Traveling Down the Chitlin’ Circuit
Ocala blues musician Rev. Billy C. Wirtz explores the Florida clubs and artists that defined Black music during the days of Jim Crow.
Muddy Waters stepped up to the mic and spit out the words, “You can’t lose what you ain’t never had.” Otis Spann hit a C major trill on the piano and somewhere deep inside me, a switch was thrown.
It wasn’t just the music but the look as well. Muddy looked like a ruler from some incredibly cool universe. His sky-high hair, styled in the chemically processed “conk” of the time, glimmered in the late-afternoon sunlight. He wore a purple sharkskin suit, wraparound shades and black patent-leather alligator-grain Beatle boots.
The year was 1968. I was a 14-year-old, middle-class white kid attending the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Up until then, I had wanted to be a park ranger. But after I saw and heard Muddy, that ambition veered from the trail and fell off a rocky ledge.
I wanted to be part of a world where people made music like that, and where grown men with names like “Muddy” wore patent-leather, razor-toed, Cuban-heeled footwear to work.
I bought every book on blues and soul music that I could find, spent all my money on albums, worked in record stores and went to the few concerts I could get into. I bought a guitar, joined a band and have devoted the rest of my life to gospel, blues and roots music.
I’ve played it, written about it, programmed it on my own radio shows on the East Coast, the West Coast and places in between, slept on the couches of blues legends and stayed up after shows soaking up their stories until dawn. Some 50 years later, the switch remains fully in the “on” position.
I’ve traveled down a lot of back roads in music, but no trip has been as transformative as my journey through the history of the Chitlin’ Circuit, an assortment of nightclubs, dance halls, juke joints and theaters—mostly located across the Midwest and Southeast, with many in Florida—where many now legendary African American performers and their audiences could connect during segregation.
Although it’s thought that the term “Chitlin’ Circuit” was first used in 1972, in a Chicago Defender article about Ike and Tina Turner, the circuit had its heyday from the 1930s through the 1960s. (The name comes from a soul-food staple called chitterlings, or chitlins—pig intestines, boiled then fried.)
The Chitlin’ Circuit provided musicians of color with safe lodgings and food and on-the-job training for young players who showed promise. These venues were also the explosive incubator of some of the greatest blues and soul music ever played.
I was immersed in music for most of my youth, but it wasn’t until I was 21 years old that I stepped foot into one of the Chitlin’ Circuit’s legendary venues—and it would be a decade later before I heard the actual term.
LORD, HAVE MERCY!
In 1975, I was visiting friends in Oakland, California, and Bobby “Blue” Bland was appearing at Ruthie’s Cafe. Bland, with his gospel fury mixed with pimp cool, was my favorite singer at the time. This was not only because of his incredible delivery but, like Muddy Waters, because of his sense of style.
Bland had the two coolest album covers I had ever seen. One was his debut album, 1961’s “Two Steps from the Blues,” which depicts Bland attired in a sharkskin suit, James Bond wraparound shades and forest-green crocodile loafers. His conked hair gleamed with pomade.
The other was 1963’s “Call On Me/That’s the Way Love Is,” which featured Bland surrounded by gorgeous Black women calling him on their rotary phones. And this was at a time when many record labels were still hiding the fact, on the album cover, anyway, that the artist was Black.
I had to see Bland in person. So I walked into Ruthie’s in East Oakland and entered a world far removed from nearby Berkeley and San Francisco.
The bartender was a light-skinned man with an eyepatch and a ’38 visible on his hip. I was one of three white faces in the crowd, but no one cared. It was a fashion show as well as musical event, boasting an entire Georgia swamp full of alligator-hide footwear dyed into colors unknown to the rainbow spectrum.
Bland appeared wearing a white suit and electric-blue snakeskin boots and launched into a phenomenal program. His voice and demeanor whispered, “I’ll Take Care of You” and preached, “Yield Not to Temptation.” The horns and the women screamed.
And every line Bland sang was followed by a response from the audience. This was no longer a concert—this was church. The First Church of the Snakeskin Boot presided over by Rev. Robert Bland.
My favorite moment came during “Stormy Monday.” When Bland came to the line, “Sunday I go to church, and I kneel down and pray,” he brought the band’s volume down. Careful not to avoid wrinkling the razor-sharp crease in his pants, he reached into his jacket and produced a monogrammed handkerchief, which he placed on the stage floor before kneeling and shouting, “Lord have mercy!” The show went on for two hours and the whole room was on its feet and testifying by the time he ended with “Turn on Your Lovelight.”
Ruthie’s was my first visit to the Chitlin’ Circuit. The music, the energy, the church-like response from the audience made me want to learn more about this alternate universe.
