Tag Archives: Chitlin’ Circuit
28 Dec

Reviews of The Chitlin’ Circuit

 The Wall Street Journal Top Ten Non-Fiction books of 2011

The Boston Globe Top Non-Fiction books of 2011

An NPR Best Music Book of 2011

An Onion AV Club Best Book of 2011

“Lauterbach traces the vibrant history of the ‘chitlin’ circuit’ – the dance halls, juke joints and night clubs that catered to black audiences and flourished in the South for two decades beginning in the 1930s.” Ihsan Taylor, The New York Times

“Mr. Lauterbach uncovers a story as sensational as any day-glo circuit-show poster…The era’s hepcat lingo (‘ork’ for orchestra, ‘ofay’ for ‘white’) and hard-boiled, noir ambience give Mr. Lauterbach a tune he can carry….the book is at heart a well-researched valentine to a lost world of seedy con men, promoters and club owners, the power brokers and hustlers who made the ‘circuitry spark.’ ” Eddie Dean, The Wall Street Journal

“A major achievement and an important contribution to American musical history.” June Sawyers,  Booklist, Starred review

“Crucial….spirited, studious, surprising, occasionally hilarious—is absolutely persuasive on its subject.” Stephen M. Deusner, Paste Magazine

“Preston Lauterbach’s rollicking, radiant new book plumbs the music’s deep black roots, providing an important historical corrective….Lauterbach spins the tale with enormous vitality and it’s terribly fun to read.” Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

“This sprawling, fascinating history drops readers into a chaotic, dangerous, utterly vanished world. It turns out to be more vibrant than the standard rock ‘n’ roll mythology. The true dawn of rock lit a landscape in which timeless music got made thanks to every vice and virtue imaginable. Now that’s America.”   John Repp, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Highly recommended….relishes the criminal origins of the mostly southern black club scene from the early ’30s to the late ’60s
….a coherent, musically savvy history of a performance culture that until now was known only piecemeal.” Robert Christgau, Salon.com and  Barnes and Noble Review

“Lauterbach’s tribute to [the chitlin’ circuit] is welcome and overdue.” Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Vivid characterizations and killer storytelling chops…. first-class entertainment…. the wild characters who built and lived in the twilight world of mid-century black American nightclubs come alive on the page….The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll is the genius prequel to an oft-told epic. As Lauterbach puts it in the book’s introduction, the story of America’s most influential creation begins “not with an old song, but with a lost world.” With this book, that world again comes to life.” Alison Fenterstock, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Lauterbach has written the definitive history of the musical back roads and back rooms of the southern United States…. a great read, well written and insightful. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the seedy history of American popular music.”  Library Journal, Starred review

“Lauterbach’s writing is as energetic as a Little Richard song (a performer who started on the chitlin’ circuit and crossed over to national fame)…. a rocking read and a deserving tribute to the people and places who were the foundations of rock and roll.” Publisher’s Weekly 

“Remarkable….a complex, multi-layered story, and a lot — probably most — of the names won’t be familiar to modern readers. But the stories are gripping, and The Chitlin’ Circuit illuminates a period of American musical history that’s long needed it.” Ed Ward, NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross

“The book is stuffed with sweat, sin, grit and greed, the general ambiance is one of celebration, thrills, and even nostalgia. Lauterbach’s hard-boiled hipster style, verging on noir, brings to life the visceral kick of the musicians’ playing, while providing a thorough, deep history that must have been a monumental labor of love….With terrific writing, thorough reporting, and great firsthand stories, Lauterbach produced a book that will no doubt become an essential part of the American music history canon. Beyond the book’s academic credentials, it’s also a big, fun read.” John Grooms, Creative Loafing

“A keen stylist, loquacious and hard-boiled.” “Preston Lauterbach is vivid, salty, and keen-eared, and he’s rewritten rock history from the bottom up, doing deep research on a hugely important topic.” Michaelangelo MatosThe Onion AV Club

“Riveting… one of the best music books I’ve read in ages. Can’t recommend it too highly.” Word Magazine

“Want to know how to shoot craps with loaded dice? How to pick a pocket? How to work a short con? Just ask Memphis journalist Preston Lauterbach.” Roger HahnGambit

“Lauterbach has created a noir-like detective story that brings the reader into the shadowy past to locate his subjects in back rooms, where deals were often closed or nullified with firearms and careers were made or destroyed. This intensively researched, slyly humorous, and appealing book should have been written years ago, as it fills a knowledge gap in American musical history.” Michael Cala, New York Journal of Books

“A fact-studded and exhaustively researched book.” David Kirby, The Christian Science Monitor

