Showstoppers and Curtain Raisers: Darby and Tarlton and the Road to Rock and Roll
Hello everyone! Before we leave the music world of the early twentieth century in Columbus, there are a few more stops along the road and one famous duo that needs to be recognized. This Spotlight may feel a little more disjointed than others, but I wanted to provide a little more of the story on the Chitlin' Circuit and country blues music in Columbus before moving forward. There will also be Facebook and Instagram posts this month to fill in very important music gaps, such as – the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Bob Barr, Ed Cox, Precious Bryant, as well as individual posts on other artists, specific movie theaters, and drive-ins. For September, we will continue to showcase our town's cultural arts history, along with special spotlights on local icons such as Nunally Johnson, Carson McCullers, and Alma Thomas. All of these stories (and more!) will become a part of a second history exhibit at the RiverCenter, opening in January. SOURCES: In Order of Appearance: Chronicling 135 years on America’s Most Celebrated Stage, F. Clason Kyle, 2006. African American Theaters in Georgia: Preserving an Entertainment Legacy by Jason L. Ellerbee. University of Georgia, Master of Historic Preservation Thesis, 2004. Darby & Tarlton Biography by Sandra Brennan, This Place Matters by Virginia T. Peebles and Elizabeth K. Barker, 2016. On the stroll: a book review of “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Preston Lauterbach by LEONARD NEVAREZ on Dec 10, 2011.
The Lower Chattahoochee is most well-known as home to Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1882–1939), one of the most celebrated early "classic blues" singers. The mostly band-oriented style that Rainey popularized, however, differs from country blues that can also be found in the region which typically features one or two musicians and an acoustic guitar. One of Columbus’ most widely recognized country blues duos is Darby and Tarlton. Singer Tom Darby and slide guitarist Jimmie Tarlton were not only legendary bluesmen, but also pioneers of country music. Although they were only together for a brief time during the late 1920s and early '30s, they popularized the steel slide guitar in the genre and exerted a heavy influence on the Allen Brothers and the Delmore Brothers.
Jimmie Tarlton was born in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, the son of sharecroppers. His parents taught him traditional songs and the fretless banjo, and by age 12, he was learning to play the slide guitar from the Black musicians he encountered in his family's numerous travels. As a young man he became a street musician living off tips. His travels led him across the country, and everywhere he went, he added local songs to his expanding repertoire. On the West Coast in the early '20s, he met Frank Ferera, who taught him how to use the steel slide to play the more free-flowing Hawaiian guitar. When Tarlton settled down in Columbus, Georgia, he met a guitarist and extraordinary blues singer named Tom Darby, a Columbus native who learned his vocal stylings from local Black singers. Darby was related to Riley Puckett, star of the Skillet Lickers. A local talent scout convinced the two to team up and landed them an audition with Columbia Records. Their first recorded single made fun of Florida land speculators and was titled "Down in Florida on a Hog." Their next two songs, "Birmingham Jail" -- which Tarlton claimed sprang from his experience after being incarcerated -- and "Columbus Stockade Blues," were enormously successful and have since become country standards. Audiences were impressed as well – Stockade Blues sold close to 200,000 copies. Despite the profits reaped from their album sales, Darby and Tarlton received only a flat $75.00 fee.
The duo scored their next major hit in 1928 with "Lonesome Railroad." Among their other hits were the straight-ahead blues tunes "Traveling Yodel Blues" and "Heavy Hearted Blues." The two experienced contract difficulties with Columbia in late 1929 and recorded their last session the following year. Darby and Tarlton recorded 63 songs. Tom Darby formed a short-lived duo in 1931 together with Jesse Pitts, called The Georgia Wildcats. In 1933, Darby and Tarlton went their separate ways professionally. They both retired from music in 1935. Darby did, however, visit Tarlton occasionally. Following retirement, Tom Darby had other business ventures, including a stint "running moonshine." He would row a boat filled with moonshine from a small island near Phenix City, Alabama (where his still was located) to the Columbus, Georgia, side across the Chattahoochee River. A simple yet effective method was employed to avoid prosecution. If Olene saw a "revenooer" (as they were called), she would wave a dark handkerchief. If it was safe, she would wave a light-colored handkerchief. On at least one occasion, a "revenooer" had shown up...and a dark-colored handkerchief was waved. Darby reversed course, rowing back to the Alabama side. When the agent approached Mrs. Darby, he asked what she was doing. She replied, "I was waving to my husband." When asked why he had turned around, she replied, "He must have forgotten something."
Darby and Tarlton remained largely forgotten until the folk revival of the 1960s, which allowed Tarlton to record an album, appear at folk clubs, and sit for interviews with a number of folklorists. In 1963, they reunited to perform in Lakebottom when they agreed to be part of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra's opening pops concert. Both men are buried in Riverdale Cemetery.
Blues music was also evolving within the African American communities in the South and in Columbus. With more cities and towns to play in, the Chitlin’ Circuit set in motion big changes for Black music in the South. World War II was an important catalyst. Wartime mobilization put African Americans to work at rates not seen since before the Depression; thus, folks had some money in their pockets to spend on entertainment. The war also froze the record industry for several years, as jukebox factories converted to military production and shellac rationing brought record manufacturing to a stop in 1943. Thus, demand for more live entertainment in the South and African American communities would significantly grow. These were about as good a set of circumstances in which Black musicians could pursue a career, and the Chitlin’ Circuit began to overflow with performers.
This image and the next three were featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today in articles on the Chitlin' Circuit.
