The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Preston Lauterbach.
A groundbreaking history of the black juke joints that birthed rock 'n' roll.
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Just before and during World War II, entertainers like Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five showed that a handful of musicians could make just as much noise as an entire orchestra. As men and resources went into the war effort, Jordan became the model for every black pop group from Little Richard and Fats Domino to B. B. King and James Brown. These entertainers roughed up Jordan’s svelte style as swing became rhythm ‘n’ blues and the word “rock” began to appear in one form or another in song lyrics, like Roy Brown’s 1947 “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” as well as newspaper write-ups that described audiences as “rockin’” to the new sound.Skip to next paragraph
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As the music changed, the bands’ names did, too, and in a way that suggests the difference between the start of the chitlin’ circuit and its end. In the beginning, the road was ruled by Dittybo Hill and His Eleven Clouds of Joy; Herman Curtis and His Chocolate Vagabonds; Belton’s Society Syncopators; and Smiling Billy Stewart and His Celery City Serenaders. Later, these groups were replaced by the Chickenshackers; the Mighty Mighty Men; the Tempo Toppers; and the Famous Flames.
But even combos as macho-sounding as these couldn’t stand up to the forces of urban renewal. The federal Housing Act of 1949 meant that slums would be purchased so that civic blight could be replaced with vibrancy. At least that was the idea; what this often meant in practical terms was that functioning black neighborhoods were replaced with high-rise projects that quickly turned into crime factories. And following the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, even more black-owned homes and businesses gave ground to the first interstate highways, and the chitlin’ circuit effectively disappeared.
In Tallahassee, the Red Bird Club has long since vanished; where once stood a ramshackle wooden building that churned out rhythm ‘n’ blues is now a foreign car repair shop that services Mercedes Benzes and Porsches. But I’ve heard that Duke Ellington played there when the chitlin’ circuit was young, and it’s a fact that, just before it passed into history, Ray Charles played at the Red Bird as well. You can pull the building down board by board, but the music? That’s indestructible.
David Kirby is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”