Sunday, February 19, 2023

Detroit History Under Marsha Music’s Watchful Eyes

Marsha Battle Philpot [aka Marsha Music] is a familiar Detroit figure and longtime booster of the city who describes herself as "a writer and griot (storyteller)" of Detroit's post-World War II history, and its gentrification over fifty years later. Born on June 11, 1954, Marsha is the oldest child of the late blues record producer Joe Von Battle and his second wife, the late Westside beauty, Shirley (Baker) Battle.

Joe ran a blues and gospel record shop with a makeshift recording studio in the back room on Hastings Street, at Mack Avenue, just north of the Black Bottom area of Detroit. Joe recorded John Lee Hooker, Rev. C.L. Franklin and his fourteen-year-old daughter Aretha, among many other singers long forgotten.

Joe met Shirley Baker as she waited on the streetcar outside of the record shop, and he gave her a job. Soon he was smitten, despite being married with four teenaged children. After several years of going together, Joe bought Shirley a large house in Highland Park, a city within Detroit’s city limits, and he divorced his first wife. After Joe and Shirley had two children, they made it official and married.


Marsha never knew of her parent’s early unmarried status until after her mother’s passing at age 79. "I grew up in the era of Highland Park’s lush prosperity, and I would have led a very middle-class life, but every weekend, there I was on teeming 12th Street, working at my father's record shop. I came to love the neighborhood and its people." Joe's original record shop on Detroit's Eastside was bulldozed to make room for the Chrysler Freeway and urban renewal which Joe and others astutely described as "Negro removal."



Joe opened his new shop on 12th Street in Detroit's Westside in 1960 while struggling with alcoholism and Addison’s Disease. Seven years later, civil strife and conflagration consumed the 12 Street neighborhood in what history notes as the Detroit Riots. Some social historians and Black Detroiters have come to describe the event as "The Rebellion" as the social and economic forces leading to the insurrection of July 23, 1967 predated the event by decades.


As a direct result, Marsha became an activist during the turbulent 1960s. The late General Baker, a founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, became a surrogate father to Marsha. Highland Park had top schools during Marsha Battle’s early years and she was a good student, trained in classical music. Reeling and adrift, as her father’s drinking and conflict in the home worsened, she got pregnant at the age of sixteen and never completed high school. Her father died in 1973. Shirley worked after Joe's death cleaning offices for the Ford Motor Company. Shirley was able to support her two youngest children and put them through school. She passed away in 2008.


Marsha went to work at the Frito-Lay snack plant in Allen Park, Michigan to support her son, and at twenty-two year old had another son. After eleven years at the Frito plant, the single mother of two came into her own when she was elected to lead Local 326 of the Bakery, Confectionary, and Tobacco Worker's Union, at the age of twenty-eight. Her election was notable on several counts because she was the first African American, the first woman, and the youngest person to ever serve as union president representing workers from Frito-Lay, Taystee Bakeries, Hostess Bakeries, Wonderbread, and many other affiliated bakers and confectioners in Detroit and beyond.


Her main cause was to fight concessions that management was trying to enforce throughout the industry. Marsha brought new blood and energy to the job. “The people who work in these shops pay my salary, put clothes on my back, and feed my kids. I have to represent their interests.”


The father of her second son was an on-air news personality on WABX, and Marsha spent much of her twenties as what she calls a “rock chick.” With her father’s country blues and gospel roots, her love for the Motown Sound, the British Invasion, and hard rock music on Detroit’s underground radio station expanded her musical appreciation ever wider.


Marsha, a voracious reader, loved to write since childhood, but it was not until the growth of the internet that her writing took off in an unusual way. Around 2000, while searching on eBay for a new watch, she struck up a conversation with a seller which lead to an invitation to join an “online wristwatch community.” She loved wristwatches and began to write about them on moderately and high-end, international connoisseur’s watch sites.


Marsha also began to expand on her writing and wrote about growing up in the Detroit music world. Much to her surprise, in the world of watches there were some record collectors too who recognized the names of her father’s record labels: JVB, Von, and Battle Records.


Marsha realized there was knowledge about her father’s recordings among blues collectors worldwide, but there was very little known about him. A fire grew within her to return Joe Von Battle’s name to public notice and gain him the recognition he deserved and was deprived of when his larger legacy went up in smoke during that horrible summer of 1967.


