“It was 1954, 1955. I’m either 15 or 16 years old. The place is somewhere in a barn with a bandstand along the east Texas/Louisiana border. We are in sugar cane country . . . I am the piano player in a band, the house band, the road band. We are the put together band. Country towns. These blues artists could have been Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, Big Walter, Little Walter, Johnny Copeland, Percy Mayfield or any number of those particular men that were prominent at that time. The custom was the band played a warm up set and of course the singer finally comes up on to the bandstand and the show commences. We of course wanted to play our Jazz. We were doing anything to play Jazz and we would force Jazz on the top of these rhythm and blues grooves. Suddenly men would start walking from the back of the room and approach the bandstand. This man said to me, ‘Look I want you niggas to understand something right now. We paid 25 cent at the front door and we came in here to have a good time. Now it sounds to me [that] you guys are playing a bunch of bullshit and we’re not getting our money’s worth. So we’re gonna tell you now. We will take your instruments from you, whip your ass and destroy your vehicles and more than likely you will have to walk and beg your way back to Houston, Texas. Now we will do this to you unless you make us feel real good, really suddenly . . .’”
—Joe Sample “Tales (Reprise)” in Marcus Miller’s Tales (1995)
Such was the way of the Chitlin’ Circuit, where it has always been about the folks—those hardworking, hard surviving “peoples” who use their Friday and Saturday nights to get their spirit on and their blues on and their food on and their sex on. For the uninitiated the Chitlin’ Circuit was a loose network of jook-joints, nightclubs, dance halls, bars, theatres and restaurants that flourished during the pre-Civil Rights era. Because of recording industry apartheid, which relegated black music to black audiences, black spaces and midnight to dawn time slots on radio (and so it was deemed “race music” instead of pop music), the Chitlin’ Circuit was absolutely critical for the economic survival of black artists who had not crossed-over to mainstream audiences. Though Harlem’s Apollo Theater and Chicago’s Regal Theatre were some of the most popular stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit (arguably a kind of post-modern underground railroad), the bulk of those spaces were greasy, overheated, badly ventilated, badly protected, and overcrowded spaces that for all intents and purposes kept most black artists to a second-tier status within the entertainment industry; Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, and Miles Davis notwithstanding. But folks still got their communal grooves on, with heaping portions of early rhythm and blues, organ-sax combos (just listen to some early Jack McDuff), and some old-school blues shouting. Though the Chitlin’ Circuit no longer serves the purposes it once did, it is still vibrant in southern cities like Jackson, Mississippi, Nashville, Tennessee, Memphis, Tennessee, the Gulfport region from Mobile, Alabama (which some folks says has the best Mardi Gras celebrations in the country) to New Orleans (Naw-lins), Louisiana, and it can still be heard in northern cities like Chicago, as Syleena Johnson’s debut reminds folks. Chitlin’ Circuit Soul pays homage to the Chitlin’ Circuit with a compilation of Chitlin’ Circuit classics from the last 30 years, an era when the down-home/up-north (rhythm & blues/urban contemporary R&B) dichotomy became so pronounced in the marketing of black popular music.
The collection opens with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Members Only”, the title track of his 1985 release for Malaco. Bland had been in the business for almost 35 years at the time of the release, having released his first track for Chess in 1951. Bland’s signature guttural “hock” was captured on a string of hits for the Duke recording label including “Turn on Your Love Light”, which is used in the fantastic house party scene that open the Kasi Lemmons film Eve’s Bayou, “That’s the Way Love Goes” and his 1962 remake of T-Bone Walker’s classic “Stormy Monday Blues”. (See Chuck Brown’s definitive Go-Go version of Stormy Monday Blues on the live Any Other Way to Go for another take on the “chitlin’ Circuit.) Members Only was Bland’s first recording for the Malaco label and his first “hit” in more than a decade. The title track’s success highlighted the niche that labels such as Malaco and Ichiban created by recording acts such as the Jackson Southernaires, Willie Banks and the Messengers, Dorothy Moore, Luther Ingram, Cissy Houston, Tyrone Davis, and the late Johnnie Taylor (listen to his banging regional hit “Good Love”), when major labels no longer had any interests in these artists. Both labels have been able to build relative empires serving regional tastes that are quintessential Chitlin’ Circuit fare.
