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The Chitlin’ Circuit And The Road To Rock And Roll

The amazing story of African-America’s “Chitlin Circuit,” and the road to rock and roll.

A crossroads business serves as store, bar, juke joint, and gas station in the cotton plantation area, Melrose, La., June 1940. (AP)

A crossroads business serves as store, bar, juke joint, and gas station in the cotton plantation area, Melrose, La., June 1940. (AP)

Across the country in segregated 20th century America, there was a world where black musicians soared even when the color line held them down.

It was Beale Street in Memphis, the Bronze Peacock Dinner and Dance Club in Houston, an old tobacco barn in South Carolina, where the music went all night long. It was the Chitlin’ Circuit.

Grand ballrooms and steamy juke joints. The venues where African-Americans were free to play and be. Where, says my guest today, rock was born.

This hour On Point: a new history of the Chitlin’ Circuit..

-Tom Ashbrook


Preston Lauterbach, the author of “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N Roll”

Bobby Rush, a musician, composer and singer.

Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American studies at Duke University.

Show Highlights

Tom Ashbrook: Let’s go to Jackie, calling from Naugatuck, Connecticut. Jackie, thanks so much for calling. You’re on the air.

Jackie: Hi, how you doin’? Thanks for taking my call.

Ashbrook: Yes, sir.

Jackie: I listen to you radio station all the time. I love you guys. I’ve never called. This is my first time calling in. But I’m interested in the subject today—I’m interested in all these subjects—but this is close to home because I’ve been a musician for 45 years, a bass player. And I started off in the late ‘60s.

Ashbrook: Wow.

Jackie: And I did the Chitlin’ Circuit for the longest time, for many years. I was in an all black band. And we did the Chitlin’ Circuit everywhere—military bases from Pensacola, Florida to Fort Pease Maine and everything in between. We did the cotton clubs; we did a lot of stuff.

Ashbrook: What was it like to be out there, Jackie? You were right in the middle of it playing bass! What was it like to be on the circuit?

Jackie: Oh man, it was, it was, it was beautiful. It kept me out of trouble because I grew up—I came here from North Carolina but I grew up in Bridgeport and almost all of my peers were either, you know, dying from overdoses or whatever. And I think the thing that kept me out of trouble was my love for music, and I just—we just played all the time. And we did—like I say—we did the Chitlin’ Circuit which were like the clubs where, you know, they wouldn’t hire you. You know, if you were black you got hired there. There were no blacks really playing in white clubs; there wasn’t too much crossover then. And I actually seen it go from Chitlin’ Circuit thing to crossing over. And I read a big article in Seymour, Connecticut where some newspaper man read about our band, about the fact that we were the first black band to play in Seymour and how dare we, was it going to go off and everything. The place was packed for the whole weekend.

Ashbrook: You know, I’m looking at a picture here, from Preston Lauderbach’s book The Chitlin’ Circuit, and it’s riot police on the Rialto. This is a Memphis police patrol on Beal Street in March 1968. They’re marching each past Sunbeam Mitchell’s club there. What was it like to be black and working the circuit in the South in the ‘60s, Preston—I’m sorry, our caller, Jackie, Jackie, Jackie. Excuse me. What was it like, Jackie, to be in that part of the country playing all those years?

Jackie: You just had to be—you had to be quiet, you didn’t do any talking, the manager did all the talking. You would just play your music. Some people would respect you because of your ability and they would talk to you, but you kinda stayed away from, you know, different kind of people that didn’t want to see, you know, doin’ it and stuff. That’s why you stayed in, like, your black areas and stuff. Police always pull you over, trying to, you know, pull you over, make you take everything out of the car, saying “Well, you got drugs?” “No, I don’t, sir. I’m just playing and I’m from…” wherever I was, you know. […]And they’d be like, “What you doin’ out here, boy?” But the people that we played for, they appreciated it a lot.

Ashbrook: And right in the face of that, some really great music. Jackie, we appreciate your call. Thank you so much for calling in!

This hour, we’ll hear a series of Chitlin’ Circuit songs:

Good Rockin’ Tonight by Roy Brown
It’s All Right Baby by Joe Turner
How Come by Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers
Knock Me A Kiss by Louis Jordan
I got loaded by Peppermint Harris
Hound Dog by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Bite again, Bite again by Wynonie Harris
Boogie at Midnight by Roy Brown
Pledging My Love by Johnny Ace
Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston & his Delta Cats
Tutti Frutti by Little Richard
Eight Men, Four Women by O.V. Wright
Sue by Bobby Rush
Hole in the Wall by Mel Waiters


Louis Jordan and hit Tympany Band sing ‘Let The Good Times Roll”

Lil’ Green sings “Kockin Myself Out”

Roy Brown sings “Good Rockin’ Tonight’

Here’s Big Mama Thornton singing “Hound Dog”

Lil’ Green sings “Romance In The Dark”

Little Richard sings “Tutti Frutti”

Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Big Walter Horton & Dr Ross

Johnny Ace singes “Pledging My Love”

Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats “In My Real Gone Rocket” 1951

Watch Bobby Rush preform “Standing the Test of Time”

Here’s Bobby Rush live


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  • Brett

    Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’ pales in comparison to Big Mama Thornton’s! (Elvis’ first hit, ‘That’s Alright Mama’ was an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup tune.) But he, the Beatles, the Stones….on and on, all owe something important to these artists and this period in U.S. music history.  