Marsha also began writing for a group dedicated to music headed by rock critic Dave Marsh, who had long encouraged her writing. In 2008, she started a blog entitled Marsha Music. After a short time, she encountered many blues scholars on The Real Blues Forum, headed by author Paul Vernon, who were estatic to read stories about Joe's Record Shop.

Marsha, like her father, struggled with alcohol but adopted a life of sobriety in 1987 at age thirty-three. She returned to her family home in Highland Park in 2000, but in a cruel irony it burned in an electrical fire in 2007. Marsha has been divorced twice and was widowed in 2018.

Through it all, she has written about her life in Detroit. Under the pen name of Marsha Music, she is an author whose essays, poems, and first-person narratives about Detroit's history appear in many notable anthologies such as Sonic Rebellion: Music as Resistance, Heaven Was Detroit, and A Detroit Anthology.

Marsha is on a crusade to bridge the gap between Detroit's past and its present. Lots of city history has happened in between, about which Marsha writes and eloquently speaks. Marsha wears dramatic clothing, hats, and turbans, striking a commanding presence wherever she appears. She is a much sought-after speaker with a forward-looking message.


"[Detroit] needs a restorative movement to heal what has happened here, as the working people of the town competed against themselves over the right to a good life. We have to share stories about the experiences of the past era. As we move forward in Detroit, there must be a mending of the human fabric that was rent. Small continual acts of reconciliation are called for here."

Marsha has appeared on HBO, The History Channel, and PBS. In 2012, she was awarded a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, and in 2015, the Knight Arts Challenge. In 2017, she was a narrator in the documentary 12th and Clairmount about the origins of Detroit's civil upheaval of July 23, 1967. Her poetry was commissioned for a narrative performance with the Detroit Symphony in 2015 and another for the Michigan Opera Theatre in 2020.

Marsha is currently completing a film project and book about her father. And if that wasn't enough, as of 2021, Marsha Battle Philpot began serving on the Board of Directors of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In 2020, Marsha retired after a career with the Wayne County Third Circuit Court system of almost thirty years; currently, she lives in the Palmer Park district of Detroit. Her long and distinctive list of accomplishments and her dedication to public service have revived her father’s legacy as a Detroit music pioneer. Marsha’s achievements would make her parents proud.

Before Berry Gordy There Was Joe Von Philpot Producing Records in Detroit 

The Detroitist by Marsha Music 

Monday, February 13, 2023

Before Berry Gordy There Was Joe Von Battle Producing Records in Detroit

Joe Von Battle in his Hastings Street record shop

oe Von Battle was born in 1915 in Macon, Georgia and moved during the Great Migration with his family to Detroit, Michigan. In his teens, he worked doing odd jobs in Detroit’s famous Eastern Market until he found work with Detroit Edison digging trenches and burying electrical lines. During much of World War II, Joe worked double shifts. One shift at the Hudson Motor Car Company and the other shift at the Chrysler Plant across the street. When the war ended, Joe was permanently laid off like many African American workers, displaced by White veterans returning from the war.

Joe Battle vowed to be his own boss and never work for anyone again. He added Von for a middle name as a young man, emulating European film actor Erich Von Stroheim, who he admired. When Battle opened his record business, he realized the middle name Von was helpful on his business cards, obscuring his African American ancestry. In 1945, a narrow grocery storefront was vacated at 3530 Hastings Street in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood on the lower Eastside, Joe Von Battle stepped in and opened Joe’s Record shop.

Joe outside his store

In 1948, Joe Von Battle purchased a reel-to-reel tape recorder and made a makeshift recording studio in the back of his shop. There he recorded artists like John Lee Hooker; Washboard Willie; pianist Detroit Count, who recorded “Hastings Street Opera;” Tamp Red who recorded “Detroit Blues;” Louisiana Red, Memphis Slim, Kenny Burrell, and many other country blues musicians.

Joe Von Battle recorded the final songs and sounds of the people who migrated north for a better life. His shop specialized in records that appealed to African Americans from the rural South who left to work in the automobile or steel industries for a better life. Country blues traveled with them. Joe is believed by music historians to be the first African American record producer in the post war period recording on the JVB, Von, and Battle Records labels.

