marsha-philpot-credit-jeff-cancelosi

Marsha Philpot (aka Marsha Music) standing next to a painting of her father, Joe Von Battle. The portrait was created by artist Nicole McDonald – PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Cancelosi

An interview with Marsha Philpot, his daughter, about keeping his legacy alive

 “My father became what is widely understood today as the first black independent record producer in the post-war period in the United States.”

 
Pamela Hilliard Owens: Well our guest today is Marsha Battle Philpot, who is also known as Marsha Music. Marsha, tell us a little bit about yourself.

 

Marsha Philpot: Well, as you said, I am publicly known as Marsha Music. That is my writing name or my Nome de plume that I assumed after I had begun to write in earnest about my father, in particular, who was a record seller and producer by the name of Joe Von Battle. Joe Von Battle, also known as JVB, had a record shop and a recording studio on Hastings Street. I began to write about him over a decade ago, after many years of understanding that he was significant, but not understanding just how significant my father really was. My father had opened up a record store on Hastings Street, which was the main thoroughfare of what was called Black Bottom in Detroit. Black Bottom was the area of Detroit to which black people were relegated due to segregation back in the day.

 

PHO: Exactly. Go ahead and continue on how your father ended up in that area setting up his shop and his business there.

 

MP: Of course, because of the color issue, black people remained physically bound by the stricture of segregation. They began to populate black bottom in greater numbers. Along with in particular Jewish people who also were the focus of extreme virulence and racial hatred. Blacks and Jews in the main tended to be the commercial entrepreneurs of black bottom along with some of the other minorities before they began to assimilate outward. My father in 1945 determined that he no longer wanted to be subjected to the ebbs and flows of the auto industry. He had been laid off after World War II when many of the soldiers came home and replaced the blacks who had finally attained employment in the auto industry.

 

He was one of these people, and it was such a devastation to him, he made a decision in his mind “I will never be subject to that again. I will never work for another man.” He used to say that “I will never work for another man.” He wanted to open a business, so he pondered this apparently. I wasn’t born then. I’m only surmising this. He determined that he wanted to sell records, because records were becoming an increasingly hot commodity. After the war, also because of the availability of vinyl.

 

PHO: Right. It was available more after the war because there was no more rationing.

 

MP: After the war because of the restrictions on all kind of different production. After the war, vinyl became much more available. That was one of reasons why vinyl was blossoming at the time, and also because record players themselves were becoming more household items. There was a time in which you had your large Victrola in the early part of the century with the big bell horn. The amplified horn and the Victrola and you cranked it by hand. Later it became mechanized. Over time, that began after the war with the technology that developed, in particular with the technology that came out of Japan and the East in which people began to bring back, these soldiers began to bring back these smaller record players. You had a perfect storm of changes and development that caused for an upsurge in the demand and the desire and the ability to produce records.
And so my father found himself in the middle of this great maelstrom. He opened up his record store in 1945 on Hastings Street, and Hastings was quite a busy, dynamic place because in those days Detroit was extremely dense. It was a crowded, populated, busy … On shift changes in Detroit you could barely cross streets. That’s one of the reasons for the extreme wideness of Detroit’s streets today because of the heaviness of the traffic.

 

PHO: Wow. That’s interesting.

 

MP: Yes, there are some areas of the city in which there are underground tunnels that go from one side of the street to the other. It exists in Highland Park on 2nd and 3rd Avenue. That’s one of the places that I know of in which we would go underground, underneath 2nd and 3rd Avenue in order to get to the other side .
Detroit was such a proletarian town and there was so much production going on, and so much hither and yon. People going all about throughout the city, and so it was a very busy and dynamic place. Because you had all of these nationalities mingling here you had a great deal of phonic excitement going on because you had the music of the nationality. You had the music of black people who were coming up in droves from the south and they were bringing their music with them.

