One of my favorite books of 2012 has been The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Preston Lauterbach [Reviewed here]. Today Preston talks a little about the book and what’s up next for him.
Music Tomes: You note in the book that meeting and talking to Sax Kari changed the book from what you thought you were going to be writing about. Where did you originally think the book was going to go?
Preston Lauterbach: When I met Sax, I only knew the current and recent circuit, and not much about the historical background. So, Sax not only took the story way back, but he made me realize the circuit encompassed more than music, that it was intimately connected with the black underworld. He broadened my perspective on these things because he’d been there. He worked for the numbers racketeer named Denver Ferguson, a kingpin who took the circuit to new levels of organization and efficiency during WWII. Sax also ran bag for a man named Don Robey who was on the cutting edge of every black music trend from big band to nightclubs to recording. Robey started the first really successful black record company, and shrewdly profited from the death of Johnny Ace, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Xmas 1954, an event some say Robey coordinated.
MT: I confess I didn’t know a lot about the chitlin’ circuit when I started reading, but what I did know, I connected with the deep South. Were you as surprised as me to find so many roots in Indianapolis, Indiana?
PL: Hell, I didn’t either. Virtually every bit of what you see in the book was a revelation to me. I would never have guessed Indianapolis played such an important part in the story, but that’s where the research led. The process took on a life of its own and that’s how the story unfolded to me–I’d get a tip, like Sax Kari telling me about Indy kingpin Denver Ferguson, and follow it up to see where it went. Some tips didn’t go anyplace. But the book reflects the real continuity, the synergy of the chitlin’ circuit, because one figure in one place, like Don Robey in Houston, inevitably led to another, like Sunbeam Mitchell in Memphis.
MT: Many stories make the chitlin’ circuit seem like just a loose bunch of clubs strung together for concert dates, but you talk about the incricate politics and logistics that went into the building of the circuit. Is there a balance between the circuit being an opportunity for black artists and it being a place they were relegated to?
PL: It represented more opportunity than relegation. Relegation was reality and people dealt with it–didn’t like it, but dealt with it. Black artists, plus sidemen, club owners, promoters, a whole web of people, made a living on the circuit, and in some cases made a hell of a lot of money in this all-black world. And the possibility of crossing over to a white audience existed, albeit a remote one, since Blind Tom in the 19th century. But that phrase, chitlin’ circuit, carries the implication of making due–chitlins are hog intestines, in other words, what’s left after the master takes the ham, chops, and ribs. Less desirable. But as one source told me, “we took and made cuisine out of it.” That goes for the food and the music.
MT: What are you currently working on?
PL: A history of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s like a prequel for The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, focusing on a key black thoroughfare going back to the end of the Civil War and following the twisted ancestries of race, vice, politics, and music in the birthplace of the blues. The research is flipping my wig on a daily basis.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
PL: Pieces of Stanley Booth’s “Rythym Oil” get stuck in my head like a good song. Nick Tosches’s “Hellfire” is fun and as with his other work, his style evokes and echoes the subject.
Read more from Preston Lauterbach at prestonlauterbach.com.