The Preston Lauterbach Interview:
Cultural Innards of the Chitlin' Circut
By James Calemine
Preston Lauterbach's first book--The Chitlin' Circut And The Road to Rock 'N' Roll-- traverses new ground in the history of American music literature. The definitive book outlines the origin of the music underworld of black America from the 1930s into the 1970s called 'the chitlin circut'.
Lauterbach follows the chitlin circut everywhere from Houston, Texas, to Jacksonville, Florida, and all points in between on this musical journey as well as providing essential details regarding the cultural purveyors, musicians and hustlers of each city. I wrote this last week about The Chitlin Circut:
"The book illuminates the sociological and economic backdrop of our country during segregation, World War II, the Civil Rights movement and the innovative ways these cultural purveyors generated revenue. Lauterbach documents the founding fathers of 'The Circut' like Denver Ferguson from Indianapolis, Don Robey in Houston, Walter Burns of Chicago, Clint Bradley from Macon, and how they created an economy outside white America. Lauterbach traces musical roots, musicians and the financiers in the slippery and lucrative Chitlin Circut operations.
"These close-to-the-bone stories reveal lives of the trailblazers on the chitlin circut that composed a coordinated tour of sawdust ballrooms, dice parlors, juke joints and neighborhood bars throughout the south and beyond. This book describes in detail the societal intersections of business, vice and entertainment that shaped American music. The clubs in the South allowed musicians to perform, eventually record albums and maybe get heard on the radio. By reading this book, you're running with the real pioneers and outlaws of black American music..."
In this Swampland interview, Preston Lauterbach dicusses his inspiration for this book, the chitlin culture and circut musicians including James Brown and Little Richard. Lauterbach also reveals a few facts regarding the new book he's writing about Beale Street.
James Calemine: I want to congratulate you Preston, The Chitlin' Circut is a great book...
Preston Lauterbach: Thank you James--I appreciate it. It was fun to do. I'd do it again tomorrow if I could.
JC: When did you think about writing a book about the chitlin circut?
PL: I really got into learning about the chiltin circut while working at Living Blues. I did some editorial work there. I was an intern, and it went on for a long time. I liked being there and what was going on. One of the things that went on was I met Bobby Rush. I was doing a feature interview on him in the summer of 2003. And James, up until that point I was a white boy blues nerd. My whole perspective about blues was that lineage--Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Albert King, B.B. King--all that stuff. There's not a lot happening in that anymore. Most of the fans of it are white. It was a dying thing and not really doing that well in the black world. So then I met Bobby Rush. I rode in his van for an afternoon in the summer with his dancers telling me about everything.
They did two shows--one, the Willie Clayton Homecoming show in Mississippi, which was packed. It was an all black crowd. It was a different scene to me. It opened my eyes. It really knocked me on my head about what the blues was because Bobby and all his people called this the blues. He played that night in a nightclub in Arkansas. It was the same thing. It was packed. The white scene is great--it's about history and reverence. But being with Bobby Rush doing two shows a day, and seeing the audience in a nightclub was totally different and it blew me away.
That's what inspired me to start asking questions about the chitlin circut. Where does it come from? Who is operating it? Who is pulling the strings? Over the course of a couple of years I started from one person to the other to get closer to the history of it. My historical background of being able to do research and being interested in that stuff goes way back all the way to childhood and throughout my education. That's what I always loved. I love old buildings. I love the way they smell and look. I love those fading Coca-Cola signs--that stuff speaks to me. That impulse and just the curiosity if the chitlin circut was something that was so unexplored as far as white journalists go.
JC: How long did it take to write The Chitlin' Circut?
PL: Well, I wrote it exclusively for about a year and a half, but I researched it on and off for about four or five years before that. All in all it was about an 8 year process from meeting Bobby Rush to the book coming out.
JC: I really enjoyed the Macon and Memphis parts of the book. What was the toughest part about writing it?
PL: I don't know. That's tough. It was all equally pleasurable and challenging. I'll put it to you this way--all the characters challenged me. You can write what happened or what somebody said, but you have to think about their background and how their minds work. In the space of one book think about how a black racketeer had to function in segregation. To curry white favor, manage his racket and think creatively and have a vision beyond his realm. Louis Jordan was a genius. To have to think about 'How did he come up with that?' Questions of what drives a musical genius. It was challenging, and I liked that aspect of it. In terms of the greatest pleasures--it was great working with Denver Ferguson and Sax Kari. Understanding those undocumented hustles...
