Marsha Music

The Detroitist

Marsha Music in University of Michigan Oral History Project – “Living Music”

This interview, for the Living Music project of the University of Michigan School of Music, was conducted and edited by graduate student Manan Desai. I was honored to have been asked by him to participate in the project, and he was a delightful listener.

From the Living Music home page: 

“LIVING MUSIC offers a snapshot of contemporary musical life throughout the United States and the globe. Linking interviews and questionnaire responses with aesthetic, sociological, and historical responses, the project site offers a collection of first-person commentaries on music today. The interview pages contained here have been produced by student researchers teams at the University of Michigan, especially its School of Music, and edited by musicologists and instructor’s assistants also at the University’s School of Music.”


The link:

The text:

I guess we can start with you explaining who your father was.  What did he contribute to the culture of music in this city?

My father was a man by the name of Joe Von Battle, who had a record shop on Hastings Street that opened up in the late 1940’s.  He was born in Georgia, and was an aspiring minister; he later moved to Detroit as a part of the African American migration to the North.  After a personal reversal he became disillusioned and abandoned his hopes for the ministry.  He had to hustle a lot to support his family, but was eventually laid off from the Briggs Automotive Plant.

He was a part of the Detroit work force, during the massive shift in production that took place after World War II, in which many of the Blacks who worked in the munitions industry were forced out of it after soldiers came back from the war.  And many of the Black workers that worked in those plants were unemployed after that because they were displaced.   

My father was one of those people, and I think being very independently minded, he always felt, “I will never be put in that position again, to have to be dependent on a paycheck and have it snatched from me that way.”  So he vowed that he would never work for anybody else.  And he worked for a time, I understand, at the Eastern Market, because Eastern Market was quite a center of commerce in those days as large commercial grocery stores were not common, like today.  The Eastern Market was a major, major place.  

But in general, he was looking for a way to make money, and being a record buff he began to sell records – those old 78’s – sometimes up and down the street.  At one point, he literally took the records from his house, where he lived with his wife and first family, and took those records out and began to sell those.  I’ve heard that he even sold records out of a wheelbarrow a few times, which might have been something of a gimmick, but he was just that serious about selling records.

This was in Eastern Market, where he was selling these records?

Well, it was probably on Hastings, but you have to realize in those days there was no I-75/Chrysler Freeway.  And so the Eastern Market and the whole area of Hastings, Russell, Rivard, St. Antoine, all of those streets were contiguous.  There was no big dividing line like 75 that split that whole area in half.  It was all sort of together, you know.  And so he began to sell records.  He was interested in a storefront that he had seen and that was available, and there was a Jewish lady who owned that place and had some kind of store there.  Her husband had died and she was going to go out of business, and she offered to – I don’t what the exact arrangements were – but she allowed him to get that space, that storefront at 3530 Hastings.  

Hastings at that time would have been the Eastern Service Drive of the freeway.  He was near Hastings near Mack Avenue.  It’s really a historical irony that today Mack Avenue and Woodward Avenue is a ground zero for a great deal of the emergence of the new Detroit energy, with the University of Michigan located literally right there with its Mack Avenue projects that it does.  Not to mention the name Mack Avenue Records, the first major record company to emerge here in a long time.  For although the company is located much further east on Mack Avenue, that street name itself is symbolic of Detroit.  

I feel quite gratified that so much of my life has centered around that area.  Even my maternal family’s church was and is located on Mack, not far from what was Hastings. For years, I have both lived and worked within walking distance from where my father’s record shop once was.  I was too young to really remember a lot of Hastings.  I would not have been allowed to go up and down Hastings at that age,  though I remember the record shop. I was a little girl then, and I was there all the time ‘cause I see pictures of me there. 

So the record shop was there ‘til I was about six or seven years old, until the early 60’s.  So I do remember the shop but a lot of my memories are of the 12th street record shop. 

Did you live on Hastings?  Around Hastings?

No. I’m from my father’s second family.  We grew up in Highland Park, the city inside the city boundaries of Detroit, which was known as a suburb then. It was the center of the auto companies then, quite a prosperous enclave in those days.   My father had a first family, and at the time of the Hastings street shop his first family lived very near the record shop, in the same neighborhood.  And my older brother Joe Von Battle Jr. (my father’s oldest son) also helped to run the record shop. 

