Interview: Stuart Cosgrove on Detroit ‘67

Interview: Stuart Cosgrove on Detroit ‘67

Popular Scottish football presenter’s other passion – soul music – inspired his latest book about Detroit and Motown in 1967.

He’s familiar to Scottish radio listeners as half of a double act with Tam Cowan on BBC Radio Scotland’s football satire and discussion show Off the Ball. But Stuart Cosgrove’s career extends into areas which most of his listeners are probably unaware of. He’s been an executive at Channel 4 for more than two decades, most recently as their Head of Programmes (Nations and Regions); a former journalist for NME, The Face and Echoes; an academic with a PhD in Media and a Doctorate in English and American Studies; and perhaps the most prominent celebrity fan of St Johnstone, the only football club in his native Perth.

He’s also, and has been all his adult life, a huge fan of Northern Soul and soul music in general, and it’s this love which informs his latest project. Having already written a book called Hampden Babylon about the seedier side of Scottish football, his new tome is Detroit ‘67, a musical and social history of 12 important months in black American history.

‘It’s the music I grew up with as a kid and I have a deep and passionate love affair with it,’ he says on the phone from his home in Glasgow. ‘Although Motown’s at the populist end of the market, it’s nevertheless deeply ingrained with its own stories and myths, so it’s a good subject to write about. But this book is about the interface with what was going on around that. My academic background’s in American history, so I’ve always been interested in the period around the Vietnam War, with the fight for civil rights and the country’s struggle to come to terms with Black Power. Shot across the musical history is a deeper, wider social history, and I think this is the first soul book which looks at both together.’

A work of deep research drawn from interviews with key figures and extensive use of university library collections in Detroit (he points out that those close to a significant but long-passed cultural moment tend to believe their own mythology, while cultural records are immutable), Cosgrove compares Detroit ‘67’s themes and backdrop to recent Martin Luther King biopic Selma rather than the more populist quasi-history of The Supremes presented in 2006’s Dreamgirls.

‘I went to see Dreamgirls and I was steeling myself,’ he says. ‘I was determined I wasn’t going to be one of those twats who says “that’s not right, that’s not right” all the way through, and I actually did enjoy it. But there was one scene which got me, where Effie (Jennifer Hudson’s character and the analogue of Supremes member Florence Ballard, whose life sank into alcoholism, depression and early death within a decade of being removed from the group in 1967) went out into the street right after being sacked by the record company and a riot was unfolding. I thought, is that plausible? It got me wanting to research that moment.’

It turns out the scene correctly followed the events of one July 1967 weekend in Detroit, and discovering this kicked off a desire to research the history surrounding it. Cosgrove started keeping a notebook of his findings, and the facts he collected eventually arranged themselves around ‘the big subjects of the time – war, riots, things like that.’ The significance of this year and this city to the struggles America faced and the culture she had developed in the late 1960s soon became clear.

He gives another example of this synchronicity, where Muhammad Ali fought an exhibition match against local Detroit fighter Alvin Lewis in the city one Friday in June, and on the Monday was in Houston, Texas being stripped of his title for refusing the draft to Vietnam. In the same month, meanwhile, more young Detroiters were shipped back home in body bags than to any other US city.

‘The music of Motown fits the mood of its times far more because of context rather than content,’ he says, noting that the book is very much a snapshot of a point in American history, even though its subjects echo today in events like the Ferguson riots. ‘Their back catalogue isn’t filled with songs about civil rights, most of them are teenage pop songs, but there are plenty of threads to be traced. For example Diana Ross and Mary Wilson of The Supremes both had brothers in Vietnam, while Marvin Gaye keeps popping up throughout the book. At this point he wants to be a black crooner, but many of the events which occur in ’67 will go on to inform What’s Going On.’

Beyond his compulsion to keep learning about Detroit in ’67 as the many resonances of the era opened up to him, Cosgrove says part of the urge to write the book was to ‘give black music its dignity’ as an important reflection of its times to equal rock. ‘There are probably endless books about Bob Dylan and civil rights, but never anything about soul,’ he says. ‘I was determined to write a book which changed that.’

He isn’t finished yet – he’s currently writing a similarly-styled and self-explanatory follow up entitled Memphis ‘68, while a projected third instalment in a trilogy travels to Harlem in 1969. These are the books he’s always wanted to write, he says, ones which match a personal passion with broad appeal – because as often as he’s asked to write another on football, he doesn’t see a volume on the history of St Johnstone holding quite the same international appeal.

Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul by Stuart Cosgrove is released on Tue 31 Mar.

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