 DiddleyChuck BerryLittle RichardTina TurnerJimi 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.

The Regal Theatre in Chicago


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.”

Bo Diddley – “Hey Bo Diddley”


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.

Crossing Over

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.”

Little Richard – “Tutti Frutti”


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.”

Rare footage of Hendrix backing Nashville soul act Buddy and Stacy on the local TV show “Night Train” in 1965


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.”

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Originally published January 2016 on

Why Little League International is wrong about Jackie Robinson West

Members of the Jackie Robinson West baseball team at a rally in Chicago in August.


By Tequia Burt

Getting up yesterday morning to see the Jackie Robinson West team stripped of its U.S. Little League Championship title was like a knife to the heart.

Like millions of Chicagoans, I cheered them on and rooted for our South Side team to go all the way. Even though the boys did not win the world title, to people across the city they still were our champs. Our boys were the first African-American team to win a Little League Championship.

And we all needed it—the black community, in particular, needed it. They won the title during a time of great pain, when black boys felt like their lives didn’t matter. They filled our terror-filled psyches with hope. We took a collective breath—our sons can be role models; they aren’t just criminals in hoodies stealing cigarillos. Then this happened.

And now they’re cheaters. Because, according to Little League International CEO Stephen Keener, at least two kids lived outside sanctioned boundaries.

Instead of being heroes, now they’re a “superteam,” fitting neatly into the narrative of black males as brutes imbued with superhuman strength. Innocence has been lost.


At a time when Deflategate is happening and MLB players admit to doping, these children are being told that they are learning a good lesson: Cheaters never win. In reality, the lesson they are learning is that cheaters don’t win unless they are powerful. Black boys are not powerful. And I’m pretty sure they are well aware that mistakes can cost them.

These children are being held to stricter standards than the NFL holds its teams and players: Even though 11 of 12 footballs the Patriots used in the AFC Championship were deflated, even though they are widely thought of as cheaters,the team went on to win the Super Bowl. No one is threatening to vacate their title.

While the adults in the Little League scandal have been appropriately punished, it still doesn’t change the fact that these children are being reprimanded for being successful. They were failed by their coaches, by the Little League organization and, even, by some parents. Yet they are the ones paying the ultimate price.

The Little League did not make the right decision by stripping JRW of its championship title. There are reports that Little League International knew that multiple Little League teams in the area violate boundary rules as a matter of course, including the Evergreen Park league, whose coach worked hard to get JRW stripped of its title.

If the rules were so important, why did the organization only begin the investigation after JRW won and someone complained and a reporter forced the issue? Eligibility should have been established long before any team played in the finals. If rules really mattered, this level of scrutiny should be placed on all the teams all over the country—from the get-go. The organization’s framework for evaluating residency is clearly flawed since JRW previously was cleared of wrongdoing.

The children should not be the ones made to suffer the consequences. Black boys are so often made into the bogeyman; let them be heroes for once.

So now it’s time to express our support, Chicago. We have to let these children know that they aren’t the ones to blame even though they’re being penalized. Let’s show the children in JRW that they’re still champs.


Tequia Burt is a native Chicagoan and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Her day job is as editor of FierceCMO, a digital publication targeted to B2B marketers.

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Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business Feb. 12, 2015

Technics and Sony Turntables Unveiled at CES 2016

Vinyl sales in the United States exploded last year, up 52 percent in the first half of 2015, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, and have overtaken streaming in terms of revenue. In response, Sony and Panasonic have announced new turntables at CES 2016 in Las Vegas.

Technics Grand Class SL-1200GAE

Technics Grand Class SL-1200GAE

For the 50th anniversary of the SL-1200, which is beloved by audiophiles and DJs alike, Panasonic said Technics is releasing two new “Grand Class” models: the aluminum-cased SL-1200G and the magnesium limited-edition SL-1200GAE, of which only 1,200 will be made. Panasonic had ceased production of Technics turntables in 2010. The new SL-1200s include a modern makeover to help alleviate some long-term issues inherent to the classic models.

“Direct drive turntable systems have been beloved by HiFi enthusiasts since their birth in 1972,” the company said. “However, one problem that direct-drive systems have always faced was sound quality degradation caused by ‘cogging’, or tiny vibrations of the motor and rotational speed fluctuations.”

Sony Electronics PS-HX500

Sony Electronics PS-HX500

To eliminate cogging, Technics added a coreless direct-drive motor, along with a microprocessor controlled rotary positioning sensor. Other improvements have been made to the tonearm and cabinet construction. The limited edition Grand Class SL-1200GAE will be available this summer, while the Grand Class SL-1200G will be available in late 2016. There was no word on pricing at press time.

Sony Electronics unveiled its PS-HX500 turntable, which enables users to convert music from their records into high-res digital audio files. The new PS-HX500 turntable will be available this spring. Sony did not share pricing information.

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Originally published at Reverb in January 2016