Stuart Cosgrove's trilogy, Detroit 67 The Year That Changed Soul (2016), Memphis 68 The Tragedy Of Southern Soul (2018), and Harlem 69 The Future Of Soul (2018) are prodigious feats of research and scholarship – musical, political, social – and are best read, considered and reviewed as a whole. It is a trilogy to match any written work on music.
Cosgrove sees in the story of each complete year in Detroit (1967), Memphis (1968) and Harlem (1969) pivots in black music, politics and society that shaped not only the histories of those years but the decades to come. In the era of Black Lives Matter, and the exposure of the peerless music of the era to an ever-widening audience, these meticulously written labours of love are more relevant than ever.
Each volume follows the same structure; a month-by-month narrative of the events in music and society in each location through which the themes of an entire era are examined. The impact of the Vietnam War on black communities, the diversification of the Civil Rights movement into militant and non-violent paths, rapidly accelerating urban decay, the impact of the ending of the post war boom, the uncomfortable transition of soul music into the mainstream, the evolution of soul to reflect the times, police brutality, racism. The central event of each of three volumes alone tells its own story: the Detroit riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Black Panther trial.
Of the three volumes, Detroit 67 is the longest and views the year through the twin lenses of Motown and the deadly summer race riots. Within itself, Detroit 67 serves as an acutely observed history of Motown, rich in anecdotal detail (learning that Berry Gordy had a portrait of Napoleon indoors was a deliciously instructive insight), with 1967 marking a pivotal year in the transition from Hitsville USA to global media player. Each aspect of the transition is carefully teased out by Cosgrove; Flo Ballard’s cold ouster from The Supremes, the disillusioning of hit makers Holland-Dozier-Holland and the brain haemorrhage suffered by Tammi Terrell which foreshadowed the darker days ahead.
The dissonance between the optimistic white radio-friendly pop of Motown and the rapid hollowing out of urban Detroit is starkly adumbrated. White flight, urban decay, unemployment, racism, police brutality, drug and alcohol abuse among returning Vietnam vets, and another sweltering summer (Cosgrove’s use of meteorology throughout the three volumes is fascinating) built the powder keg of the Detroit riots, which are harrowingly recreated here. The descent of Hitsville into a war zone is given a sickening full stop with an account of the Algiers Motel Killings, recently revisited in the Catherine Bigelow film, Detroit.
More sickening events at another motel, the Lorraine, of course dominate Memphis 68. The volume opens however opens with the aftermath of the tragic death of another icon, Otis Redding, dead, along with other members of the Bar-Kays, at 27 years of age in a plane crash in December 1967. Redding’s death is another grim portent. The Memphis 68 music story though is told through lesser-known characters - Roosevelt Jamieson, blood bank operative and nurturer of the talents of James Carr and OV Wright; Ben Cauley, a crash surviving Bar-Kay. And it is told through household names – Isaac Hayes, Johnny Taylor, Wilson Pickett.
The horrors visited on the world in April 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, ironically black Memphis’ party playground, dominate the narrative. Again, the events and context are expertly narrated by Cosgrove and the ramifications, not least visible in Harlem 69 are carefully drawn out. More riots, more urban decay, the breaking point for the non-violent movement.
Of the three volumes, the account of the Memphis recording industry is the most satisfying. Detroit was, forgive me real soul fans, a one studio story in 1967 and the New York black music universe too diverse and multifaceted for the reader to gain a coherent picture amid the tumult. The pages of Memphis 68 however, give us expert portraits of, of course, the mighty Stax, and its relationship with Wexler and Atlantic, as well as the under-appreciated America Sound Studios.
Harlem 69, while yet a third magnificent feat of research and narration is, perhaps like NYC itself, the least coherent and self-contained of the three titles. Fascinating portraits, however, abound; of superfly Harlemite Fat Jack Taylor, of King Curtis, of Afeni Shukur (Tupac’s mother). Harlem’s indifference to the two defining events of the scientific and and cultural zeitgeist – the Apollo 11 moon landings and the landing of 400,000 love children at Woodstock in upstate New York– is wittily skewered. Marvel instead at Cosgrove’s account of the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris park aka The Black Woodstock and You Tube the performances of Nina Simone and BB King and Sly & The Family Stone. The campaign against the Black Panthers is altogether more insidious and carries lessons applicable right up to today in the culture wars waging over BLM and ANTIFA.
The unifying theme of Harlem 69, the future of soul as shown by Donny Hathaway’s The Ghetto, seems at first read a little tenuous. Hathaway’s death in New York in 1979 forms the epilogue to the book, but the significance of The Ghetto gets a little lost, amid the blizzard of music snippets and profiles in Harlem 69; perhaps too many as the writer seeks to present the full range of his research and knowledge.
Detroit 67, Memphis 67 and Harlem 69 have rightly been garlanded with music writing awards, yet their ambition and scope is far wider, placing music at the nexus, and in the vital context, of politics and society. In three short but tumultuous years in three US locations, events occurred and themes developed which shape our understanding of the decades that followed as well as producing music that has only grown in stature since that time. They have found an extraordinary chronicler in Stuart Cosgrove and all three titles are recommended without hesitation to any serious student of black music and society.
Toby Broom, London. May 2021.