After a time,  my mother came along, who was a church girl.  She went to the church, around the corner, over on Mack Avenue at Zion Congregational Church of God in Christ, where she had grown up, under the pastorage of the renowned I.W. Winans, who is the patriarch of the Winans singers today.  She and her sisters, the five beautiful Baker sisters, who lived on the West Side, would come home from church on the streetcar, the streetcar stop being in front of the record shop on Hastings.  My mother, Shirley, being a very lovely, very beautiful woman; well, one thing led to another, and my father wound up with my mother.  My mother ended up working at the record shop for some time.  She was young too, and she worked in a record shop, along with his oldest son, and then his oldest daughters would also work and hang out there.  

So I remember a lot about the record shop, but I can’t always remember if it was the Hastings record shop or the 12th street record shop ‘cause I must’ve been five or six years old.  I do remember this very clearly.  We used to leave home in Highland Park (he and my mother had moved to Highland Park, where his second family was raised).   When we lived in Highland Park we would take John R to Hastings Street, take John R all the way down to maybe Piquette, maybe Warren or something like that, and turn at Hastings.  And we would also go to the wholesale record man, a man called “The Mad Russian.”

The Mad Russian?

“The Mad Russian.”  I don’t know what his name was, but he was an older Jewish man with a big beard, and he was a real curmudgeon.  Just a grumpy old, gravelly-voiced man.  He was a really funny guy who liked to tease us kids with his grumpiness. He was called the Mad Russian – that was his street nickname – and he ran a wholesale record shop.  See in those days, you’ve got to realize, record shops were prolific.  There were record shops that dotted the terrain here in Detroit.  So, the Mad Russian was a wholesaler, and Dad would buy a lot of records from him.  Now I remember being there, and this had to be after the Hastings migration to the west side of Detroit had taken place, and we would go there before we would go to the 12th street record shop and pick up records.  

I remember playing outside while my dad was buying records, and my dad coming outside to caution me because at that point there was no more street.  They had begun to dig the 75 freeway out, so it was a giant pit, an abyss.  As I stood on the banks of that, I’ll never forget my father coming out, standing out there with me and he looked out there, and he shook his head, and said, “Lingting, (his nickname for me) this used to be Hastings Street.”  It was a very eloquent moment, ‘cause he felt it.  By that time all of the stores were gone, everything was gone, they had dug it all up.  But on the other, Western service drive, where we were standing, there were still a few stores left for a little while.

Do you remember when the move happened?

No, I don’t really remember that.

It must have been awful.

It was traumatic.  Maybe that’s why I don’t remember. But I do remember aspects of the aftermath.  I remember how we would go to the 12th street shop, and there’d be people who survived the move.  Because everybody couldn’t survive it.  Everyone just couldn’t pick up and move like that.  So some of them would be business people who were on Hastings street who were now on 12th.  There was quite a bit of camaraderie between all of the Hastings people who came from there, the Black business people, in addition to the Jewish merchants who made the transition.  Because in those days, there were still a great deal of stores owned by Jewish people, and  they were also a part of that transition.

But it was amazing how many Black businesses there were. Businesses of a type that today we don’t even associate Black people with having in this city – pharmacies, grocery stores.

I have heard that the migration from Hastings to the 12th Street area, the West Side, was the largest urban migration in history.  It was that massive.  It was unprecedented, to have that many people to move from one site to another.

I heard that Hastings Street was the main place in the city where a lot of music came in.  There were a lot of clubs…

Yes, that’s all up and through Paradise Valley.  There would be all these places they would go to like the Flame Show Bar, Frolic, Sunnie Wilson’s place. 

Did your father ever talk about Hastings Street afterwards, after the move?

There wasn’t so much talking about it, per se.  It’d be kind of like me asking you, “do your mom and dad talk about your old relatives?”  They don’t have to talk about them, there existence is just there, you know?  Their prior life is there as a part of your terrain.

Where did your father do his recordings?  And who were some of the folks he recorded?

