Chitlin' Circuit

Meet the performers who bring their own, unapologetic brand of "grown folks" blues to life, one show at a time.



The seven-piece band clad in matching plaid suits with three-quarter-length boxback jackets looks like a doo-wop group that might pimp a little on the side. The trumpet, trombone, and sax players blow and point their horns skyward. They blast the first note. The organist holds his down. The drummer patters the cymbal like a rainstorm. The emcee commands the crowd to put its hands together. They do, though it's hard to hear. The singer strides onstage from behind the curtain, a glittering gold boot on one foot, a silvery one on the other. His black velvet suit glints with rhinestones. The glitter spreads out to diamond-clustered fingers. All of them. His curls glisten down and tickle his shoulders. The drenching sweat completes the effect of total incandescence. A shriek goes up, and a small legion of big women rush the stage with arms raised and open like they"re chasing a bridal bouquet. This is the chitlin' circuit.

The "chitlin' circuit" sounds like something that's gone, and with good reason. After all, the name itself derives from the "soul food" of chitterlings (fried pig intestines) that was a staple at early performances. But from CC Blues Club on Thomas Street to the Cannon Center downtown, thousands of Memphis music fans flock to hear stars like Marvin Sease and Bobby Rush sing what's too risqué for radio play, and to watch dancers shake what's too big for TV. That's both the beauty of the chitlin' circuit and the reason for its survival. While its roots run back to racial segregation, it thrives today because performers give audiences what they can't get through mainstream media. It's called "grown folks music," and it's all in the name of the blues.

"Not even a category for what we do."

The typical show features multiple acts, including artists known to fans as "Candylicker," "The Stand Up In It Man," and "The Bad Boy of Southern Soul." Most acts go revue-style with horn sections, synthesizers, and choreography added to the bass, guitar, and drums. In March 2006, a "Blues Bash" at the Cannon Center offered a little something for everyone. Sir Charles Jones, a singer in his twenties, frenzied the young ladies with his new song "Drop That Thang." Shirley Brown, whose career began with Stax in the Seventies, slow-rolled the crowd with her latest, "I Got to Sleep With One Eye Open," an ode to her insatiable man. Bobby Rush, a performer of indeterminate age and interminable vim, strutted the stage singing his newest hit in a 40-year recording career, "Night Fishin,"" a ditty minimally concerned with angling, despite the title.

Meanwhile, an old friend recognized the night's headliner backstage. "Marvin," she asked, "You remember me from Club Paradise?"

Marvin Sease, known as "Candylicker" and "Motel Lover" after his hit song titles, smiled and nodded. As the woman passed by, the nod became a shudder. He rolled his eyes, and explained a dilemma of working the circuit.

"You got people on the mainstream -- you see this crowd today? -- that just don"t think we draw the kind of numbers that we do," he said. "They're dead wrong. Right now, we're doing as good or better than some of the mainstream acts are doing. We just are not being recognized. There ain't even a category for what we do. We're considered blues singers, but we're really not all downhome blues singers. I would rather be classified as a soul, rhythm and blues singer. The new trend they got now, they're calling us Southern soul, but I do 30 to 40 percent of my shows out east and up north. How can you consider me a Southern singer?"

The chitlin" circuit audience embodies the term "all ages." Like the artists on the bill, the grown folks in the seats range from young adults to senior citizens.

"I think I draw a tremendous amount of young people," Sease said. "They say, "Oh, this is the blues, I didn't know the blues sounded like that."" Decked out in snakeskin boots, billowing rayon blouses, leopard-print dresses, pink pleated pants, and a variety of hats, the grown folks differ from what other blues fans look like, too. None of the Hawaiian shirt, sandal/sock combos one glimpses at the blues festivals in Clarksdale, Mississippi, or Helena, Arkansas. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is a regular, and most of the audience is of his generation.