Now you can Google it, but those guys are not applauded as great men in their cities. Learning about them and figuring out how they dealt with challenges and hostility as well as how they circumvented operating illegally while developing talent and a business model was just remarkable. I wondered how much they made up as they went along or how much they planned. Of course, there's a certain amount of planning, but then you don't know how much of it was adjustment on the fly.
JC: You've been out on a little book tour, which is good...
PL: Yeah, I really like the book tour thing. I like meeting people and talking to them. More than anything, I enjoy hearing people's questions. I just get up and lay some things out for them and say 'What do you want to know?' It's a topic that generates a lot of curiosity. It's fun.
JC: It's interesting that even jazz guys like John Coltrane knew about the chitlin circut.
PL: I don't think any musician was above it, except maybe Duke Ellington, but if you're talking about Coltrane and being a side-man, he had to find a band. Obviously being a visionary and trying to do his own thing is very hard to make money at. Yeah, a lot of these guys we know as visionaries had to become part of a swing band or rhythm & blues band before they could go off on their own. There's a Memphis guy, Charles Lloyd--he's a psychedelic musician, almost like Ornette Coleman--he's a far out flute player you might hear in San Francisco and New York avant garde clubs, but you'd never think he knew about the chitlin circut, but of course he knew...
JC: The James Brown-Little Richard rivalry interested me in the book.
PL: What's cool about that material is it's a little more about the music opposed to the underworld of the scene. The music drove the scene, and it drove the book. Getting into characters like Little Richard and James Brown was interesting to learn they were nipping at each other's heels in the piney-woods clubs in the mid-50s. The same hustler in Macon--Clint Brantley--brought them both up. What Brantley did better than the other kingpins was Brantley really got them ready. He cultivated them. He put Richard in situations that would cause him to grow as a performer.
Richard was basically a blues singer. He did his drag queen shtick, but that was the typical opening stuff on the chitlin' circut. But, that wasn't going to distinguish him in any way. Brantley really got Richard to flourish and put him in all kinds of situations like night clubs, head to head competitions with Amos Milburn and testing him. It was almost like a baseball farm league. Brantley made the connection for James Brown to record. What's crazy about it too was Clint Bradley was the one who put James Brown out in front of The Famous Flames. He put James Brown's picture on all of the concert posters that advertised the group. Brantley dubbed them as James Brown and The Famous Flames. Brantley understood talent and he knew what to do with it.
JC: Are any of these old clubs still standing in Macon?
PL: Well, yes and no. Little Richard's house that he grew up in is still there. All of the night club addresses were published in the black section of the newspaper from those days. Naturally, I cruised around, but I really didn't find any of them. Downtown was in bad shape in those days, but they had two main streets--I think it's 3rd and 4th, or 4th and 5th--I can't remember, but one of them was Broadway. One of Clint Bradley's places is where the Georgia Music Hall of Fame sits.
JC: It's called Martin Luther King Boulevard now, but not then...
PL: ...You're right. That was one of the main strolls. Broadway ran parallel to it. Bradley's last club--The King of Spades or something--is still there. It looks bombed out. It's on the edge of one of those numbered streets near the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. It's where the river and the railroad tracks bend together on the edge of one of those numbered streets.
JC: What's your next book about?
PL: Well, I'm writing one about Beale Street. It's going to run from right after the Civil War on up to the early 1970s when Beale Street really was torn down and locked up. Before it was re-opened in its current vision of the tourist destination with no black involvement whatsoever. It has the same elements of the underworld like The Chitlin' Circut....a lot of drugs, voodoo, liquor and great music...
JC: Everyone's favorite topics...(collective laughter)
PL: ...I like them anyway. There's more Civil Rights stuff in the Beale Street book because that's where it all went down. So, there's more of that and there will be less music than The Chitlin' Circut...
JC: There's still some great Memphis musicians and all the STAX stuff for the book...
PL: Yeah, that's what's screwed up about it. When the street was torn down, part of the justification of it was the area was bankrupt and there was nothing going on, but that's not true. All of those soul guys--William Bell, Booker T and a lot of the names that come up under STAX, started on Beale Street in the early 60s. It was still musically fruitful when it was torn down...