The Chitlin’ Circuit

Before Rock and Roll in the 1950’s, before arenas began to integrate, black performers traveled what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. Not to be confused with the Chitlin’ Strut.

chitlin-circuitThe Chitlin’ Strut is a food festival. If you ever traveled through the Southeastern United States, South Carolina or more specifically, in the Aiken area, in the fall, mostly in November, the unforgettable smell of pig innards fill the air. The tiny town of Sally, South Carolina puts on the festival.  It resembles a block party. Hundreds of vendors, barbecue grills and patrons walk the small streets in search of good southern food. The Chitlin’ Circuit was about music.

The 1940’s and 50’s, in the southern United States, Mid-West and Northeast, enterprising arena owners had auditoriums and halls.  Coupled with the black media that handled publicity, mostly black businessmen filled a void.  Black, now well-known entertainers, had a place to perform. Segregated transportation, and no hotel accommodations made it difficult to make a living. Mostly in the segregated south, artists honed their skills and later moved to more hospitable areas of the country. Most of the notable black artists, bands and orchestras, traveled the circuit of large and small halls to make a living and establish a follow, get recording contracts and start their careers..

 

 

 

The Chitlin’ Circuit was big business. For example, The Ferguson Bros. They were one of biggest “black owned” talent agencies. The Ferguson’s contracted talent and even helped sell tickets. When the radio era emerged, popular on-air talent would promote shows and soon created their own gigs performing themselves.

In Detroit it was The Casino Royale, The Mozambique, The 20 Grand, Roostertail Ben’s High Chapparell, and Ethel’s the Fox Theater. In Cleveland it was Leo’s Casino, the Music Box and Geason Show Bar. Similar places existed in and around parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and other states with large black populations. In the northeast, the famed Cotton Club and Apollo theater in New York were part of the circuit.

 

In Memphis, Tennessee, a former Chrysler plant worker, left Detroit moved south and created his empire on Beale Street. Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell, grew his business of food and music. The Mitchell Hotel and the Domino Lounge, opened in 1945. Mitchell’s businesses were a important spot on the “Circuit”.  He booked “soon to be” famous entertainers like B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Richard and big band leaders like Count Basie and Nat “King” Cole. Mitchell, in later years, sold his properties and moved to Georgia.  He started the Club Paradise there. In Memphis, Mitchell was partly credited with creating the Memphis sound.

 

 

As the story goes. Jimi Hendrix originally from Seattle, Washington spent time on the “Circuit”. When he was discharged from the army at Fort Campbell Kentucky, he had only $16 in his pocket. He went back to the man he sold his guitar to and borrowed it. In Clarksville, Tennessee, Hendrix played in a band “The Casuals”. After travelling with the band, Jimi took his talents to New York’s Apollo theater. He won a talent contest but not much money, but returned to Clarksville and his old band. After a short stay in Vancouver, Canada, with his grandmother, Jimi returned to the south and got back on the “Circuit” in Mississippi.

Jimi returned to New York to try his luck again.  he met a former girlfriend of Sam Cooke, Fayne Pridgon.  Sam introduced Jimi to the Isley Brothers, they were looking for a new guitarist. The Isley’s were well known on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Hendrix played countless gigs with them until he left and went on his own in 1964. Jimi continued to grow in fame, his talents were getting noticed in the world of Rock & Roll. It was “The Circuit” that got him his start.

So many artists worked “the circuit”. Not just musicians but comedians, like Jimmie Walker, Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. The Chitlin’ Circuit has become part of mainstream history. If you happen to visit Greenville, Mississippi, a common stop on “The Circuit”, and visit the Southern Whispers Restaurant on Nelson Street, there is a Historical Marker.

Desegregated hotels, restaurants, civic centers and conference halls has changed the impact of “The Circuit”.  However, many entertainers just starting out continue to perform at the smaller locations similar to the ones on “The Circuit”.  But it’s not the same.

brook-benton“I find me a place in a box car, so I take my guitar to pass some time
Late at night when it’s hard to rest I hold your picture to my chest and I feel fine” – Brook Benton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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citations:
Soul Patrol
R & B Hall of Fame
The Commercial Appeal
The Chitlin’ Circuit, by P. Lauterbach

 

 

 

3 Comments:

  1. Never be amazed when it comes to the ingenuity of Black folks. Through countless years of derogation, we always find a way. The Chitlin’ Circuit was just another one of those ways.

  2. well tonight I listen to Brook Benton and I forgot about him also so I guess the most my last night really going into the chitlin circuit also when I got out of that I don’t know if I said this before but I as a little girl I remember my father working on the train so he would be going to the hotels in the cars so much chitlin circuit night clubs I’m quite sure he was like a hustler anyway so I do remember that it’s been a very very interesting posting more than the posting to me I enjoyed the gentleman that wrote the book in his commentary but it’s quite interesting I’m working really got out of writing this book was that he had to depreciation of the entertainers and of our music and no we were hustlers that we played numbers but that was just our culture and it wasn’t supposed to be understood by anyone else even though he wrote the book and he understood part of our culture he was never understand all of an so I want to thank you for putting the children so good out there for us all to get a historical lesson about pu thank you very than

  3. Your kind words are greatly appreciated!

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