Grown folks" lyrics deal with romantic themes. Heroes like Johnnie Taylor sang to the working man's fears and insecurities. His 1971 hit "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone" brought back a folk anti-hero, Jody, from the WWII era. While the soldiers fought and died overseas, Jody stayed behind in what was derisively labeled the "home guard." Listen to Taylor's "Jody" now, and you"ll notice the distinct march cadence in the chorus: "Ain't no use in going home, Jody's got your girl and gone." Jody pops up in more songs than John Henry and the steam shovel. Marvin Sease slips into the character in "Candylicker" and "I"m Mr. Jody," Bobby Rush sings his praises in "Wearing It Out," and Mr. David warns, "Jody's Creeping." A singer named Ms. Jody has recently come on the scene, courtesy of Memphis' own Ecko Records, to provide a fairer perspective.

Bobby Rush (a stage name, pronounced as one word) has thrilled audiences with his "folk funk" branded wit and a dance troupe that would stir up Sir Mix-A-Lot. Unlike many of his circuit peers, he has courted the separate black and white blues audiences, attempting to satisfy both, while remaining true to his mantra of "crossover, not cross out." More than any other artist working the circuit today, Rush exemplifies a legacy in black entertainment. Growing up in Arkansas in the Forties and Fifties, his most profound influence was Arkansan Louis Jordan, whose vibrant showmanship and clever lyrics broke the musical mold of the big band era. Like Jordan, Rush evokes rural imagery in his songs, and more often than not ends up the butt of his own jokes.

"What I do is a black thing," he said. "At the beginning of B.B. King's career it never crossed his mind that there was gonna be a white audience today. He was just doing like I am now. Do what you do for the audience that will listen to you."

What he does on stage is "almost like two lovers watching an X-rated movie. I sell myself to the lady that's into me, who wishes she had me. Then I put the dancing girls on stage, where the men can say, "Baby, I wish that was you." My whole thing is about a story and a dialogue from the time I walk out on stage until the time I leave," he said. "Everything is thought out thoroughly." Right down to the costume changes, talking booty, and giant panties.

Off stage, the devoted grandfather and community activist strives to cross over to a white audience. He released a traditional blues album in 2004 featuring acoustic guitar and unplugged harmonica, with a faux folk art cover to appeal to the white scene, and simultaneously issued a record for black listeners replete with synth drums and tales of two-timing. He figured prominently in the 2003 Year of the Blues celebration, including his featured performance in the Martin Scorsese film series dedicated to the music. The visibility failed to boost sales for Rush's white album, and though there are plenty of dollars to be had on the chitlin' circuit, at the age of at least 65, Rush is thinking about his legacy.

"What Muddy Waters did, what Howlin" Wolf did, I think everything that crossed over that white guys are doing now was a black thing," he said. "I'll get my proper due. History will say I crossed over but didn"t have to change anything." He hopes. Despite his decades of popularity with a multigenerational black fan base, there's no guarantee of his entry into the pantheon of blues heroes.

The chitlin' circuit doesn't perpetuate legends like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf. It generates little print media. Most circuit CD sales take place in independent "mom and pop" record shops that don"t employ SoundScan technology to tabulate sales. Billboard bases its influential record charts on SoundScan data. That, coupled with Sease's observation about the difficulty of categorizing chitlin' circuit music, translates into only rare appearances on Billboard charts for circuit artists, and, therefore, very little recognition from mainstream music outlets.

The upside is the degree of artistic independence that performers enjoy. Songs explore the perils of middle age rather than reflect youthful pop culture. The audience is stable, dedicated, and multigenerational. While the star system prevails on the circuit as elsewhere in entertainment, the competition isn't as fierce as in mainstream music. Subsequently, the audience isn't as fickle as mainstream audiences.

Rodgers Redding of Macon, Georgia, books virtually every chitlin' circuit act and has done so for nearly three decades. Artists, of course, field their own booking calls as well, mostly from smaller clubs, but Redding is the only agent capable of assembling the multi-act package deals that bring thousands of spectators and their dollars. Since relatively few artists work the circuit today, lineups are built to accumulate fans of different artists. A network of local concert promoters across the South and in some big cities outside the region, DJs, talent managers, and indie record label owners organize the shows, rent out halls, negotiate lump-sum deals with the talent, and keep whatever remains of the gate receipts after paying everyone. The phrase "fly by night" comes to mind.