Well, I’d say most of the recordings were done at the back of the shop on Hastings.  His recordings with Reverend C.L. Franklin were different in that they were live.  My father would take his recording equipment to Reverend C.L. Franklin’s church, which was down the street, and my little brother would go.  My older brother Joe Jr. would accompany my father and he knows some of those sermons so well he can recite them by rote.  By studying them constantly, listening to them, understanding their phonographic potential, and just getting the records ready.  That’s Joe Battle Jr.  

My younger brother, Darryl Battle, he used to go with my father to Rev. Franklin’s church and help carry his equipment.  He didn’t want to go, you know, it was like chores to him because he was just a kid, not realizing, of course, that he was witnessing history.

So, my dad was an extremely handsome man, a very charismatic man.  He attracted a lot of people.  People would come from all over to go to Joe’s Record Shop.  Joe’s Record Shop was like a musical mecca of sorts, especially amongst the blues people – and that really was the music of the time.  There was the fledgling modern music of the time, jazz was becoming predominant.  But even those musicians would come to the shop, ‘cause he’d have a big couch at the back of the shop.  And they would all party. It was a place to be. I have many pictures of just a bunch of folks in the back, partying.  I remember there was an upright piano at the back of the Hastings St. shop, and I remember banging on that piano all the time.  And Aretha [Franklin] played on that piano.

But back to your question, he recorded Rev. C.L. Franklin and Aretha, John Lee Hooker, Little Willie John, the Violinaires, Rev. Cleophus Robinson, Sammy Bryant, Memphis Slim, Eddie Kirkland, Johnny Bassett, many, many people, hundreds even, who came to his record shop.  There is a classic blues record called Hastings Street Opera, by a man called “Detroit Count” that mentions Joe’s Record Shop, saying “he’s got everything in there but a T-Bone Steak”. This was not literal, but his musical way of describing how much was going on at Joe’s Record Shop, all of the time.

Did Aretha Franklin come in often?

Yes, during those early days, she came in a lot; especially after her father’s church services.   She clearly remembers coming in there and playing on the piano and hanging out.  A lot of people around Hastings who were musicians and singers, and those who fancied themselves as singers, would come to the shop.  Because my father was one of the very few Blacks who had recording capabilities.

I saw on the blog too that John Lee Hooker talked about your father, remembered your father well?  Did he record at the shop, and did he come by often?

He would just hang around the shop.  He was this dude, and he would be hanging out, hanging out on the street; he’d sleep on the couch in the back of the shop sometimes.  I remember that Wilson Pickett knew my dad, and he helped my dad lay the sod in the front yard of our home in Highland Park.  But growing up, we didn’t know who these guys were.  These were Southern men who were a part of my dad’s Southern life, and we were Northern kids, and we had been raised in such a different world.  That’s what they wanted, they – meaning my dad, the older generation – wanted us to have this different life than what they had had.  

So we were very much protected from the terrors of the South, and we associated those men with that old Southern life that we didn’t understand and they didn’t want us to understand.  A lot of them were scary to us because of that, because they had obviously travailed over something we had no clue of, this dreaded southern behemoth of segregation that we had no clue about.  We had grown up in a different life.  

So I do remember these old Southern men, like for example, Washboard Willie,  he used to come over to our house.  He had a washboard and this multi-instrument sort of thing, which included a harmonica and all different stuff.  My God, I’d be so embarrassed.  Oh my Lord.

When he came by? [laughs]

Yeah!  I’d be so embarrassed; once, when I came home from school, he was out in our backyard with my dad, and he was playing that multi-instrument contraption thing.  I was so embarrassed. I was like, get him out of here.  [laughs]

‘Cause he was a part of this Southern scene?

Yeah.  I wanted my dad to bring Paul McCartney to our house.  If you were going to bring someone, bring Paul McCartney!

Al Abrams mentioned that he and Berry Gordy used to come into the shop.  Do you remember some of the folks from Motown coming by?

I remember calling my Dad at the record shop and Stevie Wonder picking up the phone.  I was like, “Oh my gosh!  Stevie!”  But see in those days, you have to realize they weren’t… we didn’t view them like we do today, as huge stars, Motown.  These were singers and stuff, that sang in the clubs, and it was cool.  But many of them came to the record shop.  Especially if they got done recording somewhere, many of the Funk Brothers would come to the shop at night, ‘cause Dad kept the shop opened late.  And you know, people would come in to party, have a drink.  My brother knows a lot about the shop, and he remembers many of the people coming in, like Mary Wells.

