The story begins with a musician and entrepreneur named Walter Barnes, a mover and shaker who crossed racial lines to buddy up with Al Capone, who taught him how to organize. In the Jazz Age, so-called territory bands played out of hotel ballrooms and broadcast over low-watt radio stations but also traveled as far as their reputations (and broadcasts) carried them. Barnes contacted dance-hall operators, promoters, colored-friendly hotels and restaurants, and took the territory band to a whole new level; like Capone’s Italian ancestors, he fused a bunch of separate city-states into a cohesive whole.
The key to the chitlin’ circuit was “the stroll,” the main thoroughfare of the black part of town, the street with the barber shops, dental clinics, drugstores, cab companies, restaurants, lodgings, and dance halls. In Monroe, La., that would have been Desiard Street; in Jacksonville, Fla., West Ashley Street; in Macon, Ga., Fifth Street; and in my home town of Tallahassee, the stroll would have been Macomb Street, where, when I came in 1969, the Red Bird Club was still in business.
Just before and during World War II, entertainers like Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five showed that a handful of musicians could make just as much noise as an entire orchestra. As men and resources went into the war effort, Jordan became the model for every black pop group from Little Richard and Fats Domino to B. B. King and James Brown. These entertainers roughed up Jordan’s svelte style as swing became rhythm ‘n’ blues and the word “rock” began to appear in one form or another in song lyrics, like Roy Brown’s 1947 “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” as well as newspaper write-ups that described audiences as “rockin’” to the new sound.