DETROIT 67: The year that changed soul

MEMPHIS 68: The tragedy of southern soul

HARLEM 69: The future of soul

Author: Stuart Cosgrove

Publ: Polygon, Great Britain 2016, 2017 and 2019

Reviewer: Diana Lee-Smith

The profound cultural change taking place in the United States of America in the late 1960s is carefully documented in this trilogy, so we can understand its origins, the threads of events that brought it about and its echoes that continue. It is a meticulous social history of a sound. The sound of soul came from somewhere and was made by particular people. It changed meanings, was heard by everyone around the world and remains with us. Stuart Cosgrove’s history is a passionate academic work that has rightly won several awards because it makes clear how social change takes place. Who made what changes in the sound of soul music is described in painful detail. It is indicative of the power of the sound of soul that the person who has written its history, Stuart Cosgrove, is a Briton who was inspired by it in his youth and moved from being a fan to a music writer. 

The books can be read independently, each documenting a single year in the late 1960s, with chapters addressing sequentially what happened in the three different cities. Each chapter can be read as an essay on a topic, such as in Detroit 67, ‘July: Riot’; or Harlem 69, ‘December: King Heroin’. The middle book, Memphis 68, departs from the strict month-by-month beat of the other two, having more chapters, perhaps because too much was happening that year, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in that city. There are five chapters set in April, the month of the assassination, including ‘Agent 500’s Busy Afternoon: 4 April’. The chapter that deals with the aftermath ‘Booker T Jones and the Paris Riots: 30 May’ encompasses international events. 

Each chapter and each book can be read like a popular novel, but each chapter and each book also contain exact details of who was making what music and includes the business arrangements, titles released or not released but heard and found in archives, interpersonal conflicts and the relationships of musicians. There is a story line for each chapter, each book and for the trilogy as a whole. It is a literary structure that is musical. 

Soul music comes from the history of the enslavement of African people by white people and the continuing struggle for the right to be heard as citizens of the United States and beyond. Inevitably the books cover politics, the background of the Vietnam war including people’s involvement with it, the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, the Black Power movement and the Black Panther party, as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King  and Malcolm X. People’s beliefs and religious worship are also intrinsic to soul, with the story of the secularisation of gospel music as well as how church structures and community institutions supported the development of the Detroit sound and its business model for example. 

It is clear that soul music comes from black musicians but is heard, played and sung by everybody, as witness the author of the books. This is documented as meticulously as everything else in the three books. 

Detroit 67: the year that changed soul 

The main character in the story of the first book in the trilogy is Berry Gordy, a 38 year-old African-American businessman in Detroit who made millions in music as the driving force behind the Motown Corporation that produced the ‘Detroit sound’.  Diana Ross of the Supremes became his girl-friend and was the main beneficiary of the group’s phenomenal success, which stems from his understanding of the music industry from the streets and the recording studios to every aspect of the business, from promotion, chart-watching and market segmentation to taxation. The Supremes were not the only group that scored success from his entrepreneurial abilities and the book documents them all – their origins, their sound and their relationship with Berry Gordy, including what they thought about him. 

Stuart Cosgrove’s sources are archives of the music press, in which he himself worked although in a different continent. The writer does not take sides, so we get the story as it evolved at the time, including the tensions between and break-up of the Supremes with tales of what happened to all of them over time in their lives, careers and Florence Ballard’s death. Berry Gordy’s older sisters were in the music business before him and stood behind the Motown Corporation, making it in his mind a ‘family’. Their mother’s community was civil rights and church-based. The older sisters had the images that we associate with the Supremes – the immaculate grooming, fur coats and diamonds. 

The music of Motown took the old Rhythm and Blues of the South where the population of Detroit mostly came from, merged it with ‘pop’ music and targeted a mixed black and white audience in the USA and then the world. It rested on technical excellence, orchestral backing and well-organized studio performance. It also derived from the machine sounds of the ‘motor city’ where Detroit’s population worked on the assembly lines, their families having migrated North from rural plantation work as the institutions of the slave economy declined. But racial segregation was entrenched, in schools, in society generally and in places where music was performed.  People listened to and performed segregated types of music. Motown changed that, deliberately and consciously. It was part of the civil rights movement. 

The book’s story is set in Detroit at the time when the motor industry was declining and strikes and riots ensued, fuelled by racial discrimination and police targeting of African Americans, mostly young men. The story begins with a snow storm that brought the city to a halt and ends with a chapter called ‘December: Flight’ that documents the decline of the city to what we know today as the ‘rust belt’. The story of Mohamed Ali, his political struggles and transformation from Cassius Clay in the world of boxing and on the global stage, is told in the chapter ‘June: War’. This documents the boxer’s resistance to the Vietnam War, woven into the story through his appearance in Detroit and his impact on the changing self-image of the African American people. 

It is important to read this detailed history today as we witness current events that are grounded in it. Too many things that Cosgrove’s book documents have not changed, although the music remains and has evolved. The evolution began in 1967 and is duly documented: as the riots and social conflict emerged so new record labels such as Stax in Memphis went with a new, rawer sound that caught attention more than the TV specials and commercial success of Motown. Otis Redding and others had a song encouraging kids to ