A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from November 20, 2008
Chitlin’ Circuit

The “chitlin’ circuit” (also spelled “chitlins circuit” and “chittlins circuit” and “chitterling(s) circuit") is the name that was given to entertainment venues for black performers in the still-segregated South following World War II. Chitlins (or “chitterlings") are hog intestines, a favorite Southern food.

The term “chitlin’ circuit” is cited in print from at least 1953, when it was cited as the “Grits and Chittlins Circuit.” The singer Wikipedia: Lou Rawls“>Lou Rawls mentioned his work in the “chitlin’ circuit” in his interviews in the 1960s.  (1933-2006) The Victory Grill in Austin, Texas, began in 1945 and is one of the last remaining spots on the original “chitlin’ circuit.” The term is mostly historical today, but can now be applied to any venue for black performers in any part of the country, even the Apollo Theatre in New York City.

[This entry includes research by Wilson Gray on the American Dialect Society listserv.]


Wikipedia: Chitlin’ circuit
The “chitlin’ circuit” was the collective name given to the string of performance venues throughout the eastern and southern United States that were safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians, and other legendary entertainers to perform at during the age of racial segregation in the United States (from at least the late 1800s through the 1960s). The name derives from the soul food item chitterlings (boiled pig intestines).

Noted theaters on the chitlin’ circuit included the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in New York City, the Regal Theatre in Chicago, the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, the Fox Theatre in Detroit, the Victory Grill in Austin, Texas, and the Ritz Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida.

The song “Tuxedo Junction” was written about a stop along the chitlin’ circuit in Birmingham, Alabama. Once the performance was over, the band would leave for the next stop on the circuit. When the lyrics were ready to be added, Erskine Hawkins explained the reason for the title to Buddy Feyne who then created lyrics to match the meaning.

Many notable performers started on the chitlin’ circuit, including Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, The Supremes, Moms Mabley, Ike and Tina Turner, George Benson, B.B. King, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Richard Pryor, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Redd Foxx, Patti LaBelle, Jimi Hendrix, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Temptations, John Lee Hooker, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Flip Wilson, The Isley Brothers, The Four Tops, and The Jackson 5.

Wikipedia: Victory Grill
Victory Grill is a historic music venue located at 1104 E. 11th St, Austin, Texas. The nightclub was on the Chitlin’ Circuit and hosted famous African-American acts such as Bobby Bland, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, W. C. Clark and B. B. King during the age of racial segregation in the United States. Victory Grill was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 16, 1998.

History
Johnny Holmes, a booking agent and band manager, opened the Victory Grill on Victory over Japan Day, 1945 as a restaurant and bar for black soldiers returning from the war. In the segregated south of the 1940’s, these servicemen could not walk into just any place to have a beer. The first incarnation of the Victory was a small “lean-to” building, but Holmes soon moved to a larger building next door.

Holmes was also familiar with both the burgeoning Texas blues and jazz scenes, and soon, the club became known for its music as well as its food and drink. The club began attracting music lovers, no matter what their race. During its heyday in the 1950s, most of the popular national blues, rhythm and blues, and jazz acts that played Austin performed at the Victory Grill. Ike & Tina Turner, James Brown, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry and Janis Joplin were some of the artists who graced the stage. A resident of the area later quoted, “The street was so crowded you could barely walk. It was like New Orleans.”

Holmes leased the Victory Grill out in 1952, while he traveled to West Texas and then Alaska. When he returned in 1965, he was shocked at how much the area had declined. Integration had allowed affluent blacks to move to the suburbs. Also with desegregation, the Chitlin’ Circuit ceased to exist, as acts that were once confined to the Victory could now play many other venues. These two factors led to declining attendance and forced Holmes to close the nightclub portion of the Victory in the mid-1970s. Holmes kept the restaurant portion open, as the Victory’s food was still special enough to be a big draw.

On Juneteenth weekend of 1987, East 11th came alive with music again at a large reunion bash which brought many of the Victory’s former musicians and fans together again. The Victory Grill closed for a period of time after October 10, 1988, when it suffered major damage from a fire that spread from an adjoining vacant building.

Many movements and fundraisers were held in the following years to get the Victory Grill back open, but most met with tepid response at best. Finally, in 1995, R.V. Adams, a friend of Holmes began restoration efforts and the club re-opened in 1996. This initiated a cultural rebirth of the area, which had become a casualty of urban blight.

The historic Victory Grill is one of the last remaining original Chitlin’ Circuit juke joints. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, archived by the Texas Historic Commission, and dubbed a “Texas Treasure” by the statewide organization Preservation Texas. It stands as an artifact to the development of a distinct American music tradition. The Victory Grill is experiencing a restoration that will bridge the era of the Chitlin’ Circuit to today’s urban contemporary sounds. The restoration and preservation of this working juke joint and café will serve southern cuisine, provide blues, jazz and urban musical entertainment, and provide fun educational opportunities that link past African-American musical forms and culture with the present.