The vending scene is as lively as the stage. Another refreshing aspect of the circuit is the proximity of artists to their fans. After the performers do their thing, they head to the lobby. There the artists" staffs set up airbrushed sheets displaying names, likenesses, and other evocative imagery as photo backdrops. Fans pay $10 to pose with their favorite singer for an autographed Polaroid. As in other categories of chitlin' circuitry, Sease distinguishes himself in the vending enterprise. In addition to the standard photo ops, Sease's band hawks CDs and DVDs. Bumper stickers, T-shirts, and satin jackets emblazoned with song titles all help keep the Candylicker franchise afloat.

"It's hard to pin a date on when it all began."

While today's chitlin' circuit represents an alternative to mainstream music, the enterprise developed because segregation offered limited alternatives for African-American socializing. Black entertainers worked the road in vaudeville and minstrel shows as far back as the nineteenth century. The African-American music businessman, however, emerged later. Following WWII, black entrepreneurs in Memphis capitalized on the combination of demand for entertainment, the restricted mobility of black consumers, and the lack of competition from TV.

It's hard to pin a date on when the chitlin" circuit began, but 1946 was a boom year in the black entertainment business. African-American entrepreneurs all over Memphis imported big-name traveling acts. Robert Henry began booking shows at the Beale Avenue Auditorium. Bob Wright and his son William booked the Hotel Improvement Club and the Brown Derby, while Oliver Prince managed the Bungalow Inn. Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell had leased the third-floor space above Abe Plough's Pantaze Drug Store at the corner of Hernando and Beale. Most importantly, black troops returned to the Mid-South from the war with full pockets.

Within five years Clifford Curry opened his Club Tropicana on Thomas Street. A madeover roller rink called the Hippodrome had begun to showcase some of the leading African-American musicians, in hot competition with the W.C. Handy Theatre at 2535 Park Avenue, not to be confused with Sunbeam's Club Handy at 195 Hernando.

Historically, as much of the chitlin' circuit enterprise was black-run as it was black-owned. An unsubstantiated rumor has it that Abe Plough provided Sunbeam Mitchell silent partnership. It wouldn't have been out of character for the philanthropist known as "Mr. Anonymous" to help a neighbor. In addition to the possible Mitchell-Plough connection, Kemmons Wilson joined the investment group that built the W.C. Handy Theatre in 1946.

Sunbeam Mitchell embodies the post-WWII chitlin' circuit enterprise. Born in 1906 in Memphis, Mitchell ran nightclubs for 40 years until selling off his holdings four years prior to his death in 1989. He opened the Mitchell Hotel above Pantaze's in 1944, and shortly thereafter started his first nightclub, the Domino Lounge, on the building's second floor. Mitchell also ran the Hippodrome, an R&B club at 500 Beale in the early "50s, later renaming it Club Ebony. He sponsored dances at larger halls like Ellis Auditorium, where Ray Charles performed August 20, 1961. In addition to his nightclubs, a hotel, and a grill, Sunbeam operated Mitchell Amusement Enterprises in the middle to late '50s, booking dates for Little Milton Campbell and Lowell Fulson. A record label, Paradise Records, was conceived years later, though it doesn't seem to have gone far.

Like a housewife quick with a handout for a hobo, Mitchell earned a reputation for generosity among traveling musicians. As he recalled in a 1981 chat with a Press-Scimitar reporter, "Little Richard stayed at the hotel for weeks when he didn't have any money." Sunbeam and wife Ernestine, of Ernestine and Hazel's, sustained many a starving artist on their chili. "All of them knew they could come to Memphis and be taken care of in those days," he said.

