Chitlin’ Circuitry

The chitlin’ circuit could not have existed without independent black media. Local to regional black music scenes—made up of bands, dance halls, territory dance promoters, and sometimes with the aid of weak-signal radio—sprouted up throughout the country during World War I and the 1920s. It took an entrepreneurial musician-journalist, uniquely situated to understand both the black music and black media businesses, to unite every nightclub and promoter from Tulsa to Tampa under one tour route.

Walter Barnes worked as a bandleader in Chicago, beginning in the late 1920s, then joined the staff of the Chicago Defender, in September 1929. The Defender circulated throughout black America, heavily down South, bringing Barnes’ name to readers in every city and little town below the Mason-Dixon line. When he lost his plum gig conducting the houseband at Al Capone’s Cotton Club, he used this wide press exposure to create an aura for himself and an audience for his music. He tapped into the existing territory band infrastructure, uniting its local promoters and dancehalls into a larger whole. He used his column to stroke local fat cats and to help club owners attract crowds. By 1936, he was spending half the year touring the South, from November to April. In fact, Barnes modeled his circuit on the Defender’s circulation.

As the chitlin’ circuit became big business during World War II, nightclub owners and concert promoters financed the entertainment pages in their local papers, guaranteeing maximum coverage for their events, while big agencies employed press agents to flood the Associated Negro Press wire with releases about their artists’ exploits to drum up publicity. The first big chitlin’ circuit talent agency, Ferguson Bros., was particularly adept in this regard, circulating stories with headlines like “Christine Chatman Gets Hot Trumpet Player By Airplane” and “Ferguson Announces $1,000 Weekly Contract For Snook Russell.” The buzz helped sell tickets and reinforce promoters’ local fat cat status as well.

In the late 1940s, radio emerged as the black dance promoter’s most powerful tool. Artist/disc jockeys like B.B. King, who broadcast from Memphis’ WDIA beginning in 1948, were popular on-air personalities who could create demand for their gigs and advertise where they were going to play that night. King also helped his manager, Robert Henry, who doubled as a Memphis dance promoter, by spinning the records of whoever Henry had booked for upcoming concerts.

Not only have black media functioned to keep the circuit moving, but they are by far the best historical material from which we can reconstruct the times and places that the circuit has moved through. Papers like the Chicago Defender, Louisiana Weekly, Houston Informer, and Memphis Tri-State Defender carried ads for the latest touring attractions, reviews of hot records, and plenty of ambient detail on fashion and the nightlife scenes along streets that have long since perished under poverty and the bulldozer. Reading these papers gives you a vibrant sense of the times, as well as an idea of the gossip going around the craps table.

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