Under new ownership, Eva Lindsey has taken over renovating the Victory Grill as of 2007. Lindsey had the building repainted in the colors of Huston-Tillotson University, East Austin’s historically black university, where she attended college. This historic venue is open for self-produced/private events, educational opportunities and cultural tourism.

(Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
chitlin circuit n. Music Industry. (see 1982 quot.) Also chitlins circuit.
1974 Abdul Black Entertainers 61: Aretha...made the dreary round of rhythm and blues nightclubs along the “chitlin circuit.”
1982 A. Shaw Dict. Pop/Rock 74: “Chitlin Circuit.” A term first used by singer Lou Rawls...to describe the bars, lounges, clubs, dives, and honky-tonks...at which black artists perform before a hit recording opens the door to major white outlets.
1985 Maledicta VIII 188: As recently as 1950, many...black comics on the TOBA [Theater Owners Booking Association] or “chittling” circuit still blackened up.
1987 Campus Voice (Winter) 8: The RCA Victor Blues and Rhythm Revue sounds like a traveling show that did the chitlins circuit in the ‘40s.

Google Books
21 February 1953, The Billboard, pg. 57, col. 2:
MAL B. LIPPENCOTT [sic], playing his usual route over the Grits and Chittlins Circuit thru the South, typewrites from Natchez, Miss., under date of February 4, to report that business is okay but that heavy opposition in the territory is making booking tough.

Google Books
19 June 1954, The Billboard, pg. 51, col. 4:
THE LIPPINCOTTS, Mal and Maxine, after an extended season in Florida and several months on the Grits and Chittlins Circuit thru Alabama and Georgia, begin a 15-day stand at Fontaine Ferry Park, Louisville, June 21, just in time to mingle with the IBM-ers in convention there.

8 January 1967, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Lou Rawls—Up From Tobacco Road” by Leonard Feather, pg. N27, col. 1:
“For years I played night clubs, working the .”

Time magazine
Soulin’ & Sweet-Talkin’
Friday, Jan. 27, 1967
For more than ten years, most U.S. jazz polls have named Frank Sinatra the top male vocalist. Now, for the first time, a rank outsider suddenly shows every sign of deposing the “Chairman of the Board.” Lou Rawls is his name, and “soulin’ “ is his game.

The elusive, bittersweet quality that gives bite to the blues, soulin’ is a Rawls specialty. His style is all his own. Drawing from a mixed bag of songs, he improvises effortlessly within a three-octave range, spiraling up to a keening, gospel wail, then swooping down to a gritty, resonant bottom. Betwixt and between, he intersperses rhythmic lick-ety-split soliloquies. He will lead into Streetcorner Hustler’s Blues, for example, by telling of a two-timing hippie who pleads with his knife-wielding wife to take his white-on-white Cadillac “butjustdon’tcutmynewsuit’causeljustgotit outofthepawnshopandlgottohavemy-frontsolcankeepmakingmygame.” The tumbling litanies lend a lively, mirthful twist to the songs’ plaintive themes.

From Chitlins to Champagne. No one is more dazzled by the sudden mass acceptance of the Rawls style than Rawls himself. Only four months ago, he completed what he hopes was his last engagement on the “chitlin circuit"—a string of small Negro nightclubs such as Cleveland’s Corner Tavern, San Francisco’s Sugar Hill, St. Louis’ Riviera. In most of them, the singer perches on a dime-sized platform above the bar and tries to make himself heard above the jingle of the cash register and the jangle of the audience.

20 April 1967, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Soul Singer Rawls at Cocoanut Grove” by Leonard Feather, part IV, pg. C10:
There he stood, just a few short yesternights ago, working a joint along what he calls “the Chitlin’ Circuit,” singing hard-shell blues for peanut pay, backed by a pick-up trio.

Time magazine
All in the Black Family
Monday, Apr. 17, 1972
(...)
Dirty Jokes. Eventually, (Redd—ed.)Foxx worked up to the Chitlin’ Circuit, the trade name for the black clubs and music halls around the country.

Google Books
Encyclopedia of the Blues
Edited by Edward Komara
New York, NY: Routledge
2006
Pg. 205:
CHITLIN CIRCUIT
Chitterling, chitling, chitlin—small instestines of pigs trimmed of fat, scrupulously cleaned, and either boiled or fried—the most distinctive and classic example of Southern African American soul cooking—was also the name for the circuit of small venues in the postwar era South that featured live R&B music. WHile today “Chitlin circuit” is used to describe a variety of locations (boker bars, comedy clubs, and small theaters dedicated to African American productions), the original usage referred specifically to small southern clubs, night spots, cafes, resorts, warehouses, dance halls, and roadside joints.
(...)
Evelyn Johnson, who established the Buffalo Booking Agency in Houston in association with Don D. Robey’s Peacock Records, believes the term “chitlin circuit” was coined by “the Eastern establishment” to describe her operation—a circuit of small clubs, dance halls, and juke joints designed to get Peacock acts personal appearances before a wider audience and create a demand for Peacock Records in a wiider market.

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • Thursday, November 20, 2008 • Permalink