Payola bagman, stand-up comedy second banana, composer of blaxploitation film soundtrack—for The $6,000 Nigger to be precise—emcee, leader of a big band, record producer, and talent broker, for starters. He worked in virtually every city relevant to 20th century American music, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami, and New York, and in every genre from swing to hip-hop. Sax was always one step shy of brilliance and fame, unlocked the story of the circuit, and I named my son after him.
Chicago Defender band columnist, glamorous band leader, protected by Al Capone, the “Midget Maestro” enthralled both newspaper readers and audiences across the country. He sensed opportunity in the world beyond Chicago, and after Capone’s strength waned, Barnes used his Defender platform to explore it. The Chitlin’ Circuit explains, for the first time, Barnes crucial role as a pioneer of one of the most important institutions of American popular music.
The Chitlin’ Circuit details how this racketeer brought the chitlin’ circuit to its maximum operational power, running a dozen bands in cycles throughout black America. He developed an intricate web of concert promoters and black nightclub owners, while also training barbers and bartenders to promote his shows in, as he explained, “non-descript places, where the tax man won’t be counting heads at the door,” much as he had cultivated numbers runners to make him rich on the streets of Indianapolis. The taxman eventually caught up to him, as did international scandal.
Lunceford’s talent was rated swing aristocracy—his Harlem Express band took over Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club residency in 1934, after Calloway had bumped Ellington. But Lunceford bristled at syndicate business practices. He pulled out of the Cotton Club and took his topflight orchestra on tour through the Deep South’s little Cotton Clubs. Lunceford brought star power and new promotional tactics to the chitlin’ circuit, but perhaps his most enduring legacy is as an a music educator who nurtured some of Memphis’s most important musicians.
Louis Jordan is one of the more grossly misunderstood artists in American music. Not that he’s overlooked. He is in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It’s that the writers of music history describe him either as a novelty act—many of his lyrics are clever or funny, and all are delivered silvery smooth—or an exponent of the fictitious genre jump blues. Let’s get this straight: Louis Jordan was the key figure in the transformation of American pop from big band swing to small band rock ‘n’ roll.