 

My father, he began to sell records of all kinds. He sold opera. He sold Elvis Presley. In later years he sold country music. He sold a lot of different music, but his particular specialty was the blues. My father was a blues producer because in those days the blues was the popular music that was coming up out of the south and he wanted to cater to the people that were coming from the south and they wanted their music in Detroit. My father became what is widely understood today as he was the first black independent record producer in the post-war period in the United States.
He was a significant architect of Detroit sound because he began to record people. All the people that used to come up and down Hastings Street that wanted to record. He recorded people like Wilson Pickett, and John Lee Hooker, and Della Reese when she was a gospel singer. Little Sonny was a recording artist. People like … Oh, I’m trying to think. Many, many different artists he recorded. Just continuously recording as he opened up a recording studio in the back of his shop.

 

He opened in 1945 and after that period, after a few years he opened up a studio in the back of the shop. In 1953, he heard about a minister down the street who was becoming known for his renowned preaching skills. This man preached so that people called him a preaching machine. He was a preacher’s preacher, and today we don’t appreciate this preacher as much today because it has become the standard form of preaching associated with Black Preachers. In those days the preaching of the Reverend C. L. Franklin was absolutely astonishing.

 

PHO: There are recordings of him with his sermons. Did your dad have anything to do with that?

 

MP: Yes. My father recorded all of the sermons of the Reverend C. L. Franklin. He was his sole record producer throughout his entire career.

 

PHO: I don’t mean to interrupt you, but we need to mention again that. C. L. Franklin’s daughter is who?

 

MP: Well, during some of these sessions my father began to record Reverend C. L. Franklin’s daughter in the choir of the church, and she was a 14-year-old by the name Aretha. My father was the very first to record the voice of Aretha Franklin.
One might say that he accelerated the external careers outside of the church of the Reverend C. L. Franklin and Aretha with his involvement with her early work in particular. She recorded her first singles and albums with him. Over time the demand for these records became so great he was unable to keep up with the production, and so he partnered with the Chess Brothers in Chicago who had come into the recording business after him. My father preceded the Chess Brothers.
He began to partner with them in order to take advantage to do national distribution, and so that’s the arrangement that they had, that those records that my father recorded became distributed under the Chess and Checker labels. Generally, there’s a lot of albums, let’s say, of the Reverend C. L. Franklin or Aretha’s early records that may say Chess Records, but they were all actually recorded by my father, Joe Von Battle, here in Detroit.

 

PHO: Okay, this is so, so fascinating. How long was his record shop open? Did he open up another one? I think you mentioned that. How did expand after the recordings and producing ended?

 

MP: Well, my father in the early to the mid-1950s was very, very prosperous. He had a very dynamic business in recording and in selling records. However, in the mid-1950s the city and the city powers began to make decisions to shut down Hastings Street. They had already begun the process. They had eliminated the Black Bottom area. It had been completely demolished. By almost 1960 most of it was gone. They were also anticipating the destruction of Hastings Street as a part of their general project of urban renewal, as it was called, but our people also tended to call it negro removal because of the obvious aim to go through the Black community. Not only here, but in other areas of the city where the urban renewal tended to lean toward the destruction of the Black communities and the Black commercial districts where the entrepreneurs were concentrated.

 

My father found himself in the path of the destruction of Hastings Street in order to build the Chrysler Freeway. The I-75 loop of the Chrysler Freeway. In 1960 the record shop had to move, and he determined, along with other business people from Hastings Street, to move to 12th Street. Most of the business people in Hastings Street were not able to survive such a move, but those who did congregated over on the avenues of 12th Street, 14th Street, Linwood, Dexter, which had already been Jewish neighborhoods primarily.

 

They began to coalesce there and reconstitute themselves an entrepreneurial center. However, we do believe that there was such a significant loss of Black entrepreneurial power because of the destruction of Hastings and Black Bottom, because of the number of businesses that were destroyed outright or the ones that relocated but could never find a proper footing after that.

 

PHO: Because of this-

 

MP: So he-

 

PHO: Yeah, go ahead.