In 1987, I was hanging out with Bob Greenlee in his Sanford-based Kingsnake Studios, a hotbed of Florida modern blues, along with several other musicians. We were telling stories and I told them about the Bobby Bland shows at Ruthie’s.
An older guitar player said, “Oh, yeah, that was a Chitlin’ Circuit club.” That was the first time I had ever heard the term—the perfect description of a food associated with Black Southern culture and the music to serve with it.
Over the next few years, I began writing about music, publishing articles in newspapers and magazines as well as two books. As I learned about the evolution of Black music in the later 20th century, the Chitlin’ Circuit kept appearing in the stories and songs of the artists who played those venues, some urban palaces and some juke joints in the outskirts of small towns.
HEY, MR. DJ
Also prominent in those stories was a Nashville, Tennessee, radio station. Following World War II, that single radio station became responsible for launching the Southern soul and blues music that would become the cornbread and butter of the Chitlin’ Circuit.
In 1948, WLAC, an AM radio station in Nashville, began programming Black music. WLAC had a 50,000-Watt clear channel signal that reached from Key West to the Midwest and beyond. It came in loud and clear on car and transistor radios of young Black (and soon white) Floridians.
The announcers—who were, in fact, middle-aged white DJ’s known as the “50,000-Watt Quartet”—spoke in Black hipster jive and played nothing but the latest Black blues and soul. The result was an auditory grenade that desegregated American music.
The station launched the careers of Otis Redding, James Brown, Little Richard, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and countless others. Airplay on WLAC also helped book many Black musicians on the top clubs along the Chitlin’ Circuit.
I first heard WLAC around 1968, and it was like picking up radio signals from another planet. Bill “Hossman” Allen was by far the hippest of the DJs. I memorized his patter and listened to him every night. Allen became my musical guru. I would listen to his show and then order the records that he played.
Along with his “Soul Show,” Allen programmed hardcore gospel with groups like the Suwanee Quintet and The Caravans. This was the music that gave birth to soul; virtually every single popular soul artist began with a quartet gospel. And I wasn’t the only aspiring white musician who loved WLAC: Johnny Winters, Duane Allman, Boz Scaggs and Robbie Robertson have all told stories of diggin’ on the Hossman and other DJs.
A few years ago, bass player Franklin Williams and I conducted a musical history of the Chitlin’ Circuit at the Reilly Arts Center in Ocala. Williams, who has appeared with a long list of blues legends—his longest stint was with Bill Pinkney and the Drifters—spoke about how much WLAC influenced him.
“It was more than just entertainment,” Williams said. “It was instructional and vital.” Williams came from a religious family that did not allow rock and roll in the house. “I couldn’t bring those records in, so I would learn the songs off Hossman’s show on the radio,” he said.
I met Bobby Rush, known as the King of the Chitlin’ Circuit, when we were both booked on a Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, a semiannual event held on a chartered Holland America Line ship. He and I appeared on a panel discussion together.
We’d stay up late after we finished doing our shows, and his stories held me spellbound. “WLAC was our version of YouTube,” he told me. “That’s where all the hits were being played. It could make or break an artist on the circuit.”
The Chitlin’ Circuit stretched just about everywhere, but Florida, with its year-round good weather and well-established Black communities, was especially fertile ground and boasted venues ranging from the palatial Two Spot in Jacksonville and the Cotton Club in Gainesville to the Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg, the Harlem Square Club in Miami and the Club Eaton in Eatonville. Rush estimated that there were at least three dozen circuit stops in the Sunshine State, with 10 in the Miami area alone.
I met Irma Thomas, known as The Soul Queen of New Orleans, on another blues cruise when she walked into the piano bar where I was getting ready to perform. I joked, “Now, Miss Thomas, my show can be kind of raunchy, and I sure don’t want to embarrass you.” She shot back: “Honey, I was raised up on the Chitlin’ Circuit. I don’t shock.”
HIT THE ROAD, JACK
During that cruise, Thomas told me a lot about how the circuit worked, including why some shows were booked at certain times and in certain places. “We often followed the crops that were being picked,” she explained. “Somebody would rent a hall or fraternal venue and throw a show for the pickers on Saturday night.”
Getting to gigs was a challenge in the Jim Crow era, she told me. Before the interstate system was fully developed, back roads could be confusing, and musicians depended upon landmarks and billboards for directions.
With WLAC rattling the speakers, the stars crammed into station wagons held together with duct tape and prayers and rode from town to town like Jesse James with a horn section.
Racism was rampant, especially in small rural towns, which could be dangerous after dark. Clubs and performers had to think about safety and even survival.
Several well-known motels and rooming houses catered to circuit performers. The Jackson House in Tampa and the Sun-Glo Motel in Orlando were two of the better-known safe and welcoming places. The Club Eaton had rooms on the second floor where performers could stay.