So Joe’s Record Shop was really a Detroit institution.

Yes, but only if you view that retrospectively.  At the time, it was just a storefront.  But I don’t want to minimize it, because it was renowned even then. People would come out from out of town saying, “I want to see Joe’s Record Shop, I want to go to Joe’s Record Shop.”  Part of the reason for the renown that had come was because my dad had a radio program that was from CKLW.  CKLW had this phenomenally strong signal that would broadcast all the way to the South, from over here in Windsor.  There’s a lot that goes into this whole discussion of music in Detroit.  And he had Reverend Franklin’s show on, and he played his sermons and they would broadcast on Sunday nights.  So it was like a ritual within thousands upon thousands of Black families.  

Back in the day when you would have whole families that would go to church on Sunday, before we had such a breakdown of families as we have today.  And it was a collective thing.  People would sit and listen to the radio, and listen to Reverend C.L. Franklin preach, because he was renowned.  People all the way in Tennessee and Kentucky, and even further South would hear this.  

So Joe’s Record Shop was known because of that, ‘cause it was Dad’s show and it became legendary.  I remember that as a child I won a contest school for writing, and as a reward, my father let me read my poem – about how much I loved Michigan – on his radio show, broadcast over half the country, I guess.

It seems like it became kind of national.

In a way.  Partially because of radio.  Because of this curious thing about the distance of that signal.  But also these records were shipped throughout the country.  These C.L. Franklin records.  C.L. Franklin was more than a preacher as we understand Black preachers today.  In those days, you had a preacher like Martin Luther King.  These people were griots, they were symbols of communication amongst Blacks.  So when he would have a new sermon, that would ripple through the community, especially among church people of that type.

I actually have a JVB 78 with Reverend C.L. Franklin.  You can still find a few.

One of these Ebay sellers was nice enough to send me one the other day.  I saw that he had it on auction, and I just sent him a link saying, I see you’re selling my dad’s records, you may be interested in his story.  I get really chagrined with some of these record collectors, who don’t seem to care anything about the music, they treat the records like baseball cards or something.  It’s only their collectible value that matters, not the content.  But this guy was so nice, he told me he would stop the auction and give it to me right away, and he did.  I’ve had a few very nice record sellers/collectors offer to really help me with research about my father’s records.

What was the record?

“Never grow old,” by Aretha.  Her first record.

So your father was the first to record Aretha Franklin?

Yes. He was the first to ever record her.   She was fourteen, I think.

How did your father feel about Motown blowing up, or Aretha becoming this huge national figure?  He must have seen all this happen.

He was very conflicted about it.  ‘Cause these were competitors to some degree. Speaking of Motown, it’s like watching your future come in front of you, and it doesn’t include you, through no fault of your own but by virtue of your own background and age.  ‘Cause he was from the old school.  He was from the Southern, rural music of the Delta, and you had this new fangled thing coming up.  Maybe the way adults today feel about rappers – it’s like people say about the kids today, they can’t sing, they don’t have talent.  He felt like that about a lot of Motown people, the same people I thought were the most gifted in the world!  It was generational.

So, it greatly aggrieved him.  Because it also meant a lot of other things.  It signified not only that this new music was getting big, and now ignoring this music that he loved – this blues and this old gospel – but he knew it also meant that we were losing certain connections with the South and that way of life.  While by the same token, he was also glad because they sold records, and he was a record seller.  

So he had a lot of very complex feelings. It also meant that the big mainstream music sellers were beginning now to impose themselves into the market into what used to just be called race music.  So Sears and Roebuck for instance, started to sell Black music.  And that just bothered him to no end.  He just couldn’t stand that.

‘Cause they were taking over what he had worked so hard for.

And they could do distribution and selling on a mass level.  I remember that.  I remember literally walking through Sears with him, ‘cause there was a Sears in Highland Park, see, and when you entered at that time, they had the record place right as you entered the store. Oh, he was just so upset, that here were all of these Black artists that before, you couldn’t even get Sears to touch one of them.  But times were changing.

