They call it the "chitlin' circuit": a network of roadhouses and theaters across the South, where for decades mostly black musicians and comedians have played to mostly black audiences. But up North, if you wanted to hear Marvin "The Candy Licker" Sease or catch a play by Tyler Perry before he went Hollywood, you were probably out of luck — unless you went to Skippy White's Records.
The man born Fred LeBlanc opened his first record store in 1961, so he could have a sponsor for his fledgling R&B radio show on WILD-AM. He went on to be an New England outpost for soul music. Now, to celebrate his store's 50th anniversary, White is bringing one of the chitlin' circuit's stars, Roy C, to town on Saturday.
"Skippy's been selling my stuff since 'Shotgun Wedding,'" says Roy C, referring to his 1965 hit. (For the record, Roy C dismisses the term "chitlin' circuit," complaining that it evokes images of small juke joints rather than the large festivals he often headlines.)
How did Boston get on the circuit? "To generalize, most of the Southern soul fans here came to Boston from down South 30 or 40 years ago," explains White. Those customers go back for family reunions and return "asking for a record they say is big in Georgia, so we track it down. If a record couldn't get played on the radio, we'd play it here in the store, and people would find out about it that way. "
At one point the store, with its motto "Just Hum It," became a regional chain. White's street instincts led to him sell some of the earliest hip-hop cassettes, and he's run a succession of local gospel and R&B record labels whose outputs are prized by collectors.
Today White owns just one store in Roxbury's Egleston Square. Despite dire times for music retailers, he has survived by specializing in niche genres like traditional gospel, which he says accounts for nearly a third of his sales, and Southern soul. His "Time Tunnel" show on Roxbury's unlicensed station Touch FM has a weekly "chitlin' circuit" segment. And White promotes gospel releases and concerts by renting out time on an AM signal for a Sunday-morning show.
Preston Lauterbach, author of The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll, says the R&B scene has long included influential white disc jockeys. "But a white fellow being the glue of the black music community? That's rare."
The store's emphasis on black music didn't just reflect White's own taste. When he first started his business, he had been working at another store and noticed many potential black customers walking out empty-handed when the records they wanted weren't being stocked.
Boston doesn't see much chitlin' action these days. Many of the circuit's older stars, like Sease and blaxploitation film comedian Rudy Ray Moore, have passed away. Some wonder if Saturday's event won't be the last time a down-home Southern soul show happens in Dorchester.
Or maybe it'll inspire the next Skippy White to start booking younger Southern soul stars like Miss Jody and Sir Charles Jones. "All it takes is one passionate person," says Lauterbach, "a promoter, a record retailer, a jock, to share his or her passion and put a place on the chitlin' circuit map."
Roy C performs Saturday, November 5, at the Russell Auditorium in the George Washington Carver Lodge, 70 Talbot Avenue, Dorchester. For more information call 617.524.4500.