“Easier for people to believe one innovative guy changed it all up. Harder to say that it was a dynamic process involving cultural and economic factors. That doesn’t move people. There’s no money behind a more complicated idea.”
But, complicated or not, there was a book idea, back in 2003, when Lauterbach, a former staff writer for Memphis magazine and the Memphis Flyer, hit the road — the road to rock-and-roll: the chitlin’ circuit.
Lauterbach has titled his book just that: The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll, published this month by W.W. Norton. In its pages he takes readers cross-country, from big-city ballrooms to backroad juke joints and from big bands playing swing in the 1930s to combos playing the earliest rock in the 1950s. And it took a handful of African-American businessmen (Lauterbach thinks of them as visionaries) to get it all started and keep it going (and to some extent still going): enterprising promoters and tour managers such as Denver Ferguson in Indianapolis, Don Robey in Houston, and Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell in Memphis.
Performers such as Jimmie Lunceford, Amos Milburn, Roy Brown, B.B. King, Ike Turner, Johnny Ace, Little Richard, and James Brown? The gang’s all here. But there’s more: Lauterbach’s research into how the chitlin’ circuit came into being, how the money was made, how the music was recorded and distributed, and how the talents onstage and off changed the face of American popular music.
“The chitlin’ circuit ... it’s a reference point,” Lauterbach says. “It’s part of our American glossary of cultural terms. But what does it mean? That’s the big question I tried to answer.” -- Leonard Gill