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.