TERRY GROSS, HOST:
During the years before the civil rights movement, a touring circuit known as the Chitlin' Circuit provided venues in segregated cities for hundreds of African-American musicians and eventually helped lead the way to rock 'n' roll. Our rock historian, Ed Ward, has just read two books on the subject, Preston Lauterbach's "The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll" and the Susan Whitall's biography of Little Willie John, one of the Chitlin Circuit's last stars.
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ED WARD, BYLINE: Bronzeville, some of them recall, or Little Harlem. Others have very specific geographic names like Deep Elm or the Third Ward. And they had one thing in common, besides the fact that they were the black part of town: they all had the stroll. It was the street where the bars were, the chicken and waffles or barbecue restaurants, the barber shops.
Not all the local residents went there, of course, but on a Saturday night you'd see lots of people out on the stroll looking for entertainment. The chances were they'd find it. Where you have a ghetto you usually also have entrepreneurialism, whether it be small time crime or a neighborhood newspaper, or a genius like Madam C.J. Walker, whose hair treatment empire brought millions of dollars into Indianapolis's black community in the first half of the 20th century.
But there aren't many Madam Walkers in any community and the average black entrepreneur in the 1930s was more likely to be thinking in terms of entertainment. And this is the subject of Preston Lauterbach's remarkable book "The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll." Lauterbach has resurrected the names and careers of men and women, and yes, some of the toughest of these people were women, who ran bars, booking agencies and clubs where traveling musicians could come into a black community, play, make money and go to the next town. This had been going on forever, of course, but turning it into an organized thing and including smaller jobs in unlikely places like North Dakota and Minnesota was the innovation, as well as providing venues for such forgotten organizations as Dittybo Hill(ph) and his 11 Clouds of Joy or smiling Billy Stewart and his Celery City Serenaders.
Now, the music these bands were playing wasn't giving Duke Ellington sleepless nights, but it was making audiences happy and making money for the bands and the places they played.
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WARD: Lauterbach's book traces the careers of now-forgotten people like Walter Barns, who not only headed a band called the Royal Creolians, who barnstormed through some of black America's obscure backwaters, but wrote a column for the black Chicago Defender newspaper in which he not only hyped his band but also the agents and club owners who were giving them gigs.
He writes about a young man in Houston, Don Robey, who watched the Fergusons and others making mental notes until he made his move with his Bronze Peacock club, Buffalo Booking Agency, and trumping them all, the Duke, Peacock, Backbeat and Songbird record labels, which recorded many of the top post-war Southern blues and rhythm and blues artists.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALK TO ME")
LITTLE WILLIE JOHN: (Singing) Talk to me, do, do. Talk to me, do, no. Mm-hmm. I hear everything you say. Talk to me. Talk to me. In your arms, sweet getaway. Let me hear.
WARD: Little Willie John really did have, as the subtitle of Susan Whitall's book has it, a fast life, mysterious death, and the birth of soul all wrapped up in his 30 years. He was born in one of Detroit's worst neighborhoods, and used his ambition and astonishing talent to leave it as quickly as possible, sneaking out of his bedroom to sing in nightclubs at the age of 12.
Before long he was winning talent contests and attracting a couple of local guys, Harry Balk and Dave Usher, who were looking for someone to manage. They cut a novelty Christmas single on him and then took him to New York to get him a record label. As Harry and Dave were relaxing in their hotel room, watching Count Basie on TV, they heard a familiar sound.
Willie had given them the slip and had talked the bandleader, whom he knew from his Detroit appearances, into letting him sing a number. Before he was 18, he had his first hit single, "All Around the World," and for a while he was unstoppable, particularly when, in 1956, he had the song which gives Whitall's book its name.
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JOHN: (Singing) You'll never know how much I love you, never know how much I care. When you put your arms around me, I get a feeling that's so hard bear. You give me fever. When you kiss me, fever when you hold me tight. Fever in the morning and fever all through the night.
WARD: Whitall is a lifelong Detroiter, and this gives her book authority, since she knows who to interview and where they are. She expertly shows Willie interacting with the up-and-coming Motown artists and their circle. She also doesn't flinch in her depiction of Willie's demons taking over as he tried to fit into the new music, soul, which he did so much to pioneer.
And her thorough research tells as much as can be determined at this late date about the night of October 17th to 18th, 1965, when a man named Kendall Roundtree was stabbed to death in a Seattle party house Willie was in. The subsequent events have the feeling of a classic tragedy, with a trial leading to a prison sentence, leading to Willie's death in 1968, the one mystery of his life which, due to inadequate records, Whitall is unable to fully explain.
Both of these books go a long ways towards illuminating the life black performers lived off-stage and the conditions they endured while they worked. Things have changed since then, but the pioneering efforts of the Chitlin' Circuit 's great performers and businesspeople, operating in a time when just being black was dangerous enough, shouldn't be forgotten.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.