Our intestines are designed to absorb nutrients from food and drink. Historically, pork chitterlings (intestines) empowered kindred spirits. Traveling funk called “Chitlin’ Circuit” empowered the soul.
If you turn your nose up in disgust when you see the word “chitlin,” I can’t say I blame you. But for many household artists we know today, chitlins, collard greens, and a side of cornbread served as post-performance payment. African Americans created the “Chitlin’ Circuit” to share their talents with those willing to give them a chance to exercise their entrepreneurial spirit. Who could pass up on the opportunity to witness these entertainers and countless others?
|Sam Cooke||Ray Charles||Duke Ellington||Etta James|
|Ike & Tina Turner||Redd Foxx||Gladys Knight & the Pips||Billie Holiday|
|Muddy Waters||The Jackson 5||Richard Pryor||Tyrone Davis|
|Little Richard||The Temptations||Ella Fitzgerald||Marvin Gaye|
|Sammy Davis Jr.||B.B. King||Flip Wilson||Chuck Berry|
|Bobby Bland||Clarence Carter||Otis Redding||Johnnie Taylor|
|Betty Wright||Count Basie||Dorothy Dandridge||Lena Horne|
Chitlin’ Circuit venues were found in the South, Midwest, and as far north as the “Black Mecca” (Harlem). Civil unrest and racial tensions forced Circuit entertainers to literally step out on the stage. As Blues legend and “King of the Chitlin Circuit” recalls, “I remember 1951 playing in clubs behind a curtain because they didn’t want to see my face, but they wanted to hear my music.” Such treatment led African American entertainers to take their show on the road, earning respect and fanfare from fans and new listeners.
These artists experienced difficulties and complications unfamiliar to today’s stars. They often played six nights a week, spent months away from family, and constantly faced discrimination during travel. (I’m sure Victor Green’s Negro Motorist Green Book came in handy). The unity among these budding stars led to the creation of safe entertainment venues across the country. I’m pretty sure occasional moonshine, peer to peer desires, and greased palms were part of the mix.
While in Baton Rouge one summer, I visited a juke joint called Teddy’s. It took me not time to envision what life was like for entertainers and audience members. The small venue and the oppressive humidity so typical of a Louisiana summer painted a picture in my mind I won’t soon forget: images of young boys attempting to sneak a peek inside a packed building to get a glimpse of B.B. King playing “Lucille” and tearful young women watching Tina Turner and her “best legs in show business.”
Contrary to popular opinion, recordings by many of these artists did not emerge from a studio, but were created from live, on-stage performances. These recordings captured a craft mastered over a lifetime by artists who could not imagine the lives of today’s stars. The Chitlin’ Circuit fostered unity, famed personalities, household names, opposition to social aggression, resiliency, and timeless music. African American entertainers today owe a great debt to the artists of the Chitlin’ Circuit, proving to the world who really put the “E” in entertainment. Yeah. We did that!