A black and white world gone to gray
Memphis journalist Preston Lauterbach has written a fascinating work about the culture that incubated rock 'n' roll in "The Chitlin' Circuit." Not only is his breezy, smart book packed with detail (want to learn what "skinning" means?), it's fun and carries just the right amount of spice. This is colorful history about a black-and-white world that lost its distinctive complexion.
Besides accounts of seminal figures such as small combo pioneer Louis Jordan; Roy Brown, the sensation who hit in 1947 with "Good Rockin' Tonight"; the flamboyant Little Richard, and the hard-working James Brown, Mr. Lauterbach provides insights into the culture that brought these men to prominence. He joins critics such as Peter Guralnick and Philip Booth in crafting vivid portraits of a period marked by a particular vernacular and rhythm that are passing into myth.
The scenes Mr. Lauterbach probes have largely vanished, and integration is partly to blame, he suggests. While he doesn't endorse the segregation that defined the chitlin' circuit, he deplores the identity lost when the circuit, now a mere shadow of its funky and robust self, crumbled in the face of racial and economic change.
Certainly blame urban renewal, a 1960s program that effectively decimated Beale Street, the legendary Memphis "stroll" that nurtured the blend of jazz and blues that defined early rock. "The stroll," a term coined by Chicago bandleader Walter Barnes, is the name for the main artery of chitlin' culture. "Any place with a sizable black population grew a darktown, and each of these black districts centered on a main thoroughfare, a world unto itself," Mr. Lauterbach writes.
Alive with conventional retail outlets and pharmacies, along with entertainment venues and more rarefied and secret enterprise like numbers running, drugs and prostitution, these thoroughfares existed in every city, regardless of size; in Indianapolis, where visionary racketeer Denver Ferguson was the key promoter, the "stroll" was Indiana Avenue; in Los Angeles, it was Central Avenue; in Muskogee, Okla., it was Second Street; in Cleveland, it was East 105th Street. The stroll no longer exists. Those old enough to recall it miss it sorely.
Mr. Lauterbach is refreshingly opinionated. In 1949, Billboard changed its "race" designation to "rhythm and blues," acknowledging the increasing clout of black popular music.
"The standardized definitions of rock 'n' roll ... emphasize a fusion of black rhythm and blues and white country-western sounds, as if the two styles brought distinct elements to a new mixture," writes Mr. Lauterbach. "While that certainly applies to Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, some of the first rock 'n' roll stars as such, it implies a shared primacy that simply didn't exist at the true dawn of rock 'n' roll. While black music was clearly rockin' by 1949, country and western fans delighted to the sounds of yodels, waltzes, accordions, fiddles and steel guitars -- great stuff, but not the stuff of rock 'n' roll."
The revisionism goes beyond musical style, however. As good cultural criticism should, this book raises questions about society itself. Should those "strolls" and "bronzevilles" that fed the circuit have continued to flourish despite their association with seediness and vice? Or is the loss of such a vibrant culture the price we pay for progress -- in this case, integration?
The theaters where Walter Barnes and his big band played, the clubs where Houston wheeler-dealer Don Robey Jr. developed his Duke-Peacock acts, the AM stations where B.B. King and proto-rocker Amos Milburn first gained fame are all gone now. Praise Mr. Lauterbach for scouring the South to rekindle the glory days of the chitlin' circuit before they pass from memory.
First Published August 28, 2011 12:00 am