“The chitlin’ circuit story that unfolded through old newspapers, interviews with aged jitterbugs, torn scrapbooks, and city directories crossed unexpected backroads: the numbers racket, hair straighteners, multiple murders, human catastrophe, commercial sex, bootlegging, international scandal, female impersonation, and a real female who could screw a light bulb into herself — and turn it on. . . . These are the intertwined stories of booking agents, show promoters, and nightclub owners, the moguls who controlled wealth throughout the black music business. Until records eclipsed live shows as the top moneymakers, new sounds grew on the road and in nightclubs, through the dance business rather than in the recording studio. Though the moguls’ names are not recognized among the important producers of American culture, their numbers rackets, dice parlors, dance halls, and bootleg liquor and prostitution rings financed the artistic development of breakthrough performers.”
Though the circuit operated primarily in the South, its origins were in neighborhoods known as “Bronzevilles”: “black towns within white cities throughout the segregated North.” Lauterbach gives particular attention to the Bronzeville in Indianapolis, presided over by Denver Ferguson, the prosperous operator of a numbers game, whose other holdings included “a busy printing shop, a service uniform factory, and bits of real estate, including the Sunset Terrace and Sunset Cafe.” At the end of 1941, he and his brother Sea incorporated a company “to engage in the business of booking agent, promoter, sponsor and artists’ representative for bands, orchestras, shows, revues, sporting, theatrical and athletic acts, concerts, games, contests, dances, shows, and all other kinds of amusement enterprises.”
It was a long-winded way of saying that Denver Ferguson had gotten in on the ground floor as the chitlin’ circuit formed alliances with the burgeoning record business: “Bookers needed records to promote their bands, and record companies needed personal appearance tours to promote records.” Ferguson hooked up with Bluebird, which “recorded hard blues, which didn’t fly with the white audience” but were becoming bigger and bigger on the circuit, so “pushing Bluebird’s nationally known blues artists through Deep South blues country” was a natural for Ferguson. He had already been booking swing bands in the South, but there as elsewhere the big bands were dying: Wartime gas rationing made it prohibitively expensive to run large buses, and in any event popular taste was shifting to vocalists.
Lauterbach identifies Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five as the harbingers of change. His group was small and thus economically manageable, and his exuberant style — “he embraced the funny, confusing, violent reality of farm folk in the city” — played well in the small towns on the circuit. His first hit records, “Knock Me a Jug” and “(I’m Gonna Move to the) Outskirts of Town,” were made in the fall of 1941. The immense popularity he enjoyed has long since faded, but he was “the key role model to virtually every black performer for the next fifteen years.”
Jordan’s ascent “pushed the vocalist into the limelight” and made the band “an afterthought.” By the late 1940s “the sound Louis Jordan pioneered and popularized in the early part of the decade had all but pushed jazz out of the black pop picture,” though it needs to be noted that, with the emergence of bop at the same time, jazz began to move away from a popular audience and was becoming a form of art music, for better or for worse.