In the piece you wrote about your father, you talked a little bit about the ’67 riots.  I think you said, “that’s another story completely,” but when he came back, it really destroyed him.  Could you talk a little about what happened to the shop specifically after the riots.

Well, by this time the shop was on 12th street.  It was a Sunday morning, and we could see that something was going on, on 12th street.  And we could literally see, from our Highland Park home look up at the horizon and see the smoke from across town.  This was terrifying, ‘cause we didn’t have any idea of what’s going on over there.  I think Dad had maybe gotten in his car, ‘cause I think this had happened in the middle of the night, Sunday morning – Saturday night, Sunday morning.  And he went to see what was going on, and it looked like there was something going on down the street, and it was moving closer, but it looked like hopefully it would be able to be contained.

I remember him getting his gun, and saying, he was going to sit there and he was going to guard his shop, and he wasn’t going to let no one tear his shop up.  But after a certain time, the authorities wouldn’t let anyone back in there. 

I can’t say his shop was burned up.  I can’t say that.  Well, I don’t know what to say. There was so much destruction.  I guess there was a fire, but it wasn’t like the shop was burned up totally.  Everything was recognizable, but everything was soaking wet, and debris was everywhere.  I just always remember these long strings of reel to reel tape, wet and slithering all over the place. They were just long strings of recording tape, but as an adult, I began to realize that in those tapes were hours and hours, countless hours of people that he had been recording down through the years.  His legacy. 

Well, Dad had only just moved there.  You know, not more than five years or so.  After having been displaced after the first major displacement after the Chrysler freeway, now this.   He was very despondent, and he didn’t know where to go.  ‘Cause his whole business had been decimated.

I can’t even say that there was a lot of theft or looting, ‘cause I wasn’t there , and neither was he at that point.  There was certainly quite a bit of product still there, but it was just destroyed.  You can’t play records again after they’re ruined like that.  And also, there were a lot that survived.  But were lost in later years.   I know a lot of these record collectors will work up the nerve to ask me, is there some JVB cache somewhere?  But nah.

It’s a tragedy.  It’s a real tragedy.  Especially ‘cause by that time, by the mid-60’s, so you had curiously another wave of interest in this music he had been making.  So there would be all of these white guys coming to the shop – from Paris, from England, from all over the place – asking him about this music.  So he was having this opportunity to revel in at least some affirmation of what he had done. 

Were there white customers before at the 12th street and Hastings shops?

In the early days, on Hastings there would be an occasional white customer, but just an exception to the rule.  Or who they used to call “hep cats”: some whites that liked to be on the black scene. Guys like Dave Usher, he was a friend of my father’s, and was on the black scene back then.  He was a jazz lover.  He produced jazz with Dizzy Gillespie and worked for Chess for a time; later he was Soupy Sale’s manager.  He was actually in the oil/maritime business but he was one of the really “cool” whites on the music scene in those days.  

There were a couple of French writers that came, and they were the ones who took some of the iconic photos of John Lee Hooker. That was on Hastings.

But especially after the 60’s.  I remember Swedish filmmakers coming there.  I remember the Famous Coachman, do you remember him?  I’m sorry you’re too young. [Laughs] The Famous Coachman was a standard bearer of the Blues here in Detroit, and he was a famous black discjockey here in Detroit for many years.  He was one of those “keep blues alive” people.  And he would always tell me, “you don’t have any idea – your father was legendary, just legendary, in his time he was.”

I think that a lot of Berry Gordy’s story sort of overshadows some of the other music people in this city.  But not without reason.

So I wanted to ask about your experience during the Motown heyday.  Do you remember going to Motown Revues?

Yes, that was the treat of the year.  When we were little kids, we used to go to something called the Ford Rotunda, which was a Christmas extravaganza display, in Dearborn.  You know the way people go to Hines Park to see the Christmas lights now.  Well, this was an indoor thing.  And the Ford Rotunda burned down in 1962.  Oh Lord, I thought Christmas was going to be over when that happened!  

