Tag Archives: Chitlin Circuit

Black Wall Street and the Blues

June is Black Music Month. This June marks the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. For two days (May 31-June1), white vigilantes massacred black residents, looted and burned to the ground the most prosperous black community in the United States.

The riot took place in the Greenwood District, known as the Black Wall Street, the heart of which was bounded by Greenwood Avenue, and Archer and Pine streets. Tulsa natives, brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson’s band name pays tribute to one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

Black Wall Street, a hotbed for jazz and blues, was a stop on the famed Chitlin’ Circuit. Bandleader Walter Barnes was one of the most colorful characters on “the stroll.”

Walter Barnes and his Creolians

In his book, The Chitlin’ Circuit: and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach writes:

The tour [Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians] kicked off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the week before Thanksgiving, where Barnes found “Black Wall Street” bustling. “Greenwood is the name of the colored district of Tulsa, and one can get anything here from a shoe shine up.” Barnes highlighted the stroll’s musicians, dance promoters, dance halls, and its dentists, barbers, pharmacies, cafes, cab companies, and lodgings, always stressing the up-to-date. “I stopped with my entire orchestra at the modern and exclusive Small Hotel” in Tulsa, “one of the best equipped in the country, having newest electrical fixtures, telephone in each room, bath in every room, and modernistic furniture.” The Kings of Swing played the Crystal Palace Ballroom, “the last word in beauty,” and hung around the Goodie Goodie Club, Cotton Club, and Del Rio. “There’s plenty niteries here.”

In 1940, Barnes was killed in a fire while performing at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. The tragedy was memorialized in tribute songs by blues musicians, including Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

Standard Theater

A stop on the “Chitlin Circuit,” the Standard Theater was owned by African American entrepreneur John T. Gibson.

Standard Theater - Feature

Standard Theatre

From ExplorePAHistory.com

In 1914, Gibson bought the Standard Theatre on the 1100 block of South Street. His timing couldn’t have been better, for in the following years, tens of thousands of southern blacks would pour into the city of Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration unleashed by the First World War.

Young men and women, with good jobs and money in their pockets, flocked to Gibson’s Standard Theatre to see a fare of “High Class and Meritorious Vaudeville,” stage shows, and popular music. The Standard became a regular stop for Black performers on their national tours: comedians Bylow and Ashes, singers Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, Erma C. Miller’s Brown Skinned Models, popularly known as the “Black Rockettes,” and jazz bands led by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

READ MORE

Earle Theater

The Earle Theater was a stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” It was the most expensive theater ever built in Philadelphia at the time. The Earle had an ornate interior and exterior and seating for 2700. It was demolished in July 1953.

In an interview with the Smithsonian Oral History Project, Philly native and NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson talked about how he was inspired to master the saxophone after seeing Lionel Hampton and Arnett Cobb at the Earle Theater:

I guess they usually went until 9 or 10 at night, which meant that they had about three or four shows a day. It was an ongoing thing. Week after week they’d have whatever band was popular. Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, anything. Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill, Tommy Dorsey. Any band that was popular, they would bring there. It was an ongoing thing. Count Basie, Duke Ellington. They all came there.

The reason I went is because I was in high school – Benjamin Franklin High School. The kids were coming back and says, “Oh man. You got to go to the Earle Theater and hear Lionel Hampton. You got to hear him play Flying Home.” Blah blah blah blah. So one day I didn’t go to school. I went there. That’s when I heard him. That’s when my life changed. That’s when I heard Arnett Cobb. Incidentally, years later – many years later – it must have been 50 years later – I happened to see him in Nice, France. I said, “You’re the reason that I play the saxophone.” He says, “I never knew that. Really?” I said, “Yes.” He had tears in his eyes, because he knew who I was. I said, “I hear you play, and that’s when my life changed.”

READ MORE

Uptown Theater

Opened on Feb. 16, 1929, the Uptown began life as a movie house. In the 1950s, it became a music venue. The jazz and blues greats who graced the Uptown stage included Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Gloria Lynne, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Ramsey Lewis, Oscar Brown, Jr., Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Jimmy Smith.

John Coltrane and Miles Davis played there one Christmas Day, but after the first show, they left for New York City because the promoter didn’t pay them.

In 1958, legendary disc jockey Georgie Woods began producing rhythm & blues shows at the Uptown. The 2,040-seat theater became a stop on the “chitlin’ circuit.” The Uptown was where jazz met R&B. Saxophonist Sam Reed was the house bandleader. The Sam Reed Orchestra included Bootsie Barnes, Jimmy Heath and Odean Pope.

The Uptown’s heyday was the 1960s and ‘70s. Since the final curtain in 1978, the interior of the Uptown has deteriorated almost beyond recognition. With the exception of the seats, none of the original artifacts remain.

Uptown Theater

Linda Richardson, president of the Uptown Entertainment & Development Corporation, hopes to bring back the good times. In 2001, UEDC purchased the theater with the goal of renovating the theater into a technology center, artist lofts and office space.”

For information on how you can help restore this Art Deco palace to its former glory and preserve an iconic piece of black music, visit the Uptown Entertainment & Development Corporation.