About a half-hour into my interview with Preston Lauterbach, I realized we hadn't really addressed the key thesis of his book, The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll— namely, that the chitlin' circuit, that concatenation of Southern clubs hospitable to African-American musicians, was an incubator for key innovations in American music, including jump blues in the '40s and rock 'n' roll in the '50s.
So, mea culpa; read the book to find out how Lauterbach lays out that argument, because we spent our time talking about the role Indianapolis plays in the story of the chitlin' circuit, and, in particular, the influence of one man, Denver Ferguson - gambling kingpin, talent promoter, proprietor of Indiana Avenue club Sunset Terrace, community benefactor, and, as Lauterbach puts it, "grandaddy of rock 'n' roll."
The Chitlin' Circuit, published Monday by Norton, is the first book by Lauterbach, a Memphis-based music journalist. Here's an excerpt from our phone interview, conducted Friday.
NUVO: You drew heavily on the Indianapolis Recorder archives to conjure up Indiana Avenue in '20s and '30s.
Lauterbach: I crave to be there, and by there I mean another time, another place that I just don't have physical access to as a dimensionally-bound human being. I like to find really electrifying resources, and reading the old Recorder put me right there, put me right on the Avenue. I could hear the music, I could smell the fried fish, had to dodge a few punches and watch out for switchblades. It was just a tremendous resource and not ashamed to tell the truth. The journalistic truth and the truth are two different things, and they were not afraid to tell the truth.
NUVO: Tell me about Denver and Sea Ferguson, who helped to establish the chitlin' circuit, but first started by making money off the numbers game.
Lauterbach: It all began with the numbers game, which Denver started and then brought Sea in as an early partner. By the mid-'20s, they were rolling, and, of course, the geography there on Indiana Avenue was very concentrated — all the black residences for the most part were in that district. So it was really intimate, tight area that Denver and Sea figured out how to make money off of, outside of normal, legitimate channels that wouldn't have been available to black entrepreneurs of that time. If I can say, I didn't intend and don't want for Denver and Sea to be portrayed as immoral. They were dealing with racial segregation, the system that was imposed on them, and because they were talented people, they chose to go outside of that system. It wasn't necessarily that robbery was their motive, because they turned the proceeds of their game into a basis for community development on a couple of levels. One, they built the Sunset Terrace up on the corner of Indiana and Blake, or Denver did; Sea had the Cotton Club, which was down at Vermont, Senate and Indiana. Those were the key showplaces on Indiana Avenue, which brought the top acts in black pop, all the way from the '30s: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald; on up through the transitional era of the '40s, when people like Louis Jordan were hot; on up to early rockers like Roy Brown in the late '40s and early '50s.
Their importance to this chitlin' circuit was this: Denver started the first national, far-reaching talent agency that was run by an African-American. It was on the books as of late 1941. He may have operated without legal paperwork before then; there wasn't a lot of evidence there was a ton of activity. But by 1941, he was the only black operator of a national talent agency. He had up to a dozen bands working for him that he was booking in a variety of venues all across the map. The way he worked his circuit, he'd lay out a sequence of southern towns — Jacksonville, Florida; Macon, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee — and he'd cycle acts one after another, bumping them through like train cars through those towns. It was quite an elegant system. It brought great exposure for these bands down south. It brought entertainment down south, where there weren't a ton of options. And it really stimulated the creative environment down there.
NUVO: The Sunset Terrace was a kind of rough place. You talk about how Duke Ellington only played the club once, refusing to come back after being struck by beer bottles.
Lauterbach: I love that story. It's interesting, too, because Duke was not a chitlin' circuit artist. He was part of this upper crust, a very thin upper crust of elite black jazz bands — himself, Calloway, Basie, a couple others. He still played some Southern dates and he still played some rough ballrooms like the Sunset, but in my research I started to see this division between the world Ellington worked in and the world Walter Barnes or Tiny Bradshaw worked in. I didn't know how I could really lay that out in the book without sounding analytical. And, of course, that story of Duke playing the Sunset and a brawl breaking out, bottles and liquor flying everywhere and staining his suit emerged, with him storming off and saying, "I'm never going to play this dump again." That illustrated the point nicely, I think. I got lucky.
NUVO: There's this balance in your book where, on the one hand, Indianapolis cops and politicians seemed to bear down on Indiana Avenue for politically- or racially-motivated reasons, but, on the other, they had not entirely unjustifiable reasons for moving when they did — for instance, by cracking down on gambling after a murder in a backroom casino at a nightclub.
