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The Dawn of Rock N’ Roll: Chitlins and Gospel Roots

Posted in: General,Reviews by Mary McDonough on April 11, 2012

The Chitlin’ Circuit. For those of you who have heard of the pre-civil rights movement music circuit it usually denotes second-rate acts. Musicians were relegated to the Chitlin’ Circuit. But a 2005 interview between Preston Lauterbach, a freelance Memphis writer, and Sax Kuri, a former Chitlin’ Circuit star, inspired Lauterbach to research the history of the Circuit. What he found was a rich, creative, dynamic arena for black musical acts that laid the foundation for rock music. Lauterbach’s findings, published in a book called The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock N’ Roll, carefully map out the intricate connections between the Circuit’s performers, many of whom never received adequate recognition, and the birth of rock music.

The Chitlin’ Circuit was named after chitterlings, cooked hog intestines, which are an ingredient in soul food. Originally emerging during the 1930s, the Circuit consisted of African-American music acts that toured throughout the Midwest and South playing in segregated nightclubs. Several famous artists emerged out of the Circuit such as Ike Turner, B.B. King, Little Richard, James Brown, and Ray Charles.

Lauterbach vividly describes the various performers, promoters, agents, and nightclub owners who were the lifeblood of the Circuit. He interviewed numerous Circuit artists and surviving relatives, and studied various media sources such as newspapers, scrapbooks, and even old city directories to tell a story of “ the numbers racket, hair straighteners, multiple murders, human catastrophe, commercial sex, bootlegging, international scandal, female impersonation, and a real female who could screw a light bulb into herself—and turn it on” (11-12).

Before WWII, most of the Circuit consisted of large swing bands. In the post-war economy, however, the groups couldn’t make as much money so they evolved into smaller acts showcasing the sax and strong vocals. Lauterbach argues that this was where rock n’ roll was really born—in the late 1940s at these small, crowed, run down nightclubs where often there weren’t even any indoor toilets. Early performers like Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, and T-Bone Walker became stepping stones to the rock n’ roll sound of the 1950s.

Much has been written about the connection between black gospel music and rock. Lauterbach’s book tells us personal stories detailing how certain elements of gospel influenced rock. One story involves Louisiana native Roy Brown. When he was a child he created a gospel quartet and wrote a song called “Satan’s Chariots Rolling By.” One Sunday he got into some liquor and then performed his song in church with a toe tapping beat and loud shouting chorus. Afterwards, his mother punished him for “jazzing up spirituals” (139). He quit singing until after his mother died but eventually formed a band in Texas and wrote “Good Rockin’ Tonight” about a Galveston brothel. He sang it the same way he’d sung that song in church years earlier—loud and fast. It became a big hit on the Circuit (Wynonie Harris also covered the song in 1948). Brown wrote more of these fast-paced piano and sax-driven songs. Combining very loud vocals with the shout and response format and hand clapping commonly found in black churches, Brown “torched the blues with spiritual fire” (144).

In Lauterbach’s book we also learn details about how rock icon Little Richard grew up in Macon, Georgia where he listened to local gospel singers, spent time with a faith healer, heard women sing spirituals with harmonies as they hung wash to dry, and sold Coca-Cola at an auditorium where his favorite performer was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. All these experiences helped him mesh the emotion and fervor found in the local gospel sound with secular lyrics (149-51).

Famed soul singer James Brown originally sang in a gospel group called the Gospel Starlighters. They eventually shifted to secular music but because they had little money and couldn’t afford instruments, they used their feet to stomp out rhythms and their voices to hum instrumental sequences, something many black church congregants had been doing for decades (246). The band eventually changed their name to the Famous Flames, appropriate given their reputations for fiery, wild performances.

The Chitlin’ Circuit: The Road to Rock n’ Roll is full of many more stories about the people who built rock music. One of the most interesting claims the author makes is that black artists’ contributions to rock n’ roll have been “muddied” because:

Influential gatekeepers have tended to treat “rhythm and blues” as a genre-defining phrase rather than what is was, a marketing phrase, short hand for black popular music in whatever form happened to be selling. The standardized definitions of rock n’ roll, courtesy of institutions such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone magazine, 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. 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. (163)

Lauterbach’s excellent book supports this claim while giving the Chitlin’ Circuit the attention and accolades it deserves.

Mary McDonough

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