Tag Archives: History

“Ya got no competition”

16 Jul

Sax Kari

Sax Kari's $10,000 Inscription

This book needed Sax Kari. In 2003, after meeting the glamorous, remarkable, self-proclaimed “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit,” a performer named Bobby Rush, I began telling people that I was writing a book about this chitlin’ circuit. Months piled up, but pages did not. I composed outlines and interviewed artists, but no narrative emerged, due to one rather severe obstacle—I had no idea how the circuit began and therefore, no way to begin the story.

Mercifully, a friend who would gently pose questions that opened doors throughout the life of this project, suggested that I give Sax Kari a call. When I got him on the phone, Sax laughed at the idea of me writing the history of the chitlin’ circuit. He said: “I worked for the man who invented the chitlin’ circuit.” But he welcomed me to come see him in Florida all the same, and in fall 2005, I did.

After spending a morning listening to his stories, it was quite clear that this guy had done it all to make a buck in the entertainment business: 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’d 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 Kari (r) and Rufus Thomas at WDIA in Memphis, ca. 1963

Sax had a sense of humor. He gave me a pile of old pictures of himself, hoping I could use them to help him find work. I asked him to sign one for me. Sitting there in his busted-up trailer—seriously, sun shined through cracks in the walls—he said, with maximum composure and dignity, “My signature is worth over ten thousand dollars.”

Of all Sax’s one-liners—“I’ve made love to chorus girls and movie stars, some of them wouldn’t even tell me their real names”—and tales from the hot spots, his memories of his mentor would provide the biggest breakthrough for my research. For a million years, I could have told people I was writing a book about the chitlin’ circuit and never, ever thought that it could have spun out of Indianapolis, and never known to investigate a printer turned racketeer and nightclub boss there named Denver D. Ferguson as, in Sax’s terms, “the man who invented the chitlin’ circuit.” Now, it would turn out that Denver was an inventor more in the sense that he perfected others’ innovations in the field. But the story of the circuit without Denver Ferguson would not have been complete. And this book, without Sax Kari, would have never hit the shelves.

Chitlin’ Circuit Landmark: The Bronze Peacock

10 May

Don Robey put Houston on the chitlin’ circuit map in the mid-1930s, when he operated a series of downtown nightclubs. One, the Harlem Grill, stood on W. Dallas Avenue, the Houston stroll, then the nexus of black business and culture, now an interstate on-ramp. There’s no evidence of ’30s black Houston’s pomp and prosperity, no signage, nothing.

In 1936 a reporter visited the Harlem, and found that, “Every conceivable avenue of pleasure was rampant.” Later that year, chitlin’ circuit pioneer Walter Barnes played the joint.

As black music evolved throughout WWII, Robey championed the new sound, promoting Louis Jordan’s first Southern tour, and showcasing the hard-hitting small combos that followed Jordan’s lead:

Postwar, Robey opened the most lavish nightclub black Houstonians had seen, out at the far reaches of the Fifth Ward at the corner of Erastus and Wylie. He named it the Bronze Peacock. It opened February 18, 1946.

White tablecloths, fine wine, chic grub, the place had class. It also had rooms for cards, dice, and the wheel out back. The Peacock reminded some of Las Vegas. Drummer extraordinaire Earl Palmer said the place was definitely in the desert. “At night you could look out the Peacock and see lights from another part of town,” he said. “In between was an expanse of darkness.” Of course, the Peacock also spotlighted the finest in entertainment, shake dancers, jitterbugs, and orchestras, as the opening night bill of fare shows.

It became a hub for chitlin’ circuit business people, and a laboratory for the new sounds in black music that emerged after WWII. It is one of the key locations, as Robey is a monumental figure, in The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Unlike Robey’s earlier clubs, the Peacock still stands. After housing the club for a few years, it became HQ for Robey’s chitlin’ circuit empire, including Duke-Peacock Records and the Buffalo Booking Agency, where B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, and Ike and Tina Turner worked.

It has undergone a spiritual reawakening since then—today the building holds a little church.

And a few old outbuildings still stand where Mr. Robey laid out the Bronze Peacock’s gambling dens.

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