My father, the late Joe Von Battle, was an important mid-century recorder and producer of blues and gospel music in Detroit, from 1945 until 1967. He has been called the “Chess of Detroit”, referring to the iconic Chicago Record company, and is regarded by many as a cornerstone in the building of the “Detroit Sound.”
Over the years he recorded legendary artists such as John Lee Hooker, Little Willie John, Johnnie Bassett, the Violinaires, the Serenaders, Little Sammy Bryant, Little Sonny, Jackie Wilson, Sonny Boy Williamson, and many, many others in his studio in the back of the shop, including a classic called The Hucklebuck by Paul Williams.
He even recorded a Civil Rights song “The Alabama Bus,” by Brother Will Hairston (backed by Washboard Willie), an obscure but significant Blues chronicle of the Alabama Bus Boycott (more on this historic record and artist on this blog, see index).
After coming to Detroit from Macon Georgia, Joe worked for a while at the Eastern Market and and digging ditches for the gas company. He later he worked at the Hudson Motor Car Co. and, for a time, worked two jobs, like many Detroiters in those times – after the end of his shift at the Hudson plant, he’d walk across the street to work at Chrysler for another 8 hours. At the end of WWII, he became one of the last hired, first fired and was let go from his auto factory work – and Joe Von Battle vowed he would never again “work for another man.”
(In fact, this belies the popular fiction that those from the projects during those times – like Diana Ross – had a hardscrabble upbringing. For the projects were filled with upwardly mobile working folk, who had moved up from the crowded, substandard housing of the Black Bottom area that was teeming with folks who’d come up from the South. In those days, public housing was so coveted and the competition over housing so great, that Whites fought to keep the projects to themselves. In fact, the Detroit Race Riots of 1943 were greatly instigated by the competition over housing – and the fight that whites put up to keep blacks from moving into the Sojourner Truth projects, on the near east side.)
As a young man in Georgia, Joe Von Battle had been a licensed African Methodist Episcopal Minister, in training, going from church to church, listening to preachers and learning about the ministry. But, after living in Detroit, he became deeply disallusioned during an episode of quarantine for suspected tuberculosis (that turned out to be pleurisy of the lungs). When released, many months later, he had lost all, and had to start anew to find a way to support his family.
This is a little recounted part of Detroit’s history, in which Blacks and the poor lost income and property in abrupt, sometimes premature diagnoses. This was often due to crowded living conditions and a lack of available health care, especially in Black Bottom. These patients often endured demoralizing quarantines for months and even years.
My father abandoned the ministry, though his affinity for sermonizing and gospel music was to endure, taking the form of recording the preaching and singing of others. He produced the Rev. C. L. Franklin, Rev. Cleophus Robinson, Rev. Jelks, Bro. Willie Hairston, the Violinaires, and many others. He was a producer of Gospel, Blues, early R& B, and what came to be known as Rock ‘N Roll.
Up Hastings Street, a few walking blocks north, was New Bethel Baptist Church, and Joe Von Battle began hearing about the extraordinary preaching of the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Reverend Franklin’s church services were played live on radio and heard far and wide in the Detroit area and beyond; he was already regarded a phenomenon – “a preaching machine.” My father heard about Franklin’s gifts as preacher and singer, and he began visiting the church to hear “the man with the million dollar voice.”
Soon Joe was recording Rev. Franklin’s Sunday night sermons and songs, mostly on the Battle and Von labels. Joe Von Battle was the sole producer/recorder of the sermons of Rev. Franklin, and this was a relationship – and friendship – that was to last through 75+ albums and records, for many years.
Joe Von Battle was the first to record the voice of Aretha, Franklin’s daugher, as she sang in the New Bethel Baptist church choir. He produced her first record, the gospel song, “Never Grow Old” when she was 14. He produced many of her gospel songs before she moved to the larger record labels to sing secular music. Joe produced other records out of New Bethel, including the New Bethel Baptist Choir and a singing sensation, Little Sammy Bryant; she was a “little person” (as we would say today), with a big, powerful voice.