Wartime allocations were also shaping how bands were formed. It accelerated the decline of the big jazz orchestras, as a result of the Office of Defense Transportation imposing a bus ban as part of fuel rationing. This was a direct blow to the traditional means of big-band transport. The end of the war also saw African Americans lose work en masse, and the subsequent dampening of entertainment demand meant club owners could no longer afford big orchestras’ fees. Smaller units were best adapted to these circumstances; with fewer musicians to pay, savings could be passed on down to ticket prices. The meteoric rise of Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five, the small jump-jive combo fronted by a zany bandleader, to the top of Billboard Magazine’s “Race Records” charts in 1943 illustrated the decline of the jazz swing orchestra in Black America’s popular music (this music would remain beloved to mainstream white audiences for many more years).
Instrumentation would change with the shift to smaller bands; vocalists and electric guitar would especially benefit in the musical space that opened. Guitar and saxophone would symbolize a new aesthetic. Now, the music rocked, and the lyrics would often say as much, most famously in Roy Brown’s 1948 smash hit “Good Rockin’ Tonight;” potentially the first rock’n’roll record to come out of the Chitlin’ Circuit and reach major commercial success. Author Preston Lauterbach states, “The shift to smaller bands in turn changed Black musicians’ employment circumstances. After Louis Jordan’s rise pushed the vocalist into the limelight, the band became an afterthought. Early rock star-attractions Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, T-Bone Walker, Cecil Gant, and Ivory Joe Hunter traveled without bands. Hell, anyone could be the band, as long as the star, whose voice you heard on the jukebox and face you’d seen on the posters, was there on stage. For most Chitlin’ Circuit musicians, finding a gig no longer involved joining a roadworthy band, but rather being in the right place when touring musicians came to town.”
Local economies also grew as a result of providing support for the touring musicians (local tailors to mend uniforms, barbers, auto mechanics to fix the cars…) in the era of segregation. In these nondescript places, nightlife amenities were rarely provided in-house. Providing the suppers, cold beer, garage fans, front door security, and the like would be tasks outsourced to residents. This was also the culture of support that had already been well established in the Liberty area in Columbus. What we now call The Liberty District was originally settled in the 1830s and 1840s by the African American population of Columbus, enslaved and free. By 1887, the city directory included listings in the Liberty area by streets for the first time. The directories show that various businesses and the arts that would continue to thrive in the area well into the mid-twentieth century despite the obstacles imposed by segregation and economics. African Americans in Columbus claimed the Liberty area as their “Magic City” of hopes, dreams, and success. It centered around entertainment, church life, and a flourishing mix of businesses.
In addition to The Liberty Theatre, there were three other buildings that housed auditoriums on their upper floors. These smaller spaces were vital to nurturing the arts for African Americans in Columbus. Each of them would bring in local entertainment as well as travelling musicians. Porter’s Building (600 8th Street) was built in the early 20th century. This two-story brick commercial building was home to many businesses. Its most well-known occupant was Coffee’s Drugstore. Dr. Coffee, an early Black pharmacist in Columbus operated the drug store for many years before relocating into his own building at 620 Eighth Street. The first floor of Porter’s Building also housed several restaurants and a grocery store. It was the upstairs space that made it special to the neighborhood. It featured an auditorium for local and travelling African American musicians to perform. The building was vacant and abandoned for many years. The interior walls were removed and replaced by steel beams to stabilize the structure. Unfortunately, it was recently demolished by the City of Columbus as a result of continued negligence on the part of the owner.
The Pierce Building (9th Street and 5th Avenue) Mrs. Lizzie Mae Lunsford and her brother, Richard Pierce, played a larger role in the growth of the Liberty District. Richard constructed the three-story Pierce Building, c. 1920 starting the development of Ninth Street into a commercial corridor. It was constructed on what came to be called, “Magic Corner,” Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. Upon his death in 1934, Mrs. Lunsford continued the business affairs and operations of the Pierce Building. The first floor of the building housed a drug store, restaurant, and barber shop; the second floor a haberdashery and various professional offices; and the third floor an auditorium. During WW II, it was also the main bus depot for Ft. Benning soldiers (24th Infantry – Black; 29th Infantry – white). Mrs. Lunsford’s son, Walter, owned and operated the Fox Deluxe Wholesale Beer Distributing Co. and the Pierce Amusement Company. He would also establish the city's first Black taxi companies. For the Lunsfords, it was all about building family, growing relationships, and supporting your community. Today, the building is still standing.
The Sconiers Building (502 9th Street) Located across Fifth Avenue from the Pierce Building, this structure was also an important part of “Magic Corner.” It was built in 1916 by John L. Sconiers, along with a funeral home that was adjacent to the building. It was one of the most modern and completely equipped funeral homes in the south. The ground floor was occupied by the Laborer’s Savings and Loan Company for several years. Sconiers founded the bank in 1921 – it was the first Black bank for Columbus. It closed its doors in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Like the Pierce Building, its second floor housed professional offices and the third floor was the Sconiers Auditorium. Today, the building is mainly vacant.
A big chapter in the history of the Chitlin’ Circuit would close when the record companies finally made stars out of performers like Little Richard, Fats Domino, James Brown, BB King, Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner, and Lou Rawls in the 1950s and 60s. These three buildings would also see their auditorium spaces change in use over the course of several decades with the construction of a new city auditorium in the mid-1950s. What became called The Municipal Auditorium created a larger venue for these artists who were rising in popularity and crossing racial lines. It is assumed that many of the stars of the Chitlin’ Circuit not only made stops at the Liberty Theatre, but also the smaller venues like Porter’s, Sconiers, and Pierce – among others. If there are resources you know of to find out more information, please share them with us! We need to expand these important cultural stories of our town. Next Week: Next Thursday, we will continue exploring our community's cultural arts history with the beginnings of the movie theater business. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!