As we got older, the Motown Revue started to have their Christmas Revues, and that was the most exciting thing you could do, go to the Motown Revue.  Not because you were going to get a chance to see the stars, ‘cause you could see the people of Motown, they might come to your school to sing, you know.  They may come to a sock hop after school, or play in your church basement, or at a skating rink.  I saw Motown artists at Arcadia skating rink on Woodward.  But because you could see so many acts at one time, and it was so special.

The Motown Revue was held at the Fox Theater.  So you had the grandness of the Fox Theater even then, and you had all these Motown artists on one stage.  And we’d get all dressed up and go see the Motown Revue.  It was so exciting.

So, did Stevie Wonder ever come by the shop?  After he called.

Yeah, he would come through the shop.  ‘Cause like I told you, he answered the phone when I called there.  He was at the shop.

Oh!  So he was picking up the phone from the shop!

Yeah, I’d call my dad at work when I got home from school. So on this day, my dad didn’t answer the phone.  Stevie Wonder answered the phone, saying Joe’s Record Shop! So I called my Dad back, and this time, he picked up the phone. He said, “Joe’s Record Shop!”  I said, “Daddy, is that Stevie Wonder?”  So I was begging my mama, “Mama take me over there!”  But I think we didn’t have two cars back then.

You got to realize Motown was on the Boulevard.  If you know where the Motown house is, and if you drive two blocks, or a block, then that’s 12th street.  And then you drive a few blocks North, and that’s my Dad’s record shop, they were just a few minutes apart, even walking. There was also White’s Record Shop, which was another iconic record shop.  White’s Record Shop was on 14th.  

So it was all in the mix…

Oh yes.  We’d be so excited.  ‘Cause you might go to Hudson’s [department store] and see one of the Supremes in there.  And it was exciting not just because it was the Supremes, but because we were still dealing with the residue of the times just a few years prior, when Black people couldn’t try on the hats, couldn’t touch things.  Blacks, even if they were the most beautiful women in the retail stores, could only clean or – if they were light-skinned – operate the elevators.  This is in my lifetime.  In fact, it’s ironic – the first African American busgirl hired to work in Hudson’s cafeteria, in 1960, was Diana Ross, before she hit it big with the Supremes.  

These times were exciting because in the midst of the Civil Rights movement many Motown artists, by virtue of their stature, represented this breaking through. Because the stores were hard pressed to deny these people – these symbols of Detroit, who were becoming famous all over the world – services and access to things.   By the time I was a teen, Hudson’s had become a great place to shop, for Black people as well as whites, and I believe the Motown stars were a part of that change.  

So they broke through a lot of barriers, and not only… ‘Cause people talk a lot about how Motown broke a lot of barriers nationally on the radio and stuff.

And in the South…

But even in Detroit itself.

Yeah, just the very fact that, that they were able to… like Tom Schoenith.  Someone probably needs to write about Tom and Diane Schoenith, the owners of the Roostertail, about the role they played in the profile of Motown.  This gorgeous, classy supper club, that is still beautiful today, became a center for Motown acts during a time when Blacks still couldn’t go into certain establishments, even in Detroit. That place, along with the 20 Grand on the West Side.  

It’s hard to describe how glamorous Detroit was, how glamorous that night life was.  It’s not just the Supremes and Temptations, and these people with gowns and the furs and all that – they were not merely the pinnacles, they were just the most visible examples of the elegance of Blacks in Detroit.  They were catapulted from this elegant mass of these Detroit Black women and men who were sharp and gorgeous.  So, they weren’t really exceptional.  They were part of this sophisticated, African American style in the 60’s. 

Especially ‘cause you were dealing with the developing prosperity of Detroit.  As the industrial infrastructure allowed Blacks to be more and more a part of it, Blacks would get better jobs.  So you would have this upward mobility.  The excitement, the social hopefulness that excited us in those times, which they represented, is very significant. You have to picture another Detroit then what you see now.

The Rooster Tail fortunately is still there.

I was there last week.  Part of the Motown 50th Anniversary Gala was over there.  It was very touching, very nice.

They were able to live in areas that we had not really penetrated, because they were stars.  You know, they could live on Outer Drive on the Westside. They could live in Palmer Woods.   Because of their celebrity, they were able to live in these areas that only a few of us lived.  They represented a lot.

And this was during the Civil Rights movement, too, wasn’t it?