In the days prior to the show, three-color Globe posters—the same ones used for pro wrestling cards—were tacked to telephone poles and in windows of businesses catering to Black clientele.
The circuit was a financial boon for many Florida towns and their Black neighborhoods. You were expected to look sharp at the shows, and Black-owned barbershops and beauty salons, clothing and shoe stores all did a booming business. So did the liquor stores.
Some artists, like James Brown or Joe Tex, were able to pay a road band and even transport them in buses. Many other artists relied on a farm team-type system of local musicians. Prior to performing, an artist would send a copy of his or her record to the local music store or radio station and ask for help finding players. Since young Black artists usually started playing in church, many backup musicians came out of local congregations.
I often hear that the music played on the Southern circuit had a much harder edge to it than the smoother clubs up North, and the young church players certainly added to that intensity.
Most novice musicians were thrilled to play with a visiting star—for any paycheck. The musicians’ unions up North forced bandleaders to pay union scale. However, down South the rules didn’t apply. Franklin Williams laughs when he remembers what he earned for his first circuit gig: “I was backing up [soul singer] Joe Hinton and I got paid two dollars, a six-ounce Coca-Cola and a bag of potato chips.”
The pay for back-up locals was usually better than that—but not by much, says Dr. Charles Beattie, also known as Dr. Blues. (He’s also a Doctor of Educational Research and Statistics, with a Ph.D. from Florida State University.)
Beattie, who has deep roots in the Chitlin’ Circuit, recalls that local players would happily play for whatever they could get.
“Hell, I was 15 years old and onstage with [R&B singer] Major Lance doing ‘The Monkey Time.’ Life couldn’t get any better!” Beattie recalls. (The song, written by Curtis Mayfield, was recorded by Major Lance in 1963 and reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s pop and R&B charts.)
Beattie and I played a festival weekend in Panama City together and have remained friends ever since. A multifaceted person—professor, business consultant, record-label founder and godfather of the Carolina soul sound—Beattie said the circuit had a profound influence on him as a musician and a person.
Young musicians would learn life as well as musical lessons from the and he always blew the doors off the place,” Franklin remembers. “They’d line up around the block to see Lavell’s show, 10 players, go-go girls, the whole deal.”
Benny Lattimore, a blues singer, songwriter and piano player who was on the blues-cruise panel with Bobby Rush and me, says musicians on the circuit enjoyed friendly camaraderie and competition. “The headliner would often tell the other acts, ‘Warm ’em up and then you go home; there won’t be anything left when I’m done,’” he says.
Lattimore remembers shows on the circuit as being some of the best of his career, including incredible packages featuring Johnny Guitar Watson, Ben E. King and Sam Cooke on the same bill at the Harlem Square in Miami. A standout memory: playing circuit shows with the Isley Brothers when they featured a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar.
CHANGE IS GONNA COME
Music always changes, and in the 1970s the advent of disco caused a major upheaval. Live-music clubs struggled to compete but the new places with canned music and an integrated clientele proved to be too much for many.
And as Black performers were finally allowed, and then courted, by white venues, the Chitlin’ Circuit became part of the past—a past that many prefer not to revisit. But the circuit, sordid as its reasons for existing were, lives on in the memories of many who traveled it as a place of great fellowship, entertainment—and most of all, music.
Just as New Orleans is credited as the home of jazz, the Chitlin’ Circuit was the birthplace of another great American genre. On these stages, the rhythm sections began emphasizing that gospel backbeat, singers started to testify, and rhythm and blues became soul.
As Preston Lauderbach wrote in his 2012 book The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, “The Chitlin’ Circuit was African-Americans making something beautiful out of something ugly, whether it’s making cuisine out of hog intestines or making world-class entertainment despite being excluded from all of the world-class venues, all of the fancy white clubs and all the first-rate white theaters.”
I’ve heard a lot of amazing stories during my journey along the Chitlin’ Circuit, but my favorite came from Charles Beattie. He said his baby sister Geneva was going through a rough time, and when her favorite entertainer came to town, he asked the visiting headliner if he could swing by her house just a block away from the venue.
“We pulled up to the house and I coaxed her out of her bedroom to go say hi to someone in the car out front,” Beattie recounts. “She grudgingly agreed, and moments later, I heard her making a serious fuss on the sidewalk. She was squealing and jumping up and down like a kid on Christmas morning. There, standing by the car, arms outstretched and waiting for a hug, stood the man of her dreams.”
In what may have been one of the sweetest moments ever to occur on the Florida circuit, Christina Beattie will never forget the day she hugged Otis Redding.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz has written many articles on music and culture and is the author of the book, “Red-Headed Geek: My Brief and Painful Career as a ‘Rasslin’ Manager”. His show, “The Rhythm Revival,” broadcasts Fridays from 3 p.m.- 6 p.m. on WMNF in Tampa.
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