Tyrone Davis, for instance, has recorded five discs for the Malaco label over the last decade including Back to the Future Years which was released two months ago. These recordings arrive nearly 20 years after his last major hit with the bumpin’ “In the Mood” (1979), and more than 30 years after his signature songs “Can I Change My Mind?” which Isaac Hayes pays tribute to during his monumental 18 minute version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (Hot Buttered Soul). “Phoenix” and “Turn Back the Hands of Time” were house party staples. Davis’s “Turning Point” (1975) is collected on the Chitlin’ Circuit Soul collection with a bouncy beat that is reminiscent of his best known recordings. His smoothed-out tenor is comparable to that of the late Johnnie Taylor (he died on May 31st of last year), whose original pimp-daddy groove “Cheaper to Keep Her”, originally included on the classic Raw Silk (1973), is also included. The song, which was written by Sir Mack Rice (is that a pimp name or what?), is a thematic update of the classic “Makin’ Whoopee” (listen to Ray Charles live for the definitive Soul version). Taylor sings with acerbic wit, “You didn’t pay but two dollars to bring the little girl home, now you about to pay two-thousand to leave her alone. You see another woman out there and you wanna make a change. She ain’t gonna want ya ‘cause you won’t have a damn thing. That’s why its cheaper to keep her (everybody sing along with me)”. The song is arguably the spiritual precursor to Dave Hollister’s “Baby Mama Drama” and Gerald Levert’s “Taking Everything”.
One of the reasons that the “Chitlin Circuit” was valued by many “common” black folks was because it was the one space where they had the freedom to openly explore their sexuality, thus the Chitlin Circuit has often been synonymous with the raunchier side of rhythm and blues. It is in this world that the 64-year-old blind singer Clarence Carter could record a track like the gut-busting “Strokin’” (Ichiban again) and watch it become a cult classic. Carter, who recorded classics sides such as “Too Weak to Fight”, “Slip Away”, the poignant “Patches” and the Christmas staple “Back Door Santa”, which Run-DMC sampled for the “Christmas in Hollis”, is probably best known these days for “Strokin’” which includes the chorus “I stroke it the east, I stroke it to the west, I stroke to the woman that I love the best, I be strokin’”.
While some may view Carter’s raunchiness with a hint of parody (at one point Carter raps, “stroke it Clarence Carter, but don’t stroke too fast, if my stuff ain’t tight enough, you can stick it up my ”), Marvin Sease has been quite serious about being raunchy. For the past 15 years Sease (and his signature jerri curl) has been making a living singing ditties like “Candy Licker”, “Condom on Your Tongue”, and “I Ate You for My Breakfast”, (damn, I can’t even keep a straight face writing about these songs). He made a good living on these lyrics, as he recorded more than 10 discs over that period. It may be important to note that while virtually all of Sease’s recording were done for major label imprints, he escaped the kind of scrutiny that some hip-hop artists have faced for similar and arguably less explicit material. Sease’s early work is innocuous when compared to his most recent projects, “Bitch Git it All”, “Hoochie Mama”, and “A Woman Would Rather be Licked”. The rather tame “Stuck in the Middle” from his 1989 disc, Real Deal, is collected here and features a moving “testimony” as Sease chooses between his woman and his wife.
But many of these songs did not have to openly address sexuality and carnal desires to be valued by Chitlin’ Circuit converts. Some songs contain an aesthetic of sensuality where kinetic movement come to near halt as folks openly engage in “slow drags,” “slow grinds,” or as Rufus and Chaka Khan said it so well, a “Slow Screw Up Against the Wall/A Flat Fry”. Chitlin’ Circuit Soul includes slow drag classics such as Millie Jackson “touching” (a word not usually associated with her music) “If You’re Not back in Love By Monday”, the late and legendary ZZ Hill’s “Love is So Good When You’re Stealing It”, and Carl Sim’s “I’m Trapped”, which pays tribute to other “cheating” songs like Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped By a Thing Called Love”, William Bell’s “Trying to Love Two” and the aforementioned Marvin Sease’s “Stuck in the Middle”. Also included among these tracks is Latimore’s straight shooting “Let’s Straighten it Out” (“how and the hell you expect me to understand, when I don’t even know what’s going on?”).
Not surprisingly, the “tight spaces” of Chitlin’ Circuit venues has been apropos to the tight space negotiations between lovers and their other lovers. Shirley Brown gets all up in homegirl’s grill with “Woman to Woman”, calmly stating “Barbara, this is Shirley it’s only fair that I let you know that the man you’re in love with, he’s mine”. The legendary Little Milton sounds like he is on his knees testifying to the congregation in the heart wrenching song, “Walking the Back Streets and Crying”, a narrative that keeps more real than a veritable army of “gin and juice, ice and lex, prada and sean jean” rappers in “shiny ass suits”.
The disc is rounded out by recordings by some of the newer talents on the Chitlin’ Circuit, including Sterling Harrison and the New Breed (“There’s a Rat Loose in My House”), who adorn the compilations cover, and Ronnie Lovejoy (“Still Wasn’t Me”), and Wilson Meadows (“That’s Still My Love”). Chitlin’ Circuit Soul fabulously documents one of the central institutions of African-American life and one that was crucial to the incubation of post-World War II popular music. The folks at Rhino are to be commended for keeping this music alive.