Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit


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Standing in the Light of Detroit

 

         This was written after a spectacular Funk Brother’s performance on a hot, end-of-summer night in Detroit in 03‘.

 

It was their first major appearance in the city (or at least their first big, free outdoor concert ) since the movie that featured them, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”
After this concert, pianist Joe Hunter died, and there was a serious falling out of the movie’s producer and members of the group – no surprise – and the group does not perform with all of the same, original members who appeared that September night.

This made this concert even more magical, for the group will never play together like this again.

******

The Funk Brothers headlined tonight at the Detroit Festival of the Arts, on a stage nestled between the Detroit Science Center, Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Museum of African American History.

A triangulum befitting the Funk Brother’s genius, artistry and Black Detroit roots.

They’d come a long way since playing the clubs and joints of Black Bottom, or even, from their more recent years of relative obscurity.

The concert was a celebration of their stupendous gifts, and, as we knew out, our good fortune of being fortunate enough to have grown up with their music in our own aural and literal backyard.

There were thousands waiting for show-time in the balmy night, and standing ovations before a note was even played. The band seemed moved to tears at such an ecstatic reception.

We raise our heads to the sky in wonder – rain had been predicted all week, but no rain ever came. It seems that even the skies would honor these men and bless us all on this clear and special night. The crowd is more than electric, it is a part of the performance itself, undulating with outbursts of adulation.

Jack Ashford, venerable,  dignified, respectful and respected, looking like a science teacher or a old time preacher,  his tambourine blinging in the lights, ringing like church, sizzling like a rattlesnake in the night.

Bob Babbitt, the bass-man got much applause and we were glad to honor him so; how cool must this white man be to have played and lived around these extraordinary Black men, to have had to come behind the great James Jamerson.

Eddie Willis, Mississippi prince on a throne, sitting down front, the guitar his sceptre; talking like down-home.

Uriel Jones, Ivory Hunter, Messina, all of them on the stage; they create an amazing monument of sound – a massive, complex, joyful noise. They are actually symphonic, a heavenly, orchestral blast of pride and joy.

They are getting old, there is no denying this, and one can feel the crowds silent, collective prayer, that these men be allowed to savor their new good favor and fortune for as long as they can.

The band is so tight, so familiar, so………..Motown; they sound surreal, as if actual humans can’t possibly be playing. This music has been in our heads and hearts and histories for so long, the idea that there are actual people playing like this is almost unbelievable.

We know every single word and note of every single song.

***

There are moments that can only be described as transcendent – dreadlocked women do the STOP! In The Name of Love; we cast aside our 70’s and 80’s poli-sci judgments of crossovers and compromises to return to our original, pure and giddy loving of this sound.

With now wide hips and swelling ankles, we danced the Shingaling, the Shotgun, the Four Corners, like we did when we were fast, fine and young.

White guys with beards and bellies sang My Girl into invisible mikes, and a few young dudes from the hood did the Temptation Walk with old suburban guys.

The audience breaks out in loud, spontaneous applause when they hear the lyric “War is not the answer..” from Marvin Gaye’s song from more than one generation ago, a song that must now be sung again for a brand new war.

 

A solid row of folks, blacks and whites, do the Temptation walk, like The Wave at a football game – an amazing sight in this most segregated of metropolitan areas, a reminder of a brief time when, many years ago, we danced to one great sound.

I’m there with my brother, a rare excursion for he likes quiet life; dislikes crowds. We dance and holler like the kids we once were, screaming about our days at the Motown Review, and remembering how we know the first note and beat on every Motown record, a necessary requirement for working in our Daddy’s record store.

 

We know that we are experiencing something special, and we are grateful to share it with our mother frail but excited sitting next to us, remembering the days when she finger popped to the 45’s in our living room. She, old and fragile now, and she and her sister saw the Funk Brothers at the Twenty Grand club in their young fine days. 

She remembers the days when Jamerson, Joe Hunter and others of the Brothers found their way around the corner from the Motown Hitsville house to my father’s 12th street shop, where they’d have a “taste” or two between gigs. 

 

Our father is long gone, and this summer my mother’s sister joined her husband, in that concert in the sky. We all speak of her and miss her, and all of our youth gone by.

During the band’s tender tribute to it’s members now gone, we wipe our eyes at the thought of those we loved, maybe listening to Funk Brothers above, making celestial noises to the Lord.

It was one of those nights that years from now, people will say that they were there – even people who weren’t.

***

 

It occurs to me that on this night, something happened. When Motown left Detroit a part of our collective heart stopped; I could feel on this sweet Saturday night that the triumphant victory of the Funk Brothers was a sign, another cornerstone in a rebuilding of Detroit had just been set in place; a soul had been breathed back into its rebirth.

I was glad I was there to honor these men, and yes, to pay respect to the one who finally told their story. It was a hallowed night, a spirit filled night, I realized that this music was always something like a religious music to me and to many others.

I was blessed to have seen the Funk Brothers on that beautiful Saturday night. It was one of those times when I remember why Detroit was the center of the modern musical universe.

 

Marsha Music,

[I wrote this in September of ’03, my mother passed away in 08’, earlier this year, joining her sister who had just passed away before this concert, of whom I speak above. I think of them, along with my father and uncle and all of them who were “hanging like wet clothes”, together now on the “other side” maybe remembering the 20 Grand Club, wherein they saw every Motown act that ever was, back in their day.]

