On the Road With the Chitlin’ Circuit

On the Road With the Chitlin’ Circuit

J.T. Crawford

It was a humid, warmer-than-average, spring day in Paducah. Bright, bell-like tones rang out just south of Broadway somewhere around 6th and 7th streets. Those in the neighborhood, from old to young, took to the sidewalks, walking, searching for the source of the sound.  On the front porch of the Hotel Metropolitan, in a ramshackle chair, sat a lanky young man, electric guitar in hand, an amp by his feet. His fingers glided along the strings as he swung his hips back and forth, the chair twisting, turning, dancing to every beat. 

It was the early 1950s. The young man had mastered the instrument, and he had a show that night in Paducah. B.B. King was well on his way to becoming the King of the Blues. But, because of the color of his skin, the only place he could call home while in Paducah was the Hotel Metropolitan. There, he found refuge, rest, and a community who were more than eager to take in an intimate, musical moment on the front porch.

African American musicians were a mainstay of touring artists who visited Paducah. Black musicians made their way from river cities such as Memphis, St. Louis, and New Orleans, taking their songs to the rest of the world. Sadly, it was a challenge to find lodging and food on the road due to segregation. The Hotel Metropolitan was a place of respite. Opened in 1908, the hotel was known by traveling African American artists as a welcoming, friendly place to stay. Beginning in the 1940s, the Hotel Metropolitan was known as a place to stay along the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of venues and cities where black artists could perform. 

“There were many musicians who stayed here,” says Betty Dobson who runs the Hotel Metropolitan, now a museum and historic landmark. “Velma Hammock, who owned a funeral home nearby, told me that Louis Armstrong was a regular.” Louis had been discovered in New Orleans by Paducah native Fate Marable who was a bandleader on the paddlewheelers up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. “Mrs. Hammock was known for her beautiful voice. So when Louis would come into town, he’d stop and see Mrs. Hammock. Once, he was scheduled to play at the Irvin Cobb for a white audience. She said he was so excited about the event and about being able to perform in Paducah.” The show, while wildly successful, was still tinged with the nefariousness of segregation. “During the break,” adds Betty, “they were not allowed to use the restrooms. They were given coffee cans and directed to the roof.”

Another up-and-coming star who visited Paducah was Ella Fitzgerald when she was part of the Chick Webb Band. “Joe Dance, who went to my church, told me that he went to see them,” says Betty. “He had a few drinks in him, and he decided to ask Ella to dance. He walked up and said, ‘Ella Fitzgerald, my name is Joe Dance. Want a dance?’ He said they both started laughing. It just didn’t come out right.”

There are tales of people like Duke Ellington who rolled into town in a new Cadillac. Many of the boys in the neighborhood had never seen such a car, so it attracted a small crowd of kids who wanted to touch it. Duke spent a little bit of time shooing them away.

Later, acts like Ike and Tina Turner played Paducah and stayed at the hotel. “A gentleman told me he’d gone to the civic center to see them,” recalls Betty. “He was so excited to see Tina that he grabbed her leg while she was on stage. Ike walked over and hit him in the head with his guitar and never stopped playing.” 

Others who stayed at the Hotel Metropolitan included Sam Cooke, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson, just to name a few. One of the favorite rooms of several artists was tucked away in the far back corner of the first floor. The room had a fireplace and offered some seclusion. Duke Wade, who had been the road manager for many acts, remembered the room. As the hotel underwent renovation in the late 90s, Mr. Wade told Betty about the existence of the fireplace which had long been walled-in.

One can only imagine nights at the local skating rink with performers like B.B. King and Cab Calloway as they poured their youthful energies into crowds who danced shoulder to shoulder, packed together, lost in the music. Can you envision “Mr. Dynamite” James Brown under the lights at Brooks Stadium on a hot August Paducah night just two months after he’d released his new song “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag?” These are a part of Paducah’s history. And, following their shows, they found rest at the Hotel Metropolitan.

“Paducah and this hotel were well-known,” says Betty. “Once you got here, you could rest easy. You could find a place to actually get a room where there were people who would take care of you, feed you, and encourage you along the way.” 

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