My father initially released and distributed the records himself, mailing them all over the country as demand for them increased. After a time, the songs and sermons of especially Rev. Franklin were mainly released and distributed by Chess records, where my father had numerous recording and financial arrangements.
Many of his Blues recordings were regarded as simple, even crude, done as they were on a basic machine in the back of the storefront, with it’s simple microphones and an old upright piano. Many a night after church, Ms. Aretha sat playing that piano and having a good time with my older half-brother and half-sisters, who worked at the shop with my father (in later years, my brother and I surely plunked that old instrument out of tune). Joe’s recordings of Rev. Franklin’s sermons, done at the church, were clear and electrifying, capturing the excitement of Rev. Franklin’s choir and church services.
My father would play Rev. C.L. Franklin records through loudspeakers onto the street, and passersby would gather in great crowds to hear the sermons and psalms; the police often came to control the large crowds. The very idea of throngs gathered, enthralled, listening to Gospel music, surely flies in the face of the reputation of Hastings Street as only a “red light district”.
Musicians from far and wide found their way to Joe’s Record shop. Today, the remaining Blues and “religious” records that he recorded are repositories of an important part of the history of early R&B and modern Gospel. They are pure, raw and unadorned by later contrivances and techniques.
By the 50’s my father was famous in Detroit and beyond for his record shop/studio on the infamous Hastings Street. Hastings, starting at the Detroit River, running through Black Bottom, and north until West Grand Blvd., was a thriving, intense commercial center, as well as an entertainment and red light district.
It was a teeming part of the Detroit metropolis, with people of various European ethnic backgrounds and businesses, Jewish folks, and Blacks. In fact, it was the center of African-American business in Detroit, with Blacks owning pharmacies, grocery and furniture stores, moving companies and the like.
[From my article on this site, John Lee Hooker – No Magic, Just Man: One day in 1959, a photographer – Jacques Demetre and a writer, Marcel Chavaud; came to the United States from France; they were writing a book about the Blues – and they stopped in three cities – Chicago, New York and Detroit. When they got to Detroit, they went straight to Joe’s record shop, as they had heard that it was the place for the Blues.
When they arrived, my father picked up the phone and called his friend Aaron Willis, aka Little Sonny, and told him to come over; there was a man from France come to take pictures of the men of the Blues. He made another call too, and when that man came from around the corner of Mack, onto Hastings and into the shop, my older brother Joe Jr. says that the French photographer almost fainted, he was so astonished and delighted to see the already legendary Bluesman – John Lee Hooker – come into view.
Demetre snapped John Lee Hooker in front of the record shop; the photo eventually became the iconic album cover above. John Lee, dapper in slacks and white shirt, posed with his guitar on the sidewalk in front of the record shop, in the same spot where my father, mother and her sisters always stood for photos back in the day [some of those photos are posted in this blog].
The camera faces North, up Hastings Street; the spire of St. Josophat on Canfield is in the background on the left. Hastings is long gone, most of it is a freeway service drive now, but that church is still there, one of the few remaining structures adjacent to Hastings St., from back in those days.
Several iconic Blues photographs came from that shoot. Some of them were in amazing color for the time. As of this writing, photographer Jacques Demetre is still alive in France – a nonagenarian – and remembers his long ago visit very well. My brother, Joe Jr. almost 80, recounts it like it was yesterday.
Berry Gordy would come and talk “record talk” as he began his own fledgling company at the house on The Boulevard (i.e. West Grand Boulevard) that he came to call Hitsville. Many Motown artists visited the shop for a good conversation and a “taste” in the back room. Artists such as Mary Wells, bassist James Jamerson and other Funk Brothers, and many others “hit a lick” at Joe’s Record Shop, and some recorded there.
Daddy’s record labels were JVB, Von, Battle, Gone, Viceroy and perhaps more, as well as subsidiary arrangements with several labels such as Chess, Checker, King and Deluxe.
Daddy was handsome and famous up and down Hastings and beyond, with a gold tooth in his smile and a gold Lincoln Continental. He was many years older than my mother Shirley, the unusually pretty teenager that he hired for the counter; he knew her good looks and love of music (except for the Blues) would help him sell the popular records.