Lauterbach: I think that's true, but I guess the point that I was trying to emphasize about morality and the choices that the Fergusons made in their lives was simply that there was not a whole lot of capital available for any sort of community development or improvement in black America, not just in Indy but across the map. The Fergusons made money how they could, and they weren't complete saints. But they made structural improvements to the Avenue, they stimulated business activity, they bought Little League uniforms, Sea set up a scholarship fund for business-inclined black students who didn't have the money to go to college. They filled this philanthropic and community-building gap through ill-gotten proceeds; in other words, gambling was illegal. The police? Sometimes they aided and abetted, sometimes they accepted bribes, and when one of them sang out about this very widely-known and –accepted practice that was a little too dirty for widespread public knowledge, that absolutely hurt the Indiana Avenue community, because it cut off financing.
NUVO: And can we talk a little more about his shrewdness with respect to managing and building the chitlin' circuit?
Lauterbach: He went deeper than anyone else. He collected phone books from all across America, but primarily in the Deep South. He would search these phone books for what he considered to be black code words. If there was a place called the Cotton Club, he could be assured that that was a little black bar or nightclub. He understood that, like Indiana Avenue, there were a hundred other segregated black enclaves across the country, densely populated areas of black people in cities and towns, and he knew the way they all worked. There was a kingpin figure, your barbershops, your barrooms, your social hubs. By understanding that, he made the social hubs in places that didn't have any entertainment into the central dispatch for his shows. He would train a barber in a small town in Tennessee to sell his tickets, to put his placards up, to find, whether it was a tobacco barn or an agricultural warehouse — any place to showcase a band — and would work them very much like he would work a numbers runner up on the Indiana Avenue area. That's what he did — he took what he called shadow promoters, people in small towns that were completely outside anything happening culturally, even in black America, and he made them the hubs for the chitlin' circuits. That was really his prime innovation, getting these small towns energized.
NUVO: And you tell the story of the downfall of Ferguson, including his relationship with a German war bride.
Lauterbach: That proved to be his undoing. He took up a correspondence with a German lady who ended up being a German war bride, a lady named Lilo Rentsch, who, along with a friend of hers, had written a letter to Ebony magazine saying they were looking for black husbands. What was funny about that, even though it ended up being Denver's undoing in an ultimately tragic episode, was how he and Lilo were pen-pals for the longest time, and they would write each other syrupy, breathless letters about how much they wanted to be together, and they're both totally misrepresenting themselves to each other, which is, of course, the essence of pen pal romance. Denver was, in his letters, 10 years younger, and Lilo, in her letters, was 100 pounds lighter. So, when they really met in New York when her boat came across, it was quite a shock to both of them, and this beautiful romance that they had concocted simply was not going to work in reality. It put Denver in quite a bind because, as an African-American man, he would get in a lot of trouble simply for traveling, whether by train or by a car, from New York to Indianapolis with a white woman. He would have been arrested and indicted under the Mann Act of transporting women across state boundaries for immoral purposes, which was more or less a code for making sure black guys don't carry white women around.
So, he had to marry her, and he did, and I don't know if they earnestly tried to make it work, but she did live with him for a while and they did not get along very well. And they divorced almost as soon as the ink on the marriage certificate dried. With the divorce and the receivership, she ended up taking control of the Sunset Terrace club. It was such a major blow, not only to Denver's pocketbook but to his psyche. This is what he had put his life's work and energy into. It was a jewel of the Avenue and a real monument to the vigor of the black community in Indianapolis. To have this woman come and take it from him — it broke him. He had a series of strokes, and he died within about four years of bringing his war bride over from Germany. She got his assets and ruined his health. I decided to include that in the story, even though it was not the most germane thing to chitlin' circuit activity, because it illustrates the danger for not only individual black people but black America in dealing across the color line.
NUVO: I wonder about your research into Ferguson. Has anyone else written on him with this amount of detail?
Lauterbach: When I started researching the chitlin' circuit, I didn't know how it had begun, and one thing led to another, which eventually led to an old Avenue musician named Sax Kari who had worked for Denver. He tipped me — he called Ferguson the inventor of the chitlin' circuit, and so I started going to Indianapolis to do research in putting the story together. Details about Ferguson's life started coming out through my research, so I actually put his whole life story together, but it had not existed in print anymore. His daughter is still there; she was very kind and very helpful. The first time I went to Indianapolis, I had heard about the Terrace from Sax. Being the nerd that I am, I went straight to the library and researched, and started putting together, 'OK, the club was located on Indiana Avenue, and then I looked at newspaper ads, and every other club was on Indiana Avenue. And wow, the Avenue was the place.' The next morning, I went to the Avenue, and you know what I saw! I was standing right where the Sunset Terrace was, across the street from Lockefield Gardens, pondering all of this. There was a little old dude sitting in a wheelchair at a bus stop, smoking cigarette. So I go up to him, and it turned out he was a really sweet guy named Joe Hester. He had been a partier, and partied at the Sunset Terrace. And he played the numbers game. He was a terrific source, as a typical Ferguson customer, someone into that life. That was interesting: trying to find out where this whole culture had vanished to, and then finding a piece of it there, still living.