His record shop played host to Detroit’s itinerate blues musicians. Typically, the music was performed live by a singer with his guitar and maybe a washboard and a harmonica player for accompaniment. Country blues was raw and rooted in the struggle for survival in a world of inherited misery. It sung about poverty, loss, suffering, desertion, death, booze, and loneliness. Country blues had its feet firmly grounded to the earth and rural life.

Joe recorded another style of music with a hopeful spiritual message born out of the same misery—gospel music. Joe was most proud of almost one-hundred sermons he recorded of legendary pastor C.L. (Clarence La Vaughn) Franklin at the original New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings Street down from his record shop. On Sundays, Joe would broadcast Reverend Franklin’s sermons on speakers set up outside the shop. His storefront always attracted a crowd.

Probably the most precious recordings he ever recorded were eight hymns sung by Reverend Franklin’s fourteen-year-old daughter Aretha before she signed with Columbia Records in 1960 secularizing her music. When Aretha Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, she was paired with producer Jerry Wexler who helped her become the Queen of Soul.

Aretha Franklin performing

In 1956, the Federal government announced the construction of the National Interstate Highway System spelling doom for Hastings Street, the heart of Detroit’s African American business community and further down Hasting’s Street Paradise Valley, Detroit’s legendary blues and jazz entertainment district. The construction of I-375 was a useless 1.062-mile spur that ran parallel to I-75. When the Black business community was uprooted, the financial health of many successful African American entrepreneurs was cut short.

The transition prompted a Black diaspora to the 12th Street area on Detroit’s Westside, creating overcrowding and increased racial tension in the city. The Black community was boxed in by real estate covenants and red lining, restricting their free movement around the city and the greater Detroit area. There was a distinct colorline that Blacks begrudgingly conformed to. Within its confines, the African American community struggled to make the best of a bad situation.

Joe Von Battle moved his record shop to 12th Street in 1960, but by that time there was a new sound dominating the radio and television airways of Detroit threatening his business. “There is a different generation now,” Joe told the Detroit Free Press. “All they want to buy is that Motown stuff with that beat they want to dance to. Today, young disc jockeys won’t play the blues. They say it’s degrading,”

Berry Gordy brought a polished professionalism and aggressive promotion to his Gordy/Tamla/Motown record labels. The new urban sound was sleek, suave, and sophisticated appealing to a broader, younger, crossover audience. The content of the music changed from the tough realism of country blues to lyrical, hard-driving rhythms and strong choral arrangements with a pop music flare which listeners could dance to.

The modern male and female groups wore fancy, matching outfits and danced synchronized choreography to the music. The Motown sound was tailormade for television and radio, taking the new music from Detroit’s Westside to the rest of the country and the globe.

Not only did the music change, the record industry changed also. In the 1960s when the chain department stores established record departments, they began selling rhythm and blues singles and albums. Rhythm and blues had entered the mainstream. Independent, specialty record shops could not compete. Black record stores struggled to survive.

Then on July 23, 1967, to add insult to injury, 12th Street erupted with racial strife and conflagration. The first night Joe protected his store with a shotgun but the second day he was ordered by police to evacuate the premises and allow the authorities to restore order which took a week.

In the meantime, Joe’s business was looted, torched, and hosed down by the fire department. When Joe and his family were allowed to return to the record shop, the smell of charred wood and melted vinyl hung heavy in the air. Twenty years of tape-recorded blues history, Joe’s life work, went up in smoke or was washed into the street.

Looters oustside of Joe's shop in July 1967


Joe’s daughter Marsha laments that “Some of the most significant voices in recorded history were on those melted records and fire-soaked reel-to-reel tapes. Thousands of songs, sounds, and voices of the era, most never pressed into vinyl, were gone forever. I believe Daddy died that day. My father’s alcoholism gravely worsened after his life’s work and provision for his family was destroyed by looters and rioters.” Joe suffered for years with Addison’s disease and died a broken man in 1973 at the young age of fifty-seven.

Marsha Battle Philpot, aka Marsha Music, wrote a biography about her father to document his music legacy. Marsha brought Joe Von Battle's story back to life in 2008 in her Marsha Music: The Detroitist blog. She writes about Detroit's African American history and culture on her blog.

Marsha Battle Philpot also has published a beautifully written book of poetry and prose titled The Detroitist: An Anthology About Detroit dealing with the era of Detroit's White flight in the 1950s and 1960s and its impact on those left behind.

Marsha Music's Blog