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Published 11 April 2012 14:45, Updated 12 April 2012 11:34
Next time you’re tempted to complain about payroll tax or weekend penalty rates, read this book.
Memphis-based journalist Preston Lauterbach’s story of the African-American entrepreneurs who created the US southern states’ network of nightclubs, promoters and touring bands, which became known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit” – after the pig intestine snack favoured by its working-class patrons – is proof that if you have the ambition and the ideas, even a government intent on segregating and disenfranchising you can’t stop you making loads of money.
Most music fans know the superstars who honed their acts performing on the Chitlin’ Circuit – Louis Jordan, B.B. King and Little Richard to name but three.
However, Lauterbach’s heroes are the little-known men who, from the early 1930s, had the genius to turn the conditions of their oppression to financial advantage.
They alone saw the economic potential of any small southern town with a sizeable black population. If it was big enough to have a “stroll” – segregation-era parlance for the street where the black barber shops, gambling dens and “niteries” were set up close by the rooming houses of their customers – it was on the radar of men like Denver Ferguson.
A World War I veteran who joined the African-American Great Migration upon his return from Europe, Ferguson moved from Brownsville, Kentucky, to “Bronzeville”, as the “stroll” of Indianapolis was proudly known. But an ambitious African-American man like Ferguson could choose from only a strangling few professional options.
“Aside from busting his back and knuckles on the farm or in a factory, he could go straight and work as a pay-what-you-can physician, dentist or attorney serving a poor population,” Lauterbach writes. “This simply wouldn’t do.” So Ferguson started an illegal lottery or “numbers” game, using a printing business he set up to produce the entry forms. They were designed to look like legitimate baseball score cards – at least to the cops who hadn’t been bribed. The contained nature of the “stroll”, enforced by Jim Crow segregation laws, ironically made numbers an efficient and highly profitable enterprise.
What’s most interesting about Ferguson, however, is not his racketeering but how he chose to launder his booty.
He noticed relatively good money being made by 10- to 12-piece bands taking themselves on tours of the south.
For all the dangers they held for bus loads of travelling black musicians, southern towns had several advantages. There was less competition than in the dance halls of New York or Chicago, which in any case were controlled by the Mafia; the townsfolk were starved of novelty since the Depression had done with travelling vaudeville shows; and again, the compact nature of the “stroll” made advance promotion a breeze.
Another advantage, that will resonate with BRW readers today, was figured out by a pioneer of southern band tours, Jimmie Lunceford, leader of the Chickasaw Syncopators.
“Lunceford baulked at the membership policies of the musicians’ union,” Lauterbach reports.
“The 802 [union branch] required all orchestra players to maintain union status locally wherever they played and imposed lengthy probation periods before activating new memberships ... The arrangement encouraged lengthy single-club indentures, protecting the boss’s interests over the band’s.”
However, Lunceford had been around long enough to know, in Lauterbach’s memorable phrase, that while the 802 enforced its dominance in the big cities, “it found the sticks not to be worth the trouble”.
It gave guys such as Ferguson and Lunceford a choice: chase big Harlem and the chance of a white audience, or little Harlems and assured cash flow.
Ferguson decided to put black audiences first, starting the Ferguson Bros. booking agency in 1941, just as World War II jobs started putting unprecedented money into African-American pockets.
His innovation was to industrialise the southern touring process. He sought out fellow gangsters and bootleggers-turned-promoters such as Don Robey in Houston or “Sunbeam” Mitchell in Memphis and struck agreements to book each other’s contracted acts in their nightclubs.
“The money principles of the numbers game applied,” Lauterbach writes.
“The Negro individual lacked financial resources but the stroll possessed collective wealth in nickel and dime increments. Add those nickels and dimes, multiply by numerous bands playing different joints simultaneously with a percentage of proceeds from each flowing back to Ferguson, repeat nightly, and you come to see, as Denver correctly surmised, that there was serious cash down there.”
Ferguson knew how to play the press, too. He put the most-loved columnist for Indianapolis’s black newspaper on to the Ferguson Bros. board, parlaying the relationship into glowing articles about his clients and their upcoming tours on the Associated Negro Press wire.
Years before Motown, Ferguson and Robey also owned record companies as part of their promotion machinery.
The end of segregation killed off the “stroll” and the Chitlin’ Circuit as it was.
However, the way Ferguson and the other Chitlin’ Circuit pioneers made their money still has plenty to teach today’s business person. Their success illustrates the value of networks, a repeatable business model and the courage to sniff opportunity in utter adversity.
It’s a bonus that such fantastic music derived from their efforts.