In 2001 I was interviewed by a young man who was writing about Detroit Blues. As he researched this seminal music of the city, a focus of his research was increasingly directed towards my late father, Joe Von Battle. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s he recorded dozens of Blues and Gospel artists, most in the back of his record shop and on location in churches and clubs.
He recorded Little Sonny, Johnny Bassett, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Della Reese and the Meditation Singers, the Violinaires, Bro.Will Hairston, Elder Roma Wilson, on and on; artists both known and artists unknown except in the arcane world of Blues record collectors.
Joe Von Battle was the sole producer of the over 75 albums of sermons and songs by the legendary Rev. C.L. Franklin “The Man With The Million Dollar Voice” – and he was the first to record the million dollar voice of Franklin’s daughter, Aretha, for her earliest gospel records at the age of 14.
He also recorded records by John Lee Hooker, but that’s wasn’t a singular achievement – because Hooker record under different names – like Johnny Lee Booker – with just about anyone who would put his voice on tape. Nevertheless, he and my father were good friends, and John Lee Hooker hung out around Daddy’s store and backroom studio for weeks at a time; and sometimes slept on the couch in the back of the shop for days at a time.
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 he came from around the corner of Mack, onto Hastings and into the shop too, my older brother Joe Jr. says that the French photographer almost fainted – he was so astonished and delighted to see the already legendary bluesman come into view.
Demetre snapped John Lee Hooker in front of the record shop, and eventually, the photo that he took became an iconic album cover; 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 drivef now, but that church is still there, one of the few remaining structures adjacent to Hastings St., from back in those days.
Several renowned Blues photographs came from that shoot, including one of Little Sonny in the same spot. As of this writing, in 2014, Demetre is still alive in France – a nonagenarian – and remembers his long ago visit very well – and my brother, Joe Jr. almost 80, recounts it like was yesterday. There are several powerful Blues photos that emarged from that shoot.
So, back to the young writer who was interviewing me in 2001 – he had decided to travel from Michigan to California to interview Mr. Hooker, who had become a very old man. As he prepared for this trip, I gave him a copy of an old photo to take with him, of John Lee and my father hanging out at a bar in Detroit, back in the day.
As the writer prepared to leave for San Francisco, we were both aware of Mr. Hooker’s advanced age. We understood the import of this San Francisco trip – we had a sense, unspoken, that this young writer might be one of the last to have an audience with this great blues man; that Mr. John Lee might not have many more interviews to give.
I asked the young writer to relay my familial greetings to Mr. Hooker, and bid him farewell. He visited San Francisco, Mr. Hooker’s adopted home, for about a week. Upon his return, he told me that Mr. Hooker was very frail but remembered many things, and that he had great memories of my father, long ago on Hastings St. He remembered well the great times they used to have, at Joe’s Record Shop, and he asked about my elder brother and sisters, whom he had known quite well.
I had cautioned the young man, before he left, not to fall into a common trap in his writing, in which Hooker and other Black blues artists, are diefied into mystical, mythical figures – mojo men, hoo-doo men, all.
Years before my friend’s San Francisco visit, I had gone backstage at a Detroit riverfront concert venue, Chene Park, to say hello to Mr. Hooker. There he sat holding court, post-concert; frail as a wisp underneath his trademark fedora, surrounded by dozens of adoring white kids at his feet.
They sat raptly – blissfully even – listening to him as if he were an oracle (while calling him by his first two names, as if he were their age) though I’m sure that they could barely understand his cryptic, whiskeyed, slightly impedimented Delta speech that was so familiar to me.
(It had never ceased to amuse my late mother that Mr. Hooker – words strung together in sometimes incomprehensible, Southernesque non sequiturs – was regarded as a magus, a shaman, a voodoo man.)
I couldn’t help but envision that they had walked right past many similarly aged, wizened old black men on the streets on the way to that very concert, who were totally invisible to them, mere background shadows of the urban experience – if not on that day, on any other day in Detroit.
For the elevation of these Blues men in this way, even if well-meaning, can be dehumanizing, separating them from their existence as real men, like other real men enduring the challenges of survival; attributing their genius to shamanic, magical powers, and not the profound strength and wisdom of that generation of Black men.
He was not a sorcerer, nor magus. It was not magic that allowed him to continue despite great obstacles. He was not mystically protected from the pressure-cooker of life in segregation, on urban streets, in factories, and around robber barons of the music business.
To turn him into a mystical figure is to deny his essential humanness, is to make him somehow exempt from the particular indignities and powerlessness that Black men of his generation experienced. He was not exempt, he was not magical – he was a man.
Hooker drew from the same deep reservoir of pain and strength as did all other Black men of his time who lived lives beset with unspeakable humiliations and extraordinary troubles and challenges. Yet they persevered with courage, intelligence and savvy, and gained the admiration and respect of their communities. Some, like John Lee Hooker, gained the notice of the world.
Now, that is not to say that a Divine Power was not at work in and around him all of his many decades, catapulting him to stardom as the northern, urban voice of the Delta Blues.
For there was surely such a Power – I’ll call it God, and so I think, would he – that put people in his life who understood his talent – like my father, and many more – and those who looked out for him in his old age. But there was nothing magic about him, really.
No, he was just a man, like other Black men on the streets of the city; a man with a guitar, a tapping foot and short tales about life that all old Black men have. Perhaps this made him more a man, than those who worshiped him as godlike; perhaps that’s the reason they worship him so.
Mr. Hooker died within days after the San Francisco interview. His memories of my father were the last that he would share. Maybe he and Daddy are having another Johnny Walker Red in that blues joint in the sky, like they were doing in that picture of them from so long ago, when he was not magical, but just a man.
Marsha Music; originally posted, 2008. All rights reserved.
This story was published, in the 2016 book Heaven Was Detroit, a collection of essays on Detroit music, edited by M.L. Lieberman.