She was one of five pretty sisters whom he met while she was at the bus stop in front of the record shop, on her way home from her Sanctified church around the corner, on Mack Ave. – Zion Congregational Church Of God In Christ. It was founded and headed, at that time, by the great Pastor I. W. Winans (patriarch and great-great-grandfather of today’s Winans musical family). The church was and is known in Detroit’s COGIC church world and beyond – due to it’s location – on “Mack Avenue.”
My mother’s Pentocostal church upbringing of the time allowed neither movies nor secular music; doubtless, the exciting record shop and recording world of this music man called Joe Von Battle was mesmerizing to a young beauty who strained against the strictures of sanctified church, and loved experiencing “the world.”
She was a music lover, though she never had a love for the Blues that was so dear to my father’s heart; she had more modern, popular tastes. Nevertheless, she worked at the record shop for several years. Her good looks and musicality were as appealing to the customers as my father’s handsome, charismatic presence. Before long, there was a scandalous overlap between my father’s first marriage and his relationship with my mother. Eventually, he divorced and they married.
I was as privileged as a brown girl in the 50’s could be, with a “Daddy rich and a Momma good looking’.” He, a handsome, brown music man. She, light skinned – during a time when that mattered – and red haired; a languid beauty with a love of all kinds of music, from a Sanctified church family of five comely sisters. My early years were spent in the bright rays of her beauty and his renown.
My father was a fast, entertaining talker – a real raconteur; a sharp-dressing man with a grade school education who was a voracious reader who kept stacks of news articles and volumes of the classics, tales of the Iliad and Odyssey and Black history that he allowed me to read. He was a lover of animals, keeping wounded birds, dogs, cats and any hurt thing that hobbled along on Hastings, and later on 12th, nursing them back to health – with his chicken and rice cooked on a hot plate in the back of the shop.
He wrote and published songs but was never really a singer or musician. What he had was a magnetic personality, an ability to discern talent in others, a fascination with recorded sound – and a love of making money. He would record virtually anything that made music or noise. He was a dedicated provider his two families – four children and his ex-wife from his first marriage, and four children and his wife in his second, in the days before child support or welfare.
His charisma, love of hustle and desire to provide for his both families was such that when record sales were slow, he thought nothing of getting his son Joe Jr. to help him sell sugarcane from the Eastern Market, or even straw hats, at the front door. Maybe that’s why, in the record Hastings Street Opera, the Detroit Count rapped “…Joe’s Record Shop, you can get anything there but a T-Bone steak.”
As his production of Rev. C.L. Franklin’s records grew, Joe’s Record Shop was associated with a Gospel radio show, hosted by the highly respected radio personality, Senator Bristol Bryant.
Joe Von Battle also purchased air-time for his own show, and broadcast from CKLW in Windsor Canada, across the river from Detroit, a station with a signal so famously strong that the shows could be heard throughout regions of the South. Each week the tapes from the show were delivered – often by Joe’s eldest son Joe Jr. – to the station’s American business offices in the Guardian Building in Downtown Detroit.
With African-Americans moving from the South to the North, hungering for connections back across the Mason Dixon Line, Rev. C.L. Franklin and Joe’s Record Shop became mythical in thousands of Black households in the U.S., as they tuned in for the ritual Sunday night sermons and Gospel.
[I was on my father’s radio show myself. In elementary school, I won first place for a poem that I had written, and I got to read it on the show – my media debut. Btw, my father always called me LingTingTong, after a record he sold in his shop, by the Charms. I have an uncle who calls me that to this very day.]
My father’s shop was the place for hanging out, with folks like Jackie Wilson, impresario Sunny Wilson, B. B. King, and some of the last of the old “Blues Boys” – Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Joe Weaver, Eddie Burns, Bobo Jenkins, Little Sonny, Little Willie John, and a who’s who of black music of the times, from the clubs on Hastings and in Paradise Valley.
Joe Von Battle’s success was real, with a magnificent home in Highland Park, where I grew up, a beautiful new stay-at-home wife, and a second family of four kids, of which I’m the oldest.
