Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to interview some of the great soul and blues artists that traveled the Chitlin' Circuit. For those of you who have not heard of the circuit, it was the string of performance venues throughout the eastern and southern United States that were safe and acceptable for African-American musicians to perform during the age of racial segregation in the United States through the 1960s.
Their descriptions of life experiences on the circuit were full of warm rich moments on stage as well as moments of frustration and pain when they had to go hungry or sleep in cars because there was no place for them to eat or sleep. After a performance, the band always walked out into the audience and shook their hands and told them how much they appreciated them coming to hear them play. After that, all the bands on the card would return to the stage and jam with each other until almost dawn. The diehard audiences would often hang around and listen to the musicians who were now playing for the love of the music and the respect for each other. They tell me that the after hour jam sessions were sometimes better than the performances as they experimented with each other's styles and learned songs from one another. Although these groups competed with each other for slots on a nightly show card, they were also brothers and sisters in a bigger musical family. The folks that I interview speak of the camaraderie of the road with a small upturn to their lips and a twinkle of the eye.
Some of the best known venues on the Chitlin' Circuit were the Royal Peacock in Atlanta; the Cotton Club, Small's Paradise and the Apollo Theater in New York City; Robert's Show Lounge, Club DeLisa and the Regal Theater in Chicago; the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.; the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia; the Royal Theater in Baltimore; the Fox Theater in Detroit; the Victory Grill in Austin, Texas; the Hippodrome Theater in Richmond, Virginia; and the Ritz Theater in Jacksonville, Florida. The song "Tuxedo Junction" was written about a stop along the Chitlin' Circuit in Birmingham, Alabama.
Many notable soul and blues performers and bands started on the Chitlin' Circuit; Count Basie, George Benson, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, Sammy Davis, Jr., Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5, Billy Scott and the Prophets, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Lena Horne, Etta James, B. B. King, Patti LaBelle, The Delfonics, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, Ike & Tina Turner, The Four Tops, The Isley Brothers, The Supremes, The Temptations, Tammi Terrell and Muddy Waters, just to name a few. Many of those performers are gone now but the rest still talk about their memories of the circuit.
These days, some performers in the traditional theater circuit criticize the old Chitlin’ Circuit as being a throwback to bad times, but I think they forget that the Circuit was the incubator that carried blues and soul through a period when this uniquely American art form could have been snuffed out. And if it had, the music scene we have today would look very different. Blues and soul came together with country and bluegrass to form rock and roll back in the 50s. Even the artists from the British Invasion were heavily influenced by blues and soul.
So now, I sit in the sun filled control room at WUSC – FM talking with a blues or soul artist on the phone. They tell stories from a different place and time to my audience and me. These are stories of trial and tribulation on the road, stories of joy and happiness on stage, stories of fulfillment after hours, jamming with each other, writing the soundtracks of our lives. Oh MY!