“Alright snobs, let’s go. You think you know where rock ‘n roll came from because you like The Beatles and Elvis? Well let me tell you what, Jack, you don’t know shit. The Chitlin’ Circuit tells the story of real rock ‘n roll from its roots in big band swing and country tunes, how it was fostered in black neighborhood “strolls” and pumped up by crime-sponsored media and how financial concerns brought the mob and black worlds together to support ever-smaller bands, setting the standard for your beloved Beatles.” Garrett Cosgrave, Dig Boston

“Thanks to Lauterbach’s enthusiastic appreciation the once-lost history of the chitlin’ circuit has now been reverently recaptured.” Robert H. CataliottiAARP The Magazine



All Things Considered

NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook

Soundcheck on WNYC

Voice of America News (2nd half of show)

BookTalk on WYPL

KPBS San Diego

WWNO New Orleans



The Southern Literary Review

The Commercial Appeal

On Isaac Hayes’ 70th: Remembering Currie’s Club Tropicana and Isaac Hayes’ debut

20 Aug

Memphis music geography centers on Beale Street downtown, but blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul have spilled out onto Thomas Street in the section of North Memphis called New Chicago since before WWII. It manages to stay well-hidden from the rest of the city– it’s not on the approved list of tourist attractions despite a rich history.

Urban renewal smashed Beale, but never reached Thomas. The clubs on the strip today are in buildings constructed in the 1920s, which give the place an even more authentic feel. Thomas Street boasts a bounty of cultural treasure, from the vacant site of American Recording Studio at 827, to civil rights activist and fire barber Warren Lewis’ salon at 887, the beautiful One Block North juke joint at Thomas and Marble Avenue, on up to CC Blues Club at 1427. Isaac Hayes called the neighborhood home while a student at New Chicago’s Manassas High School, off Thomas Street on Firestone Avenue.

In the middle of these stories sits the site of Currie’s Club Tropicana at 1331 Thomas, pictured at left. The brick building here was built in 1951, though a frame building at the same address held the club prior to that. Johnnie Currie ruled the North Memphis night from 1946 to the 1970s, with the exception of a five year period spent on Beale.

Currie’s club hosted big-time touring R&B acts like Fats Domino, Louis Jordan, Bill Doggett, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Ray Charles, Little Junior Parker. “Mr. Currie brought the biggest,” recalled drummer Howard Grimes, who joined the Currie’s houseband in the late 1950s.

The Ernest Withers photos at right give us a glimpse inside Currie’s. They appeared in the August 15, 1955 addition of the Memphis Tri-State Defender.

In addition to Grimes, the houseband included tenor sax player Emerson Able, alto Floyd Newman, trumpeter Herman Green, bassist Robert McGee, pianist Eddie Jones, guitarist Clarence Nelson, and leader Ben Branch.

Currie’s is also remembered as the location of an auspicious debut. “Ben Branch didn’t like Isaac Hayes for some reason,” Grimes remembers. “Isaac was in the house and asked Ben would he let him sing, and Ben wouldn’t let him. Word got to Mr. Currie, and he got on Ben’s case. When we took a break, I saw them arguing in the kitchen. Currie told Ben if he wouldn’t let Isaac sing, he wouldn’t have a job. I’ll never forget the song Isaac sang that night, Brook Benton’s ‘Just a Matter of Time.’ We had been practicing because Brook Benton to come to town. They called Isaac up to sing and he brought the house down. It turned his life around. Everybody was talking about it the next day.”

Currie left his club around 1965 to run the Hippodrome at 500 Beale Street. He sold to Clyde Hopkins, a former member of the W.C. Handy orchestra, and Hopkins’ mother “Big Baby,” who ran roadhouses in Tunica, Mississippi while raising her son. “My mother would run the cafe, and cook,” recalls Hopkins. “I had every musician that you can name to play there. You had to call them and book them. You got to pay them a guarantee. I named it Club El Morocco. Back then, anyone getting $1,000 to $1,200 was getting good money. We had seating capacity of 1400. Most of the time I used Ted Taylor as my houseband, you ever hear of him? He sang and played a little guitar. He got killed in a car wreck.”

Currie came back around 1970, purchased the club back from Hopkins and uptowned the name:

Currie died, probably in 1979, a year after his wife Suzie passed.

The creativity still flows through 1331 Thomas Street. Today the club Johnnie Currie built houses the studio of artist Nelson Smith III. He creates giant plaster sculptures and molds for fiberglass statues, a trade he learned as the fiberglass sculptor of Shoney’s Big Boy mascots in the area. When I last visited, Nelson was working on modifying a Pontiac Firebird with plaster to resemble a DeLorean.

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