Archive | May, 2011

Chitlin’ Circuit Landmark: W.C. Handy Theatre

27 May

The broke-down orange building at 2535 Park in Orange Mound is one of the silent witnesses to Memphis music history. It opened in 1946 as the W.C. Handy Theatre, with investors including future Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, and blackface entertainer Chalmers Cullins to “showcase the finest in Negro entertainment,” in the language of the day. They hired longtime Beale Street band booker Robert Henry to provide said entertainment.

It opened as a black movie house, and doubled as a venue for the leading touring black rhythm and blues and jazz orchestras of the day. By the early 1950s the Handy Theatre was in hot competition with the Hippodrome, a converted roller rink down on Beale, as the top nite spot in town.

In late 1950, a local disk jock named Bee Bee King helped his manager Robert Henry fill the hall for a Lowell Fulson show by repeatedly spinning Fulson records on WDIA, the first major black radio station. Fulson asked Bee Bee what he could to reward the kindness, and Bee Bee asked permission to record one of Fulson’s older tunes. Fulson said why sure. The song “Three O’ Clock Blues” hit the top of the black record chart for that young Memphis DJ, and launched B.B. King’s career on the chitlin’ circuit.

The Handy was a launchpad for A group of Delta cats, led by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston, who stormed the theater in early April 1951, just as their Memphis-made hit “Rocket 88” went stratosphere. Ads for the show promised, “WE ARE GONNA TEAR THE HOUSE DOWN.” With support from white DJ Dewey Phillips and attention in the white daily Commercial Appeal, the tune became a hit on both sides of the tracks. The group played white and colored shows at the Handy.

The poster below advertised a big revue featuring the great Wynonie Harris in a “Battle of the Blues” taking place April 4, 1953.

This was also a transitional moment in black comedy. Check out the lower right of the ad. “Crackshot” is a black blackface comedian, complete with white lip outlines. Looks like he fell off a minstrel show in 1890. The name below is that of a slightly more modern comedy stylist, a young fellow named Ray Moore from over in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. The world would come to know him as Dolemite. He was about 25 at the time of this show, and yet to make a name for himself, so to speak. As you can see, the Handy hosted special shows for the white audience as well.

The Handy indeed hosted the finest in African-American entertainment, and did so weekly. In early ’53 alone, Little Esther Phillips, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Lloyd Price, and Ivory Joe Hunter played the Handy.

The Handy Theatre became the Showcase Lounge in the late 1960s and, yes, showcased many of Memphis’ soul acts like the Bar-Kays. Today the building is full of holes and pigeons. Here’s what’s left of the old man now.

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Vice: Financing the Chitlin’ Circuit

20 May

While the circuit relied on black media for publicity, it received much of its operating revenue through the vice industry.

Drinking in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott. Library of Congress

Circuit pioneer Walter Barnes got his start leading the band at Al Capone’s Cotton Club, pre-Depression, when Capone was one of several underworld supporters of swing.

The vice-chitlin’ circuit correlation went two ways with Denver Ferguson. Gambling both funded his chitlin’ circuit venture and influenced its conduct. Ferguson got rich operating a numbers racket in Indianapolis, and financed his talent agency, Ferguson Bros., with the proceeds. As the first real circuit mogul, running up to a dozen bands simultaneously throughout a network of under-kingpins across the map, Ferguson designed the circuit to function like his street lottery. He cultivated show promoters all over black America, who funneled the gate receipts of Ferguson’s band’s shows back to the boss. The numbers and circuit economy both worked on cumulative wealth.

As for the law, Denver developed a graft pay scale, correlating the amount of a police officer’s bribe to the officer’s rank. Elsewhere, protection payments and publicity-stunt raids kept the dice rolling.

Playing Skin, Sunbeam Mitchell’s game of choice, 1941. Marion Post Wolcott. Library of Congress

Down in Houston, a Ferguson promoter named Don Robey ran a series of nightclubs that paid entertainers, but made their profits on liquor, cards, and dice. He became the most successful black record company owner, while exerting powerful influence behind the scenes to promote the small band blues that evolved into rock ‘n’ roll.

From Memphis, Tennessee, formidable nightclub owner Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell operated a multi-state goodtime empire, selling whiskey, women, and song from his Beale Street base throughout rural west Tennessee and down into Mississippi. Beginning in the late 1940s, he used emerging talents like Johnny Ace as his modern day medicine show pitchmen to draw crowds to buy his half-pints. Sunbeam himself was a championship card player, traveling around the South with fellow nightclub boss Harold “Hardface” Clanton, to play in Skin tournaments against other black playboys.

Complicit police? 1941. Marion Post. Library of Congress.

While the music biz has often been compared to organized crime, or said to be akin to it, they were basically one and the same on the chitlin’ circuit.

The Chitlin’ Circuit explores this underreported dynamic, spotlighting the importance of the underworld to the black pop music world.

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