Getting on the Chitlin’ Circuit

skylar neal staff

Musicians like Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitsgerald and Sam Cooke made their debut on the Chitlin’ Circuit. 

“You really had to play, ‘cause those people were really hard to please… That’s where I learned to play, really, in Nashville [on the Chitlin Circuit],” Hendrix says in a 1967 interview with the Los Angeles Free Press.

Performers joined the circuit in three ways: word of mouth between managers, connections with circuit venue managers or using booking companies to book the performers into the circuit. 

Local historian Denis Gaubert says Black venue owners would go to each other’s venues and scout for good performers. He says performers would directly contact owners to say,

“Look, if you're looking for some talent or something like that, we can come play - this is what we’ve got.”

Booking companies would book performers if Circuit venue managers did not. There were two major booking companies within Chitlin’ Circuit history: The Theatre Owners Booking Association, which started in 1920, and The Ferguson Brothers Booking Agency, which started in 1940 when the Theatre Owners Booking Association disintegrated after the Great Depression. 

The entertainers heard about the circuit through word of mouth and saw advertisements around town in the form of posters, papers and news clippings. 

“Everything was posters if they could afford posters,” says Angela Watkins, the niece of one of Thibodaux’s biggest circuit managers, Hosea Hill. “Otherwise, it was just scribbling on a piece of paper tacked to the front door saying ‘appearing tonight’ and so forth.” 

The venue size and the musician’s fame determined the payment amount for a performer. The performers were paid a portion of the venue’s cover charge profits for the entire night. Sometimes, the venues did not have enough money to pay their performers, so they paid them with food.

Without the Chitlin’ Circuit, these artists would not be as big as they are today. 

“Those people were not famous at [the start of the Chitlin’ Circuit]. The Chitlin’ Circuit helped bring up a lot of first-class acts that went on to become famous,” Watkins says. “These were struggling entertainers trying to perfect their talents.” 

Getting on the Circuit

Hearing About The Circuit

Word of mouth

Posters, papers and newspaper clippings

The Booking

Talk between managers of the Chitlin’ Circuit venues

Booking companies

The Pay

A portion of the venue’s cover charge profits

Sometimes the venues did not have enough money, so they paid them with food