My parents’ lives, in the 50’s and early 60s, were filled with parties, clubs and horseback riding at Idlewild, the now historic all-Black resort in Northern Michigan, the only place of such leisure open to Blacks in the days of segregation. He was an avid golfer and, with my party loving mother, was a “Man about Town”. They lived a grand life for the times.
My father’s eldest son, Joe Von Battle Jr., as handsome as his father, had worked alongside him at the shop since the beginning on Hastings St. until the lure of factory pay at Chryslers in the 1960’s pulled him away. Joe Jr., a great raconteur with a near photographic memory, has shared many memories with me about those times.
In 1960, after Hastings street was urban renewed into the Chrysler Freeway, my father was forced to move his record shop from the East Side of Detroit across town to the West, to 12th street.
This massive shift was an historic urban migration, uprooting the community – including many Hastings business folks – from their entrepreneurial and residential roots. Many of them, having already survived the migration from the South, could not withstand yet another traumatic transition, and many African-American businesses were lost forever.
My father would go back to what was left of the businesses on Hastings as the new freeway inched its way north, and once, he and stood on the banks of the dirt-filled crevas – the initial diggings of the Chrysler Freeway. We looked across the giant pit, to the place where Joe’s Record Shop once stood, and he shook his head and said, “Lingting, that used to be Hastings”.
The Record Shop moved from Hastings Street on the East Side, to 12th Street and Pingree, then months later, a few blocks away, to 12th Street and Philadelphia, the West Side streets where it would remain.
The 12th Street Shop was not far from Barry Gordy’s new Motown house, and though my father disliked the new sound – locked back, as he was, in his down-home Blues and Work With Me Annie taste in music – he was great friends with many of the Motown folks. Many of the Motown artists found their way to the shop for a “taste” and some conversation with Joe, too.
Here was the world of 12th Street of Detroit, with its intense daytime commerce and after-hours, huckle-buck nightlife; where men drove Eldorado’s with matching suits and women wore wigs and smoked in public. But with all of its roiling activity, 12th street was not the same as the life on Hastings for my father; modern Negroes, many who disdained the old country blues that my father loved and sold back on Hastings St.
Nevertheless we became a part of the West Side life – we’d have breakfast at the Cream of Michigan cafe, and watched folks with fringed, spangled dresses and silk-and-wool suits, who had just left a night of partying at the 20 Grand and after hours clubs. They’d join the church folks having a bite before Sunday service.
I spent weekends and summers of the 60’s with my younger brother Darryl splicing tapes, reading Billboard and ringing up the latest 45’s, and mastering the art of discerning a customer’s request within a song’s first bar (an unfair music trivia advantage that we retain today).
I remember many a Saturday afternoon in the later days of the shop, affixing labels to records, unloading them from boxes, and playing all the music we wanted and doing the Shing-a-ling and Boo-ga-loo in the middle of the floor, to the delight of the customers and the chagrin of my father, who wanted us to get back to work and sell records (ignoring the fact that, dancing was the best way to sell them).
Sometimes our baby sister and brother, Andrea and Lawrence, would come too, and Darryl and I – old and experienced pre-teens – would have to keep them from getting too exposed to the 12th street life. We’d spend all day dancing and playing the records the customers wanted to hear and buy.
I remember when I went “up North” with Daddy to the record pressing plant in Owasso, Michigan, or to Chicago to see the Chess Brothers, Phil and Leonard, where I listened to Bo Diddly masters – with Bo Diddly. Years before me, my elder half-brother Joe had sat in the Chess studios talking with Muddy Waters and the Chicago “Blues Boys”.
(I was a full-grown, middle-aged woman before I knew that the box lunches that my mother fixed for our trip, that I remembered so fondly, were actually made because we could not eat at the diners and road stops along the way, a strange incongruity in the years of the Civil Right Movement in the South, and the touted “freedom” of the North.)
Our father’s Blues friends were a part of our life. Wilson Pickett laid the sod in our front yard in Highland Park, taught my younger brother Darryl how to push the giant roller over the new grass. Famous blues men helped my father do repairs on his house, and shared a drink in the back yard, but to us they were all just Daddy’s friends from “Down South.”
