Stuart Cosgrove – Memphis '68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul (5 stars)

Stuart Cosgrove – Memphis '68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul

The second part of a fascinating trilogy of social, musical and political histories of Black America in the 60s

It's perfectly feasible that Stuart Cosgrove's exhaustive but briskly readable trilogy of social, political and musical histories of Black America in the late 1960s (of which this is the second chapter) will go on to become deserved future classics, although the world didn't quite catch up quickly enough to acknowledge the fact that 2015's Detroit '67: The Year That Changed Soul presaged Kathryn Bigelow's movie Detroit by a couple of years. As with that great book, Memphis '68 draws together a wealth of in-person academic and library research to paint a month-by-month picture of a year and a place which it's possible to look back on and believe that the world shifted on its axis.

Cosgrove's selection of his subjects is unerring, and clearly rooted in personal passion; before he was a football broadcaster on BBC Radio Scotland and an executive at Channel 4 (a job he left in order to devote his time to writing this trilogy), he was a music journalist specialising in Northern Soul for the NME and the black music paper Echoes. As with Detroit in 1967 and its riots and unrest as the Vietnam War ground on, Memphis in 1968 threw up epochal moments by the month, from the crushing blow to Stax Records of Otis Redding's death in a plane crash to the confrontations between militarised police and striking sanitation workers which drew the attention of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, leading to the civil rights leader's assassination in the city in April that year.

The substance of the book is forensic and journalistic, but Cosgrove masks his wealth of detail beneath an authorial voice which is as easily, blissfully evocative as a classic soul seven-inch. He focuses on the personal, from the heart-breaking retrieval of Redding's also-deceased drummer Carl Cunningham's drums from the water to the exploited working day of Echol Cole, one of two sanitation workers whose accidental death instigated the strike; from the tale of 'Agent 500', the spy in King's camp, to word of King's promiscuity (his 'civil war inside') through the metaphor of Johnnie Taylor's lustful hit 'Who's Making Love'; of soul icon and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson's black-owned chain of fried chicken shops, and of the vital musical work of Dusty Springfield, Isaac Hayes and Elvis Presley in the city. Once again, Cosgrove has created a mighty but personable music history book which wears its own importance very lightly.

Out now on Polygon/Birlinn.

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