    Little Richard and Chuck Berry have always been interesting, in terms of historical musical figures. Here were a couple of characters; one, a flamboyant (with some sexual orientation twisting thrown in) black man, and the other, a 30-something black man, both singing about teenage angst and crossing over into a white middle-class America Pop market! What they achieved is truly astounding. Many of the artists showcased in the above videos were still considered as producing “race” records from a tradition of Blues and Rhythm and Blues (something any self-respecting working-class white person would not have listened to, or who would have at least viewed as a novelty). During this period in the ’50′s, many African-American recording artists were starting to cross over, though, and music has always been better off as a result. 

    (I think it was Howlin’ Wolf who wrote, “The Blues had a Baby and they called it Rock-n-Roll.”)

    There is always that inevitable part of the discussion which raises issues of how white musicians ripped off black musicans…I don’t agree (except in the case of Led Zeppelin, who should have been sued for some of their plagiarism). Truth is, most white musicians have made a point of helping black musicians’ music live on, and have seen to it that either they or their estates/families receive compensation for their contributions to music. White-owned recording/publishing companies have done their fare share of ripping off artists, both black and white, and many black recording artists (Muddy Waters comes to mind, of course when he stole some of, say, Robert Johnson’s music, he didn’t realize people would learn about musicians like Robert Johnson through people like Eric Clapton) straight up ripped off fellow black artists, stole songs, stole names, and so on…either way, the argument is flimsy.  

    Our music from the U.S. has always had a unique quality that, while owing somewhat to European traditions (think people like George Gershwin; or, in another sense, Scotch-Irish Folk music), defies its origins, drawn from so many sources from around the world. It is a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kind of thing. …Music should be a great mongrel, to paraphrase Sting…       
    Thanks for putting up these videos!   

    • DJJimmyBee

      Go Tom…My ex went to Yale with you, class of ’77. Lucky you to be able to host competently such a wide-ranging radio program! Keep up the great work. 

    • Jrgcruz

      “Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’ pales in comparison to Big Mama Thornton’s!…he, the Beatles, the Stones….on and on, all owe something important to these artists and this period in U.S. music history.”

      Remember that “Hound Dog” was written by two Northern whites (Lieber and Stoller).  The fact is, there was long and complex give-and-take between black and white popular music decades before Elvis, evidenced in jazz, swing, big band, jump blues, and boogie-woogie.  It strikes me that the phenomenon of the early 50′s was not the white adoption of black musical forms, but more the white adoption of black performance styles.      

      • Grigalem

         Less “Northern whites” than young Los Angeles Jews.

        Look up THEIR fascinating story.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Having heard this music only over the radio, as a child, before televisions were common, I always assumed this music was generic, which is to say, to a little white child in New England:  not ethnic, not African American.  Currently PBS has a lot of fundraiser programs with some of these singers appearing in person, and in replay, and lots of them turn out to be African American.  Who knew.  I remember a huge amount of disapproval when Elvis began to have hits, and I’m thinking the unspoken part might have been that it was okay for black folks to be celebrities of this hard-to-define sort, but white people shouldn’t have to.  Something like that.  The radio exempted parents from having to explain this very fine point, since children wouldn’t know to ask.  There were not enough African Americans around for a child to have any idea what racism was all about.  Within a couple of decades,  there was far less need to disguise the color of the culture we absorbed.  My opinion.

    • Brett

      I think you might have something, here, Ellen. Perhaps white parents heard their children listening on the radio and thought there was generic innocence at first? Also, if white parents knew of the ethnicity of the artists, maybe they saw it as a novelty, like the way white folks viewed minstrel singing 100 years earlier, as if the ethnicity made everything slightly exotic and a few degrees of separation removed? But Elvis?!?!?! Here was a young man, close the age of their sons and daughters, sexually provocative, and so on. Elvis posed a threat maybe that Little Richard did not? I can’t think of a black recording artist from the ’40′s and ’50′s who had a rebel, iconoclastic persona (at least not in the mainstream); I can think of lots of white artists who did, though. People weren’t afraid their children would turn out like Chuck Berry, but shudder to think if their child began to act like, say, the motorcycle punk Brando!  

  • Eloise

    The Chitlin’ Circuit still exists! I’m a New Orleans bass player and have played in Chitlin’ Circuit Juke Joints like the Bradfordville Blues Club just north of Tallahassee, Fl (which was once known as the CC Club, which also had a Negro league baseball field on the premesis) and Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, La.

  • John

    Tom – Ask about Louis Prima. I think he took the energy if not the songs of these guys and made it accessible to white audiences in even a straighter line than the white rockers like Elvis.

    Williamstown, VT

  • James

    Any discussion of the roots of rock and roll should include T-Bone Walker.
    Please ask your guest if you have not done so.

