Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit


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The Temptations and Industrial Detroit

The Temptations are among the greatest of the mid-century masters of Sweetness. Though many of their tunes have been Big Chilled into the innocuous background music of baby boomer middle-age, believe it or not, in those early years, their process headed, tight suit wearin’, lean, street dressin’ was as scary-sexy to older, middle class white (and even black) audiences then, as Hip-hop acts are today.

But unlike the current objects of mainstream fascination/repulsion, there was a subtle yet powerful tension created by the apparent paradox of their “fast-life” personae and their pleading, cajoling declarations of love lost and found.

The search for and promise of lifelong devotion – the “Dream Come True” – emanated from these men – the “New Negro” men of those times.

They had roots in the rural South with new lives in the industrial North, like the dudes on the corner of 12th and Pingree – mouth-rolling toothpicks, stingy-brimmed hats cocked “ace-duce”; with a new icy attitude called “cool“ designed to hide the stress and tension of a new kind of hard, urban life.

They were not at all like the previous generation of singers – say the Mills Brothers with their harmonic, wholesome crooning, or the Drifters’ doo-wop paeans to love. Despite Berry Gordy’s polishing and presentation, the Temps looked, on the one hand, like street-corner hustlers – hostile and inscrutable; and on the other, like stolid, dependable brotha’s hitting the clock on the afternoon shift at Chrysler.

Lead singer David Ruffin wore thick, gumpy glasses and STILL looked cool. Up to that time, most singers would rather go on stage stumbling half blind, rather than appear with specs – especially the thick, awkward frames of those times.

He doubtless proved a blessing to the optometry business in the ‘hood back then; my little brother was finally convinced that our genetic nearsightedness was not the end of the world, once the girls said he looked like Ruffin.

Paul Williams, who always felt, to us, like the “soul of the group”. He sang “Don’t Look Back” at the Michigan State Fair, and, in the audience,  my Mom and I watched the tears run down his face with unabashed emotion on the “The Impossible Dream” – a lounge cliche when sung by others, but for him, it was a stirring Negro anthem for those hot-house Civil Rights days and times.

The cool, basso profundo of Melvin Franklin made us –  kids of the sixties – accept “Old Man River” as more than an anachronistic  river-boat song; but an ode to the South of our fathers, a remembrance of Delta days  as Black men toiled in their new, Northern cities. Eddie Kendricks sang “like a woman” in his career falsetto, yet the songs he led were the fanciful poesy of black  male loving that established the group from the beginning.

“The way you swept me off my feet, you know you could ‘a been a broom
The way you smell so sweet, you know you could ‘a been some perfume”*

In this song, “The Way You Do the Things You Do, written by Smokey Robinson, Eddie had a voice so limber that the word “feet” in the stanza above had five syllables. His voice was always gossamer, fairy light, and he was known to be a quiet, gentle man, yet he could look like the dude on the corner who might cut you, with his lean 12th street looks and brotha’ on the corner stance.

When I was a child, the Temptations and the kings and queens of Motown rode the streets of Detroit like a magic carpet, driving Easter egg colored Cadillacs, wearing suits in matching pastels.We’d see the Supremes shopping at J.L. Hudsons, or the Miracles at a school dance.  I remember the Originals singing “Baby I’m For Real” at the Arcadia skating rink on Woodward Ave. Everyone had someone they knew who was “one of the Temptations cousins” or “my sister-in-law’s brother’s uncle’s friend”- or some other convoluted degree of Motown separation that was emblematic of Detroit’s connection to our homegrown heroes. The “made for TV” movie about the Temptations has become an urban classic, but it in no way does it capture the edgy, gifted complexity of the group, or the times.  

The Temps had the look of both the hustler on the corner and the auto worker, sugar-sharp at a union hall cabaret. Kendricks and Ruffin, lithe and cold-blooded, the rest – and their replacements – proletarian thick and church deacon sharp. They were reflections of the new factory Black men – sweet enough to talk up on a woman, “game” enough to catch her – and with money enough to keep her comfortable, Detroit style –  in a large brick home with two sharp cars.  

Only years, faded memories, and mainstream acceptance have rendered the Temps’ music into innocuous the oldies of soft-bellied men. For they were saber-sharp back in the day, and behind the scenes a few were as edgy and difficult as many a rapper of today.

One does not have to dig deep into their discography for songs that have not been worn into tiresome oldies, but in addition to their many lush B sides and lesser known hits, there’s “Temptations in a Mellow Mood”, an unusual collection of show tunes and standards. One song on this unlikely album that I’ll never forget  features Eddie Kendricks’ glistening lead on “Try to Remember” from – of all things – the musical “The Fantasticks”, which he turns into his own beautiful, wistful beckoning to remembrance.

 

All too many of today’s young Black men cannot experience the virture of “sweetness” and the musicality that came from an urban culture that had as its cornerstone the church, and the security – or at least the possibility –  of a “good” job and a nice car to boot. There are few economic enticements to bolster their appeals to love. Unlike during Motown’s early days, the music of all too many of today’s young men does not allow for such vulnerability —there is no job at Ford (or Chrysler or GM – or anywhere at all, for many) in their future – in the same way that there was in those long gone Detroit days.

Today, pride, anger and machismo alone – morphing all too often into violence – must suffice as a facsimile of manhood, for all too many young men.

The Temptations and other sweet-singing groups of their times reflected a generation of young Black men freed from the defacto shackles of the Southern sharecropping life. Their new, quasi-affluence on the assembly-lines of urban Detroit permitted them the luxury of the glorification of romance. The end of that industrial domination marked the end of that sweetness.

Dennis Edwards, who lead the group in it’s first Grammy win, was the next inheritor of the lead voice after David Ruffin’s exit from the Temptations. Edwards can be said to personify the shift in not only the group, but the urban culture as a whole; for not only were love songs a part of his legacy but “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa was a Rolling Stone” exemplified the startling shift into the social tumult of the times.

After their early, prolific years and various personnel changes, the Temps emerged in the 90’s with “For Lovers Only” with a stunning lead singer, the late Ali Ollie Woodson. With “Some Enchanted Evening” the lead single, it was  redo of American standards with a nouveau-Temptations treatment,  befitting their maturity, longevity and stature. They were , for a new generation, the Grown Men of love.

The death in 2010 of the magnificent singer Ali Ollie Woodson marked the end to yet another incarnation of the Temptations;  his replacement, the birth of another. They will doubtless sing on, with many – if not most – of their current audiences neither knowing or caring who is in the group, as long as they can sing the Temps repertoire. Nor, it seems, does it matter, for the Temptations exist as a phenomenon, an entity, regardless of personnel. Their music, though an expression of love eternal, was born of a specific – now gone – time and place; they are songs of  Black, urban proletarian men, who, with their historically evolved blend of strength and sweetness, expressed love on behalf of an entire English-speaking generation.

Marsha Music

 

 

All photos from Temptations albums.

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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

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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.

Little Sonny + Hooker

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.

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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.

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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.

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This story was published, in the 2016 book Heaven Was Detroit, a collection of essays on Detroit music, edited by M.L. Lieberman.