On many Sunday nights, Darryl would go with my father to New Bethel Baptist Church, now on Linwood on the West Side, just like my father’s oldest son, Joe, before him on Hastings, dragging the mics and tape recorder in the big leather case to record the next homiletic masterpiece by “Frank”, as my father called Rev. C.L. Franklin.
After the mics and tape recorder was set up, my brother would sit behind the pulpit with the deacons, his legs too short to reach the floor, dangling from the big chairs on the altar. Then they all set to listening to Rev. Franklin whoop and sing and teach the urban Gospel (though often, my little brother would fall asleep in the middle of the making of Gospel history).
My father recorded everywhere, obsessively; in the back room of the shop, in pulpits, in the streets, in our living room – once I came home from school to the sight of his amps and mics trained on man called Washboard Willie playing the – you guessed it – in our back yard. This, to cool, pre-teen me, was an act of bumpkinism that embarrassed me to no end in front of my Beatles and Motown loving friends.
I spent most weekends and summers working at the record shop, during the tumultuous years of cultural change, and cataclysmic shifts in music. Album covers were my windows on the musical world, and I spent hours studying them, and puttering around in the behind-the-counter chaos of plastic red and yellow disks, red and green Scotch tape boxes and slotted metal slabs for splicing tape.
As the 60’s progressed, the trends in music had clearly changed in the Black community, and less customers asked for Blues and the old music. Motown – “The Soundtrack of Young America” – the new Soul music, Rhythm and Blues – and even Rock ‘N Roll – were now what customers wanted. This was all to my delight at the record shop turntable – but to the chagrin of my father, who still insisted on trying to to sell the Blues.
On Sunday mornings he still – defiantly – played the old Gospel for the passersby, who were increasingly listening to the “new music” and leaving the old sounds behind.
The inroads of the big record sellers also took it’s toll. I remember walking with my father through Sears and Roebucks in Highland Park, where there was a “new, improved” record department, chock full of many of the records he was trying to sell on 12th street – and Sears was selling them at a much cheaper price.
There were rows and rows of Black music, which years before, Sears and other big sellers would never have handled in such quanities, calling it “race music.”
Such an encroachment on his life’s work was added to his affliction with two diseases – Addison’s Disease, an illness of the pancreas (a condition that he was proud that he shared with President Kennedy), and chronic alcoholism. My father became a broken man – at home and at work. At the time, I didn’t understand his grief and fury; the fact that we were in the maelstrom of the destruction of the independent record sellers and producers of that era.
If my early years were spent in their amazing, musical life, by the time I was in middle school, the parties that they loved had turned into the insanity of drink and their marital wars. The “tastes” in the back room of the record shop and at the bars on 12th street and the parties at the 20 Grand club had morphed into full-blown alcoholism. My brother Darryl and I, young teens, ran the record shop on the weekends in those days, aware that our weekly chore was now helping to keep the shop alive. My father was a shell of his former self, tormented, tormenting and addled by drink; our family suffered mightily.
There were record collectors who acquired records and materials from Joe during that time. There were also record sharks in the business, who moved in to take advantage of his decline and his desire to share the music of his life – as well as his need to support his second family. Some acquired masters and tapes less than scrupulously, as he weakened.
The beginning of the end came on July 23, 1967; a wave of destruction and police violence made it’s way down 12th Street, to become Detroit’s 67’ Riots – also known as The Rebellion. My father’s record shop was in its path. But that is a whole ‘nother story.
I think that Joe Von Battle really died the day he returned to his shop, to trudge through mounds of charred and melted records and fire-hose soaked reel-to reel tapes, unwound and slithering like water snakes; thousands of songs, sounds and voices of an era, most never pressed onto records – gone forever.
He was never the same, and neither was our home-life. But he wasn’t actually pronounced dead until 1973, from complications from the Addison’s disease that he had for years, and more than a few “tastes” too many in the back of the shop, and at our backyard bbq’s. He drank himself to death, another broken hearted music man.