 

MP: He was on 12th Street by 1960, and he had his record store there. In adapting to the new music, because by the time he got to 12th Street the music had begun to shift away from the music of the southern blues man or blues woman. They had begun to make the shift to the modern music, the modern Motown music that was being produced by his friend Berry Gordy around the corner on West Grand Boulevard at the Hitsville House, and so-
on West Grand Boulevard at the Hitsville House, and that music began to change. The times were changing. Peoples tastes were changing. He was on 12th Street for many years, and that is the record store that I spent a great deal of my time and life in. During those years of the record stores, I became a bigger girl and helped my dad run the record shop along with my little brother, Daryl Battle.
We worked there until the unrest in the city, in response to the extreme racial segregation. Basically, police terror that existed in the city really came to an explosion in July of 1967.

 

PHO: Right.

 

MP: When that happened, there was much destruction. Unfortunately, my father’s record store was in the path of that destruction.
I would say that it was a very difficult situation for my father. I have said and written that the day that my father went back into that record shop after it had been looted and ruined, was the day that my father truly died, although, he was not buried and he did not actually leave this earth until 1973. That was a severe trauma. He never was able to regain his business after that. For a long time, I was looking at him as far as his existence as a failed man because he was so broken-hearted. He had, for a long time, began to make a turn in his drinking into alcoholism. Since about 1960, his alcoholism had begun to get increasingly more noticeable. It was a very difficult period of time living with him because he was very ill, and he was very afflicted with alcoholism.

 

When he lost the record shop in the 1967 unrest, he basically proceeded to drink himself to death he was so bereft. He sort of languished in Detroit music history for some time. People would come to tell me … I remember the disc jockey, Frantic Ernie Durham. Leonard King reminded me online the other day about Frantic Ernie Durham, and it brought to my memory how Ernie came up to me one day in the supermarket and said, “You ought to write about your dad. Your dad was a great man. You ought to write about your daddy.” I was coming from years of, basically, our family suffering with the affliction of his alcoholism. Then, after his death, when I was 19 years old, it was very difficult, but I began to hear people refer to him as such a great man, as a genius.

 

His legacy was known in record circles, the people who understood his significance. I was not to really understand the reaches of Joe Von Battle until I began writing about him, in more recent years, online. I began to write about him on the internet. The internet, of course, brings together people of common interest from all over the world. Lo and behold, there were people … He died here, in Detroit, in relative obscurity, but there were people all over the world who were contacting me, and they were telling me about how they had records that my father had produced. They were in Japan and Australia, and all of these countries. It was pretty amazing, and because of that, I began, in earnest, to study my father’s life and to pull together these rivulets of information and fandom from people from all over the world.

 

I began to really write, in earnest, about my father. I created a blog in order to disseminate this information about my father prior to my writing a book, which I have not completed. The name of my blog is marshamusic.wordpress.com.

 

This has been quite a journey that I have been able to be on in the last year, just learning about my father, writing about him, talking about him with others.

 

I encountered a group of music enthusiasts, on the internet, called the Real Blues Forum. These individuals, headed by a gentleman by the name of Paul Vernon and some other very significant music collectors, they began to really assist me in the reconstitution of information about my father’s life because these people were experts in so many aspects of my father’s recording history that I had no idea about. We have had a great symbiotic relationship in which they know a great deal about my dad’s recordings and the different people he recorded, and I know a great deal about my dad. Between our energies, we have been able to really place Joe Von Battle back in the center of not only Detroit’s music legacy, but in the United States as a whole and the role he has played as being a real pioneer in contemporary music.

 

Pamela Hilliard Owens is founder and CEO of Writing It Right For You, Detroit Ink Publishing, and Your Business Your Brand Creatively. This interview was originally conducted for her weekly podcast YB2C Live.

 

 For more information about Marsha Philpot (aka Marsha Music) or her father, Joe Von Battle, visit her website at http://www.marshamusic.wordpress.com

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