Unlike the vast majority of popular music historians today, first-time book author Preston Lauterbach admirably resists the temptations of “fan club worship”—complexly detailed biographies of popular entertainers— and “the new academia”—the same thing, but with impenetrable technical jargon. Instead, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll offers a colorfully rich portrait of the music business kingpins who rose to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s during a time of dramatic social and economic transformation. Radio supplanted vaudeville, black jazz morphed into white swing, and an emerging record industry helped spread the sounds of multiple strains of American popular music.
Taking up the role previously played by the Theater Owners Booking Association, these seminal entrepreneurs devised a new and more flexible economic strategy that selectively targeted the production of live performances in a seemingly endless string of black urban venues and back-country juke joints. They adapted the “jazz orchestra” model into smaller, more-informal units that began to shift their attention from snappy big-band arrangements to charismatic lead performers and especially compelling lead vocalists.
This new entertainment network came to be known informally as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” and it featured such artists as Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles, Little Richard, James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, and even Jimi Hendrix. Remarkably, the inherent structure of the Chitlin’ Circuit survived the 1950s’ rise to dominance of the modern recording industry and has remained relatively intact, primarily in the Deep South, where in the 1970s and 1980s it produced a new generation of Southern soul artists, including Little Milton, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Bobby Rush, all part of an underground African-American music scene that continues to evolve to this day.
The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll is a highly entertaining and enormously informative contribution to modern American history, and is especially notable for the author’s ability to bring colorful characters to life and place them in the larger context of social change and evolving urban history. New Orleanians will especially appreciate whole chapters devoted to Roy Brown and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, as well as multiple descriptions of The Dew Drop Inn, not to mention the likely origins in the Crescent City’s drag queen subculture of both Louis Jordan’s classic “Caldonia” and Professor Longhair’s “She Ain’t Got No Hair.”
The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll does what more books about American popular music ought to do—it connects the music to what the author rightly describes as the “non-musical forces” within which the music evolved and then developed into new forms of expression, thereby influencing the larger American popular culture.