Little Junior Parker, Bobby Bland, and B.B. King gigged regularly at Club Handy. Ted Taylor, The Five Royales, Jimmy McCracklin, Al "TNT" Braggs, Arthur Prysock, and other leading R&B outfits of the day stopped in for one-nighters in the late Fifties. At Club Handy, Mitchell employed, at various times, dancing girls called the Mitchellettes and a house band. Club Handy also provided the setting for many of Ernest Withers' iconic images of Memphis nightlife, including memorable shots of Bland sweating it out on stage and a beaming Louis Jordan posing with his diminutive old father out front. By the early '60s, Mitchell had witnessed the exodus of black businesses from Beale, and planned accordingly. In a 1975 Commercial Appeal article Mitchell recalled, "They were getting ready to tear things down on Beale Street. Urban renewal was coming . . . . We had [Club Paradise] before they even started that urban renewal . . . ." Mitchell continued to run Club Handy on the side, but devoted most of his attention to "the South's leading nite spot," the 3,200-seat Club Paradise at 645 E. Georgia Avenue. Opening night, Sunday, March 21, 1965, featured Bobby "Blue" Bland.

After seeing urban renewal push his operation from downtown to the city's fringe, Mitchell faced a new challenge. In spring of the next year, the Memphis City Commission launched a plan to purchase the club with federal funds and convert it into a recreation center. The issue politicized, with the NAACP going on record against the takeover. As NAACP executive Maxine Smith said at the time, "It has been the practice of our public officials to use the power of our local governments to purchase property where there has been some level of integration of activities or housing . . . . We feel that the proposal to purchase Club Paradise is another such effort to further entrench racial segregation." The City Commission split on the issue, and Sunbeam resolved it outright when he entered a lease-to-own agreement and eventually purchased the place, possibly with Plough's backing.

New acts entered the scene to supplement old favorites like Little Milton and Bobby Bland. Over the late '60s and early '70s, Club Paradise hosted Funkadelic, Sam & Dave, O.V. Wright, and the Delfonics, among others. For show time Mitchell advertised attractions in the newspapers and on radio, ordered placards from Globe Printing in Baltimore to distribute at local hair salons and tack to phone polls, and hired a security force. He ordered cases of bottled Busch beer from Canale Distributing. He typed up a script for the emcee, crested with the admonition: "DO NOT REFER TO THE CLUB's PROBLEM," and instead suggested the patter, "It is a pleasure to appear at Club Paradise -- one of the finest clubs in the country -- Memphis can be proud of this entertainment spot." Sunbeam replaced items lost, stolen, or damaged from the coat check room. He drew up extensive guest lists for each club engagement, including the names of local music businesspeople like Polly Walker, Willie Mitchell, A.C. Williams, and Dick "Cane" Cole. Mitchell annually applied to the chief of police for a dance permit. He paid his bills.

Mitchell continued to change with the times as much as the times changed him. He rented the club out to social fraternities, many now defunct, like the Kingsmen, Social Gents, Gay Cavaliers, and Ebonett Social club. Mitchell booked white jazz musicians like Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. When popular rhythm and blues acts became too pricey to purchase on a contract basis, he rented the club out to them at an even break for the night and split the proceeds.

The deterioration of the social circumstances that gave rise to the circuit eventually cooled Sunbeam's business. He lamented to a Press-Scimitar reporter in 1980, "When there was segregation, they didn"t have any place to come out to but here." Integration hurt Sunbeam when he was the only one enforcing it, and killed him when it got out of his hands. Mitchell persisted, but Paradise went the way of so many other high spots from the chitlin' circuit's heyday. vvWhat remains are new chitlin" circuit im-presarios like Julius Lewis, founder and CEO of Memphis-based Heritage Entertainment. Lewis exemplifies the way of doing circuit business following the demise of the club scene. Lewis rents spaces and hosts shows in Memphis, Tunica, Chicago, Dallas, and Atlanta.

"The scene changes, but it remains strong."

