Good work but you might get paid with ‘chitlins’ and other fixings
African American entertainers know well the string of juke joints, auditoriums, social halls, clubs and theaters where almost all-black audiences flocked to hear them perform.
Singers, musicians and comedians made the rounds to the venues where they could be booked for shows. Back then, that meant segregated audiences because nearly all white-owned and operated establishments refused to hire black talent or admit black patrons.
The backbone of the circuit system was bar and night club owners, booking agents and the talent, who rolled in to a town, played a set or two, ate, drank, then moved on to the next town.
What do ‘chitlins’ have to do with it, you ask?
Well, sometimes at the end of the night there wasn’t enough cash to pay the artist. Sometimes a nefarious booking agent absconded with the night’s take or shorted the artist on his or her cut.
When that happened, the entertainers got a room for the night in someone’s home and food: chitlins (formally known as chitterlings), collard greens, potato salad, fried chicken, pig feet, corn bread and black-eyed peas. Chitlins – instead of cash money – was the payment method so often that making the rounds at these black-owned establishments became known as the “Chitlin Circuit.”
From the early 1900s till the late 1960s, artists such as Etta James, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson, The Temptations, The Supremes, Richard Pryor, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown and many, many others played the circuit during the outset of their careers.
The Apollo Theater in Harlem was the most famous venue. Others included the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Fox Theater in Detroit, the Regal Theatre in Chicago and the Royal Peacock Theater in Atlanta.
Sam and Dave met in about 1962 on “chitlin circuit” in Miami at a place called the King of Hearts Club. They began singing as a duo shortly afterward. They, too, traveled the circuit up and down the East Coast and throughout the South.
Newton Collier, a Macon trumpet player, met Sam and Dave in 1965 in Augusta and they asked him to join the Sam and Dave band at the young age of 20.
Collier, now 71, talks about what it was like on the circuit in the mid- to late-60s with Sam and Dave.
While playing at the Apollo Theater, Sam and Dave caught the eye of famed television show host Ed Sullivan, who did his own scouting for acts. Collier says Sullivan was so impressed that he invited the Sam and Dave band to perform live on national television in 1969.
Anyone who has ever been to Sam and Dave performance knows that the stage was alive with dancing and movement. From the bouncing, skipping, swinging, stepping gyrations of Dave and Sam to the coordinated moves of the band members, it was exhilarating to witness.
“They were just two dancing fools. Man, they could dance,” former Sam and Dave band member Newton Collier recalls about the hundreds of shows in which he played trumpet or trombone with the Sam and Dave band.
“Our whole strategy started out as ‘If we can’t out play you, we’re gonna out dance you,’ said Collier, now 71, who lives in Macon, Ga.
Collier describes the amount of work involved in carefully choreographing the band’s signature dances. They spent hours learning dance steps for each song, led by fellow trumpet player Pete Carter.
HBCU band members were ideal
Collier says the Sam and Dave band used historically black colleges and universities such as Morris Brown College in Atlanta and Florida A & M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee as training grounds for future band members. Both schools are well known for producing the best marching band talent in the nation. In these bands, it’s not enough to play a musical instrument well. Musicians must be able to play and execute the latest dance moves at the same time. That was the case with anyone who hoped to join the Sam and Dave band, Collier said.
“You need musicians that can memorize the song and dance and play,” Collier said, adding, “We had great musicians come through the band, but they couldn’t dance.”
He added: “They could play the music all right, that’s good. But we were not a sit down band."
Collier recalled their 1968 performance at Madison Square Gardens in New York. They had an 18-piece band doing steps similar to what Collier describes as synchronized swimming. Each band member started a move, which was then followed with the next step performed by the next musician in the line. This was repeated on down the line and eventually went back around to the first player.
“That’s something to see,” Collier said.
Just like Madison Square Gardens, the live shows were electric. Sam and Dave danced and sang and the band played and danced as well. For the audience, their attention shifted back and forth from the singers to the musicians, watching to see what moves came next.
Added Collier: “The crowd was going wild because they couldn’t figure out who to look at first.”
“Hold on, I’m coming” released 50 years ago this month
It was March 1966 and two young singers were slowly making their mark on music history.
Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter, the song-writing Stax Records duo, collaborated on the lyrics that made Sam and Dave the sensations that they were. As the story goes, Porter was in the bathroom and Hayes yelled to him to hurry up so that they could get back to writing.
Porter yelled back: “Hold on, I’m Coming.”
He immediately latched on to the phrase and the two writers penned Sam and Dave’s first big hit.
It was followed a year later by an even bigger hit: “Soul Man.”
While Hayes and Porter provided masterful lyrics, everyone agrees it was Sam and Dave’s call and response gospel style performance and stage presence that made their songs so popular to audiences.
Today, tracks from Sam and Dave hits can be heard in the backdrop of scores of movies, especially those about the Viet Nam war.
Here’s to 50 years of “holding on.”
Here’s a treat.
Newton Collier, now 71, was 20 years old in 1965 when he met a young singing duo in Augusta, Ga.
Collier had started playing the trumpet in Macon at the tender age of 14. He learned by listening to other musicians and then recreating their tunes on his aunt’s piano.
Prater family members had a chance to sit down with Collier in Macon March 21, 2016, and talk about meeting the singers the world would soon know as “Soul Men” Sam and Dave.
After that first meeting in 1965, Sam and Dave asked Collier to join the band and he went on the road with them on the “Chitlin” circuit. They played in clubs and dance halls from the Apollo Theater in New York to the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. They drove a series of used station wagons, vans and buses across the Jim Crow South in the turbulent Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
When they played to all-white audiences in Alabama, they had police escorts. Their van passed Freedom Riders who were protesting segregation throughout the South and often preceded them or joined them in towns where they performed. Collier said those were tense days, but they let their music speak for them and put it all on stage. It was common to have five-hour high-energy performances.
Stay tuned to www.PraterMusicFest.com for more memories of life on the road with Sam and Dave.
Dave Prater’s hometown of Ocilla, Ga., is celebrating the man and his music during Prater Music Fest May 12-14, 2016.
In this clip, Collier talks about how he learned to play music in Macon, Ga.
Thanks to Stax Records Facebook page for posting this jewel and reminder about Dave Prater's world travels. Dave is on the far right at the airport in London in March 1967.
And thanks to Jean Paul Pecreaux for his photo at Orly Airport as Sam and Dave arrive with Otis Redding in 1967.
Sadly, Redding died less than nine months later when his private jet plunged into a lake while on the way to Madison, Wisc., for a nightclub show.
Prater's sister Lillie remembers that after that crash Dave was extremely nervous about flying. He would call her to let her know he arrived safely after every airline flight.