See, you see a lot of stories how they tried to integrate audiences in the South, where they would have those split, segregated audiences.  But no one is talking about how segregated Detroit was itself, where they were coming from.  But it just didn’t have the same kind of segregation that the South did.

For you to have a picture of what it was like: here is this burgeoning mass of urban, sleek people, that they are the representatives of, in Motown.  And then you have my dad who is desperately trying to hold on to the old ways.

I always remember in the record shop, it was made up of these shelves that went from around here [points at shoulder length, seated] to here [points to ceiling], and he would put these heavy paper signs, and he’d write the signs out for each record.  The sign was always about this wide and this big, about 3 x 8 inches, strips of manila paper, and he would write the name of the record and the performer, top and bottom.  The records would go in the shelf.  

I remember so much of the topography of the shop is based on at any given time what records were in there, and what he was going through.  Because this side over here was always the gospel, and he would try to play a lot of gospel on Sunday, because people would be going to church or coming from church, and he had a lot of gospel artists that he recorded.  He had also had a lot of gospel that he played.  Then he had the new music down the other way.  

But in the middle he’d keep a little John Lee Hooker or Howling Wolf.  I’ll never forget my father’s writing of “Howlin’ Wolf.”  With such a flourish of his pen!  And he would say it.  “Howlin’ Woof!”  And I was just scared to death of this Howling Wolf, the way he sounded. [Laughs]

Did you ever go South growing up?

No.  My father would not let me go South.  He hated the South.  The segregation, that is.  And he would always say, I will never go back South.  I don’t think he ever went back; he used to send to Georgia for his mother to come here; I don’t think he ever went back until his mother died and had to be buried.  And he didn’t want us to have any of that back and forth visiting and staying in the South, and all that.  There were a lot of Black families that did that, of course.  There were a lot of Blacks who did that Summer time trip, but no, not in my family, even though he had close family there.

But it was obvious that he had very deep, sentimental feelings, about aspects of the South, the music, the people.  It was in his heart, a love, a nostalgia, for the South, a hunger, nevertheless.  Because he was a Southern man to the bone.  That’s why he held on so strongly to the old Blues and old Gospel.  When I finally visited the South as an adult, I was surprised at how beautiful it was, how much I loved it – I was so influenced by his attitudes about the segregation and such, when I was young.  But of course, it was a different time.

I do remember going to Chicago to Chess Records.  I remember my mom used to make these really good lunches, on the way.  Ham sandwiches, some fried chicken, some boiled eggs, some deviled eggs – the perfect little boxed lunch.  And for years I remembered that lunch, as being the highlight – we stopped at the rest stop, and we would eat.  

I was a grown woman, Manan, I mean grown, before I realized that the reason my mom made those lunches is because we couldn’t eat in those restaurants.  And I didn’t know that.  Because our parents didn’t come right out and tell us, they were protecting us from the sting of segregation, they didn’t want us to realize the reason we ate by the roadside.  You couldn’t depend on being able to eat somewhere, let me put it that way.

I remember at Chess, seeing Bo Diddley, and all kinds of blues folks.  I remember being in that recording room with holes in all of the walls, the sound-board walls.

What was your father doing there at Chess?

Chess was his distributor.  He would record the records, and then he had leasing agreements with Chess, and they would do the distribution.  So he had a very close relationship to Phil and Leonard Chess.  I remember them being in our life all my younger life.

My father and the Chess brothers had an interesting, mutually dependent relationship.  They respected him, especially since he too was on the production – not performing – side of the business.  Though towards the end of his life, my father was greatly afflicted with alcoholism, and they, and other record dealers and the like, took advantage of my father and his challenges as the music business changed, and entered into less than equitable deals regarding his masters and recordings.  

But before his decline they treated Joe Von Battle as an equal – as he was quite a force in the music world, back in the days before Motown’s rise.

The End


2 thoughts on “Marsha Music in University of Michigan Oral History Project – “Living Music”

  1. I’m glad it’s up, Marsha! I had a wonderful time working on the interview, and learned so much in the process.

  2. Manan, I am honored to share this slice of history with the Living Music project. You were a great listener, patient editor and genuinely interested in this story. Thanks!

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