Working the circuit can be arduous, heart-breaking, and even deadly. The schedule, composed mostly of one-nighters, sometimes forces performers to leave town at closing time after a show and drive through the night to reach the next gig. Early on the morning of April 19, 2001, the tour bus carrying Bobby Rush and his outfit ran off the road and hit a tree near Pensacola, Florida. Dancer Latisha Brown, a mother of two young children, was killed. The remaining band members were hospitalized with serious injuries. Closer to home, Ronald "Ron Mack" McLaurin, keyboardist, songwriter, and leader of the Memphis-based Sir Charles Jones band, perished in a one-car wreck returning home from a Jones gig in Gadsden, Alabama, on May 16, 2006. Some performers succumb more gradually to road life with its irregular diet and sleep patterns, the stress of performing and not always collecting, and the temptation to assuage these discomforts with controlled substances.

Despite the risks, the rewards are ample for the few who make it, like Sease. "I remember way back in the local days when me and my band made $200. And that wasn't per man, that was for the group. And I came from that to a minimum of 10 to 12-5 [thousand dollars], so it made a tremendous difference. It increased, but if you compare my little 10 or 12-5 to R. Kelly's 35 or 50, it reminds me I"m still working the chitlin' circuit -- just on a higher scale." Like his enterprising predecessors, Lewis created opportunity through resourcefulness. "In college [at LeMoyne-Owen, class of '95] I had some extra money from my student loans and I had always had an interest in doing a real big concert. So I took my student loans, my partner Ricky Moore, he gave me what he had, and we pawned TVs and had Ollie Nightingale, Marvin Sease, and Bobby Rush and packed Club Paradise. The very first show we did was August 5, 1995. That was my thesis, as a matter of fact, the whole production," he said.

The scene changes, but it remains strong, with a range of options. Though the chitlin" circuit runs outside the mainstream, it isn"t underground. Anyone can dial up 1070-AM and tune in WDIA's All Blues Saturday. What they won"t hear is a twangy slide guitar or slurring vocal whine about what happened after the singer "woke up this mornin"." Similarly, it's hard to miss the DeSoto Civic Center, home to the annual Tri-State Blues Festival. But this is no showcase for relics and white boy wannabes. This is grown folks music.

The Boss lounge at 912 Jackson isn't exactly a chitlin' circuit club, but a handful of veterans entertain the Thursday-night crowd there. Bass player Leroy Hodges of the vaunted Hi rhythm section, former Bar-Kays and Soul Children drummer Roy Cunningham, keyboardist Jesse Dotson, and Denise LaSalle's guitarist Kenny Lee Kight make the Memphis Connection; guest vocalists include "Sugarman" and "Preacherman."

Lewis "L.D." Conley opened CC Blues Club at 1427 Thomas Street in 1992. Named after L.D.'s wife Catherine, the club hosts Ecko Records artists like Sheva Potts-Wright and O.B. Buchana. L.D. describes the place as "laid back, for grown folks." The club sets the minimum age for entry at 28. Both the Boss and CC offer intimate settings and friendly environs, embodying Mel Waiters' circuit anthem "Hole in the Wall": "Smoke filled room, whiskey and chicken wings / People dancin' and drinkin' and no one wants to leave."

Fire and Ice at 6430 Winchester Road, and Shell Entertainment Complex at 860 E. Brooks, showcase traveling live "blues" acts like Theodis Ealey in big rooms.

For the biggest scene, best acts, and widest selection of airbrushed photo backdrops, this year's Memphis Tri-State Blues Festival is August 19th, as always, at the DeSoto Civic Center. The two previous Tri-State's provided unforgettable moments like fans booing David Gest off the stage after he said, "Those of you wondering what I know about the blues should remember that I was once married to Liza Minnelli." Tyrone Davis poignantly delivered his final rendition of "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time" in 2004, and Mayor Herenton danced alongside a stage full of performers during a tribute to the late Little Milton Campbell last year.

American idols, boy bands, and girl groups may come and go, but the chitlin' circuit's grown folks music withstands the tests of time and style.

 

Special thanks to Larry Chambers at Ecko Records and Cato Walker III for their insights.