But even though music had moved on to the new, Motown sounds and beyond, and even embittered with life and addled with drink, he always understood the importance of what he had done, what he had captured in those long, brown ribbons of celluloid tape. It was the ending of an era of African American music, and the beginning of another.
All of my life, I was accustomed to my father being called, “The Mighty Joe Battle“; in fact he often referred to himself that way, only half in jest. The late Famous Coachman, the grand Blues man of Detroit, always called my father “The Legendary Joe Von Battle”.
In Detroit, at the Charles Wright Museum of African-American history, there have been prominent displays of Aretha’s first record, on the JVB label, sometimes with words about Joe Von Battle, though few in Detroit have known much about him. I am always touched by these museum recognitions.
I have come to know, since this publishing of my father’s story, that even though he died in relative obscurity in Detroit, there is a significant number of collectors world-wide – in England, Holland, Australia, Japan, Wales, Spain, etc., who are well aware of the work of Joe Von Battle, and very knowledgeable about his voluminous recordings and discography. My father’s records are now collected and sold in auctions online, some highly coveted and worth hundreds of dollars for a single 45 (I cringe when I remember how we played frisbee with them without a second thought, back in the day).
I’ve run across re-issues of music my father recorded; a bittersweet accolade. Yes, it’s hard to see others produce this work for their own gain, but I’m gratified that there are those who value those sounds that he captured forever, over a half-century ago and are producing these records for collectors to enjoy today.
Joe Von Battle deserves special recognition for his role in recording the final songs and sounds as we changed from a people of the rural South into a new, urban community. He recorded the post-war sound of Detroit, and forever etched in vinyl some of the earliest works of those who became household names, as well as those whose music would never have been recorded but for him. May his musical legacy live forever.
In honor of the works and memory of my father -
The Late, Great, Legendary, Mighty Joe Von Battle.
His 2 surviving elder daughters, Joanne and Peggy, returned to live in the South.
His younger sons, from his second family, live in Detroit: my younger brother, Darryl Battle, like his father, is a devoted true Blues lover and collector; the youngest, Lawrence Von Battle, inherited our father’s love of recorded sound, and is an expert audiophile.
His youngest daughter of the second family, my sister Andrea Kelly, also lives in the South.
There are many grandchildren, a number of them with some form of the name Joe Von Battle.
My mother Shirley, his second wife, passed away in early 2008. Her “Home Going” was at the old church that she had returned to in her later years, Zion Congregational COGIC, still known as “Mack Ave”.
The Pastor today is Elder James Hall, and among the many singing Saints in attendance, Pastor Marvin L. Winans, great-grandson of my mother’s first pastor, came back to join the Mack Ave. congregation – as he does, on occasion – and sang at her funeral.
The magnificent home that my father bought in Highland Park, where I was raised, and where returned to lived in recent years, burned in a fire in 2007.
Photographer Jacques Demetre is in his nineties, as of 20014, and still living in France. He remembers well his 1959 visit to Joe’s Record Shop in Detroit. The photos that he took became a part of his book with writer Marcel Chauvard, Voyage Au Pay Blues – Land of the Blues – in French and English.
I’m writing a book about my father, and about growing up in the record shop. I have lived all of my life in Highland Park and Detroit, and today, I live in the neighborhood created when Black Bottom was destroyed, within blocks of the place where Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street once stood.
Marsha Music, Detroit
[My thanks, especially, to Joe Von Battle Jr. and Darryl Battle, and to the Battle siblings through the years, for sharing their memories; without them my efforts to pay tribute to Joe Von Battle’s legacy would not be possible. Thanks to writers Dave Marsh, Craig Werner and the others who have encouraged me to write and tell my stories, over the years. More recently, many thanks to Paul Vernon, Joe Louis, Stefan Wirtz and members of the Real Blues Forum, on Facebook, for their diligence in tracing the recording history of JVB records and sharing so much information with me. And a thanks to Mr.Dave Usher, a long-time friend of my father and fellow music producer, who came to my father’s aid in his last years.]
Copyright November: 2008; all rights reserved.
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