    Belvidere, NJ

  • Anonymous

    didn’t ray charles reject the chitlin circuit?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Doug-Pratt/1669697071 Doug Pratt

    Great stuff. Thanks. But this was one of the roads to Rock and Roll. There were others, too: http://youtu.be/gfsi2SXrj5g

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Doug-Pratt/1669697071 Doug Pratt

    Thanks. Great stuff. But there was more than one road to Rock and Roll: http://youtu.be/gfsi2SXrj5g

  • nj

    Great stuff! Thanks for this show.

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  • Yogue920

    This should be taught in our schools

  • sunny229

    Fantastic show and yes, this is an integral part of American history and should be a taught in schools.  Thanks for the inspiration and fabulous music.  

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  • Glendalvn208

    In the “Lightining In a Bottle” dvd, the great blues singer Solomon Burke said there were two circuits: the Neckbone circuit and the Chitlin Circuit. If I recall correctly, on the Neckbone Circuit, the performer helped hang the posters, collect the money, clean up the building and go paid in food. On the Chitlin Circuit they did some of those things, but still got paid in a small amount of cash at the end of the show. 

  • Willkimbrough

    I played the Harlem Dukes Social Club in Prichard, Alabama—just outside Mobile—when I was 18 or 19—with a band of veteran Chitlin’ Circuit players.  Soon, the Harlem Dukes was gone.  I know everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Muddy Waters to BB King played there.  The club is closed and falling in now.  Should be preserved.  Thanks. I just purchased the book on Amazon.

  • Tom Mcleod

    I have been going to bars like the one on the cover all my life. I had to stop drinking so I started painting, I was looking for a picture of the Subway Underground Blues Lounge & I found the picture that’s on your book, I painted my own funky little version, hope you like it. By the way I did find a picture of the Subway & I’m painting it now!

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  • dsqmoore001

    I thought this was a story about this local Maine band, actually ends up being complimentary!


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=591503795 Leland Stein

    Jimi Hendrix honed his skills and paid his dues on the Chitlin’ Circuit (playing with Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Joey Dee, King Curtis–among many others) from the early ’60s when he left the Army until he was “discovered” in Greenwich Village in 1966 and taken to England where he quickly skyrocketed to fame. Perhaps your guest authors have a Hendrix tale or two from this period.– Leland Stein, Arlington, MA

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=591503795 Leland Stein

    Jimi Hendrix honed his skills and paid his dues on the Chitlin’ Circuit
    (playing with Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Joey Dee, King
    Curtis–among many others) from the early ’60s when he left the Army
    until he was “discovered” in Greenwich Village in 1966 and taken to
    England where he quickly skyrocketed to fame. Perhaps your guest authors
    have a Hendrix tale or two from this period.

  • Steve__T

    The Chitlin’ circuit also had some adverse effects on some artist trying to get out their music. Such as Nat King Cole he rarely performed in Segerated venues. In 1956, he was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham Al, with the Ted Heath Band (while singing the song “Little Girl”), by three members of the North Alabama Citizens Counsel.  Cole did not finish the concert and never again performed in the South.

  • Chris McGrail

    Almost a great show…Bobby Rush is a class act!! 
    HOWEVER…Why do we have to applaud the history and accomplishments of the Chitin Circuit at the expense of legitimate artists like Led Zeppelin and Elvis? The show gave the impression that white artists gained their fame on the accomplishments of black artists which is unfair and inaccurate.  How can I compare Big Mama Thornton to Elvis? Both songs are great and offer something different. We can recognize history, appreciate our choices and move forward but instead we have to compare and judge- what a shame…”Borrowing” happens not only in music but also in business, politics, so on…By both white and black…Sorry Tom!!During my career as a chef I was told that whatever I did had been done before (i.e. get over yourself kid!) and that we can only draw from the foundation laid out for us by others. 

    • Grigalem

       Lewd is not my idea of a “class act”.

  • Bruce94

    Thought we’d be listening to Romney’s Economic Plan, but glad I tuned into this program which is meaningful to me on several levels.

    As someone who has roots in both the “Golden” and “Research Triangles” of NC, I was delighted to hear from Prof. Neal and learned a lot about what I personally experienced in the 60′s & 70′s.

    As someone who was performing this kind of music in the early 70′s, I had the good fortune of touring with a funk/soul band that played venues in what I would describe as the remnants of the chitlin’ circuit.

    As the only white guy in the group, I look back at this time in my life and the music I helped produce with a mixture of humility and great satisfaction. 

    I had the incredible luck of teaming with a student and protege of Donald Byrd (of the Blackbyrds).  While I was trained by a “stride” jazz pianist, I immediately threw myself into the R & B and funk genre. 

    Like one of the guest pointed out, our audiences were not interested in jazz per se, but did warm to fusion (e.g. we used Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” from his iconic Head Hunters album as a break song).

    I missed the original broadcast.  Otherwise I would have responded with my sincere thanks for this trip down memory lane.

    Incidentally, I think the perspectives and history provided in this program are far more valuable than whatever we could glean from the political Chameleon’s economic plan.

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