In the early part of the 20th century, African American musicians and comedians couldn’t just walk into any place and work their magic. There were several black-owned venues at which the black artist on their way to fame and fortune got his or her start. These venues, which were strung together and played one after another, were called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” The term refers to the delicacy enjoyed by African Americans and is a play on the term “Borscht Belt,” which referred to resort venues popular among Jewish performers and audiences.
Many of these venues were located in the South, as segregation meant that black artists who couldn’t find black venues simply could not perform before an audience. Noted venues included: The Ritz Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida, Abe’s 506 Club in Pensacola, the Carver Theatre in Birmingham, Southern Whispers Restaurant in Greenville, Mississippi, the Hippodrome Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, the Apollo Theatre, Cotton Club, and Small’s Paradise in New York City, and the Fox in Detroit. Many of the nation’s most renowned artists worked on the Chitin’ Circuit, such as James Brown, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Etta James, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye, Richard Pryor, Patti LaBelle, and The Supremes.
Many new genres of music were developed further in the course of performance in the Chitlin’ Circuit venues, including Delta blues, various forms of jazz, and jump blues. The performers of the circuit also played an undeniable role in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Modern American musical traditions of all types in some way, shape, or form owe their development to the innumerable black performers who spent countless hours in packed cars and busses on the way to the next Chitlin’ Circuit venue.