 

 

 


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A Black Woman Remembers Elvis

I think that Elvis was my first love. I was 5 years old in the 1950s, and I sat in the sun on the living room floor with my legs criss-crossed, album cover on my lap, in a pool of light from the leaded-glass window near the fireplace. Motes of dust bounced and drifted in the beam of sun, fairy-like. The sun shined on Elvis Presley too, on that cover; guitar strapped across his stripe-shirted shoulder, as he gazed upward into a faraway sun, or maybe into the light of Heaven itself.

I was besotted by such beauty in a man. The errant forehead curl, the pull of his lip that made the tiny sneer; imperfections that rendered him more beautiful. The sun was golden and Elvis was too. Yes, he was tawny then from a life in the Delta sun; his hair a slick, golden crown. This was years before his hair was dyed black for photos and film, and later, to hide the signs of time. Oh yes, back then, as I gazed at the album cover in my living room, he was a golden boy.  He is Elvis, the light shines on him, and it shines on me.

 There is a familiarity about him, a softness of speech and manner that is not unlike my own Southern father and uncles. There is none of the frantic crispness, the stiff, staccato notes of the North. No, his way is soft; he moves more like folks move in my world. I am 5 years old, yet I know this.  There is too, an oddness about him, something untold. I learned later of a twin who died still born, and oh, the mystery of that child unknown. Another Elvis in the world was too much to contemplate.  Maybe the spirit of the long gone child made Elvis become more than if they had both survived.  His too lush beauty hints, to me, of long-lost secret ways, his eyes too heavy, lips too full, the nostrils spatulate. I wonder just what other blood flowed in those Delta veins, what long ago dark ancestor through him sweetly sang.

My daddy was a record shop man. Produced, wrote, recorded, pressed, published, and sold records. Growing up, I was surrounded by records, and as a child, I read album covers and liner notes – my earliest history class of the world and the people in it. Our house was full of records, 45′s, 78′s and the new “LPs”. Records were recorded even in our living room, the high, oak-beamed ceilings made for great acoustics. There were records all around – Stan Kenton and Oklahoma! and Bobby “Blue” Bland and Jerry Lee Lewis and Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington and Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Howlin’ Wolf and Peter and the Wolf and Mahalia Jackson and Tennessee Ernie and Ike and Tina and…., well, a whole lot of albums were in our lives.  But the Elvis album cover I will never forget.

Years later it would be said that Elvis was a thief, a robber, a usurper of the music of others. But I think not. The men I knew, Black blues-loving Detroit men who lived in the North and hungered for their South, looked at him with the bemusement of affectionate elders, as if one of their own had played a trick on old Jim Crow. “Listen to that boy” they’d say, and shake their heads, “just look at him”.  He was as familiar to them as sugar cane and red dirt. They knew just where he came from, just what kind of church he must have sat in as a child, by the way he played a chord, or sang a note.

They knew he’d seen that Holy Ghost grab someone and make them whoop and holler, in the churches of mothers’ boards and deacons, the churches of the gospel shout and stomp. Wasn’t his fault that there were those who made money off of the music of others, that society let him bust through musical doors that barred his darker brothers. He let rhythm music come through him, past the restraints of upbringing and environs. He didn’t turn our music white, but worked it through the channel of his own Delta life. Though how tortured was his wrestle with the secular and divine; oh, how tragic was his price.

I miss Elvis, even the jump-suited Las Vegas Elvis, the latter-day bloated and drug addled Elvis – yes, the eternally impersonated Elvis.  But most of all, I miss the Elvis on that old album cover – the striped-shirted, tawny-haired, golden boy Elvis; with a profile as chiseled as Michelangelo’s David, his face as angelic as Gabriel, eyes raised towards Heaven.  He’s the Elvis in my living room, with the sun shining on him, and shining on me.

Marsha Music
[Photo above is from the 1956 album “Elvis”]
[Every few years, I get deep into what I call my Elvis Studies; an odd preoccupation, one might say, for a dread-locked sistah like meWhen I wrote this piece, I had just finished the twovolume masterwork by Peter Guralnick, “Last Train to Memphis – The Rise of Elvis Presley”, and “Careless Love – The Unmaking of Elvis Presley”. Together, they constitute a monumental biography, an awesomely – even absurdly – detailed account of the life of Elvis.
As an essential compliment to these works, I re-read, “Elvis” by music critic Dave Marsh, a deeply respectful, wholly intelligent treatise on Elvis and modern music and culture – masquerading as a gorgeous picture book.  Marsh’s essay provides the critical, undeniable social context of the Elvis story: the significance of region and race that is obscured in all of the necessary minutiae of
Guralnick’s work.
Then I topped it all off with Priscilla’s “Elvis and Me”, a boiling confection I’d been avoiding for years. So after I finished this course in Elvisology, a few years ago, on the anniversary of his death, I wrote this piece. Btw, this was one of my submissions for the Kresge Fellowship in the Literary Arts, which I was awarded in June, 2012.  
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Yours Truly – Marsha Music – after an interview in Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce,  for a film by documentarian Eugene Jarecki. [in front of the Downtown Synagogue, Detroit, June 2016]


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John Lee Hooker – No Magic, Just Man

lil sonny jvb hooker slay

Aaron “Little Sonny” Willis, Joe Von Battle, John Lee Hooker, Emmet Slay, (Marcel Chauvard looks on) at Joe’s Record Shop, Detroit. Photo by Jacques Demetre, 1959

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.

John Lee Hooker on Hastings St.

John Lee Hooker on Hastings St.

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.

Little Sonny John Lee Demetre