DETROIT, Mich. — Writer and poet Marsha Battle Philpot remembers one of the first things Aretha Franklin ever said to her when they met 10 years ago.
“Aretha Franklin has said that she wouldn’t be where she was if it wasn’t for my father capturing her voice in the early days,” Philpot stated during an interview at her home in Detroit.
Philpot, who is also known as Marsha Music, said that Aretha spoke highly of her father, Joe Von Battle, who produced records for Rhythm and Blues greats like John Lee Hooker and Della Reese. Aretha was soon added to that list when he produced her first record Never Grow Old when she was just 14 years old.
“Her voice was so striking even then,” Philpot said. “She had an extraordinary range as a young woman. And most importantly she had an extraordinary emotional timbre.”
It’s that emotion that caught Battle’s attention back in the early 1950s, Philpot said. Battle owned Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street. For years he’d go to Rev. C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church on Sunday night’s to record his messages and put them on vinyl afterwards.
“My father came to record this unbelievable daughter, who was singing in the choir,” she said. “Of course she’s the preacher’s daughter. I’m sure she’s soloing a little more than others. But she’s got an extraordinary voice.”
So he “put her on wax" and produced over 100 records for the Franklins, which included a few of Aretha's first songs and many of her dad’s sermons, Philpot said. She became a regular at his shop, playing with some of Philpot's older siblings.
“She had a lot of fun with them in the back of the record shop,” Philpot said. “She used to play an upright piano. My dad had an upright piano that he would never let me bang on.”
However Aretha was allowed to play anytime, she said, mainly on Sunday nights after church. Battle subsequently put her music on his radio show, which was broadcasted out of CKLW in Windsor, Canada. He delivered tapes to the station's offices in the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit to make sure they were aired as soon as possible.
“I have read accounts of people who their first listening to Aretha, the first time they ever heard Aretha, was late at night on a quiet night when the signal would come through from CKLW,” she said. “They were in Tennessee and they could hear Aretha Franklin singing Never Grow Old, so far away."
People heard her voice throughout the south, Philpot said. With Battle and Rev. Franklin’s airing her songs on their respective radio shows, her popularity grew. First, she became well known among gospel circles. Then among secular ones too.
“I believe a lot of her gift was in the granting of the permission to express pain,” Philpot said.
Aretha later went on to sign with Columbia and Atlantic Records in the 1960s. It was through her songs like Respect where she conveyed the emotions and sufferings that Black people endured during the Civil Rights Movement all over the country, including in her hometown of Detroit.
"She expressed Detroit-ism," Philpot said. "She lived here for much of her life. She returned here. She died here. She was always pushing the Detroit envelope, as far as the expression of the concerns that Detroiters had."
Philpot said she was grateful for Aretha's efforts and to have met her that day years ago. She was impressed that she even remembered her siblings' names and that she ultimately never forgot her dad.
“She truly embraced me,” Philpot said. “She was very happy to meet me and she had nothing but fond things to say about my father and about those days.”
***For more on Joe Von Battle and Aretha Franklin, click here.***