The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll

Sheet Music

Texas Platters

The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll

by Preston Lauterbach
W.W. Norton & Company, 338 pp., $26.95

Preston Lauterbach isn't the first writer to trace the fabled road of the so-called chitlin' circuit. Its lure began as far back as the 1920s, but what makes this book important is how its author stitches together the loose string of black clubs dotting mostly the American South and ties them to the rise of rock & roll. With his debut book, Lauterbach does this primarily through two black men he credits with paving the performing circuit, Denver D. Ferguson and Walter Barnes. Lauterbach deems Ferguson "the granddaddy of rock 'n' roll" and in doing so makes a compelling case for the little-known show promoter/agent's new title, citing full service promotion campaigns that included cultivating barbershops, the 1940s equivalent of street teams, and collecting phone books, which is how he developed a network of clubs. Barnes' triple threat came as performer, promoter, and press, all in one. Between the two, they mapped pre-Interstate America and laid the grid for decades of touring acts. Austin rightfully claims its place on the chitlin' circuit with the Victory Grill and long-gone venues, but it was only a blip compared to San Antonio's Keyhole Club, overseen by Houston's Don Robey, who booked his Texas and Louisiana venues in with Ferguson's. (Chitlin' circuit guitarist Curley Mays still performs around San Antonio.) Lauterbach includes vivid portraits of crucial but marginalized performers including Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Amos Milburn, Jimmie Lunceford, and Gatemouth Brown, and redraws unforgettable landscapes in the urban areas of Houston, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and digs down deep in the weeds of Port Arthur, Texas; Macon, Ga.; and Ferriday, La.; amid piles of cash, sex, racketeering, and scrapes with the law. In doing so, Chitlin' Circuit creates blood-and-sweat images of music shaped by geography, talent, vision, and, occasionally, deals with the devil. (Author Preston Lauterbach appears at the Texas Book Festival Saturday, Oct. 22, 2pm, at the state Capitol.)

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