Chitlin’ Circuit’s Start in the Bayou Region

sally-anne torres staff

In the mid-1900s, music could be heard throughout the Bayou Region of South Louisiana when the sun set. 

 Playing through the night, blues, rock, jazz and soul harmonized with the late-night laughter of African American artists who established venues for performers since they were not allowed in white spaces.

Frank Painai owned a barbershop-turned-hotel on LaSalle Street in New Orleans, where musicians like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Irma Thomas played inside.

During the 1930s, Painai decided to expand and build a bar and hotel inside the shop. The inn was more than just a place to watch performers and sleep. The inn acted as an incubator for the start of Rock ‘n’ Roll, according to the Dew Drop’s website. 

Artists would often travel through the night to the next venue, trying to stay out of the police’s eye.  

“It’s almost like another form of the Underground Railroad. They had ways to move around to evade running into the law. Many times they [Black musicians] were targeted.”

Painai and Hosea Hill, an entrepreneur from Thibodaux, made good friends and even better business partners. When the musicians finished at the inn, Hill would take artists from there and bring them an hour southwest to the Sugar Bowl in Thibodaux, also known as Hosea’s Place, says Angela Watkins, Hill’s niece. 

Watkins recalls the Sugar Bowl as being the most popular club in Thibodaux.

“There was always entertainment at Uncle Hosea’s Place. His place was the most popular,” says Watkins, “When they [musicians] came through the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, the next stop was the Sugar Bowl.”

The business owner and entrepreneur also hired the Hosea Hill Serenaders, the Sugar Bowl’s house band, to play during the week when no big acts were in town. 

When big names performed, like Tina Turner, Guitar Slim and Fats Domino, teens could be found spread around the club’s perimeter, hoping to catch a glimpse of the show. 

“When artists would come close to Thibodaux, like New Orleans, Hill arranged for them to pass through Thibodaux as well,” says Patrick Bell, pastor at Allen Chapel AME in Thibodaux. 

Hosea would book out Stark Field, then a baseball field and now the police station on Canal Boulevard in Thibodaux, for bigger shows like Lloyd Price or James Brown. Gigs like these were Thibodaux’s first integrated events. 

“He could put on concerts at Stark Field, rent it, and fill it,” says Denis Gaubert, a local historian and former lawyer in Thibodaux. 

Odd Fellows Hall, the Rose Club and the Hawaiian Lounge could be found 15 miles down the bayou in Houma. 

“It [Odd Fellows Hall and the Hawaiian Lounge] was a stomping ground,” says Scoby.

Scoby says the venues along the circuit served as a safe space for the African American community to gather and have fun.

Bell says, “It [Chitlin’ Circuit] was the inspiration for a lot of people from Thibodaux that got into the performing arts business, particularly music.”