The early blues singers, especially those performing before World War II, had a tough time finding places to play because segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented them from getting gigs at white establishments, for the most part. However, there were black juke joints and some white establishments which were sympathetic to such black performers. At the white establishments, the rule was that they could play their music, but were not allowed to stay on the premises afterwards. This spread of establishments was loosely known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”
Defining the Chitlin’ Circuit in greater detail can be a daunting task, but the online site Reverb did as good a job as any: “In an era when African Americans sat at the back of the bus and were banned from ‘Whites Only’ establishments, the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit flourished. Driven by the entrenched racial segregation of the Jim Crow era, the circuit gave comics like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor their first shots at infamy and it provided playwrights like August Wilson with an engaged audience. It also gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll music.”
Named after an African-American dish prepared from fried pig intestines, the Chitlin’ Circuit started off in the 1920s in Indianapolis, Indiana but quickly spread nationwide. To name all the various jukes that formed the circuit in the state of Texas is a task beyond the scope of this blog. There were many such jukes in the Brazos Valley and circuit pubs in Houston, Dallas and Austin, the last-named being known as the live music capital of Texas. The Victory Grill in Austin is one of the few still remaining intact.
The early circuit featured mostly local blues singers, but shortly after the end of WWII, a different kind of sound started to emanate from these small shacks calling themselves juke joints (they usually had a juke box for music when live musicians weren’t playing). This new brand of music was later named “rock ‘n’ roll” by a Pittsburgh-based disk jockey named Alan Freed, or at least he was the first to widely circulate the term.
“The circuit gave the architects of blues-fueled rock ‘n’ roll their start – icons like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers – in predominantly southern, black-only nightclubs. Even Gladys Knight performed in a house band on the circuit early in her career, playing at what she called ‘roadside joints and honky tonks’ across the South. No menus. No kitchens. Just a grizzly old guy selling catfish nuggets, corn fritters or pig ear sandwiches in a corner,” continued the Reverb article.
It’s hard to say with certainty when the term entered mainstream publications, but some say it was singer Lou Rawls who coined the saying. No stranger to the circuit himself, Rawls told The New York Times in a 1967 interview: “For years I played night clubs, working the Chitlin’ Circuit. These clubs were very small, very tight, very crowded and very loud. Everything was loud but the entertainment. The only way to establish communication was by telling a story that would lead into the song, that would catch people’s attention.”
Rawls definitely had a point about how pub noise, fueled by lavish drinking and dancing, tended to drown out the sound of performers on the stage. That’s mainly why performers such as Muddy Waters, and others, turned to electrified guitars and loud PA systems once technology improvements appeared on the blues (and rock) scene. A juke without a dance floor and a Wurlitzer was not going to attract any customers, but the ones who had such facilities were very loud. Having a live performer on stage was a much-appreciated bonus.
Competition to get those circuit gigs was intense. Preston Lauterbach, author of the excellent The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll explains that there were no idols or divas on the circuit. “It was a real place to be a professional musician, to learn, to grow as a performer, to evolve, to get better, to exchange ideas,” Lauterbach says. “There was no such thing as a media-made Chitlin’ Circuit star – there was no Chitlin’ Circuit idol, there was no corporation getting behind an individual. They had to get out there and kick ass every single night or they were screwed. It was a real survival-of-the-fittest type situation that forced the artist to be good, to be competitive, in order to be able to make a living.”
Bobby Rush, King of the Chitlin’ Circuit, recalls what it was like: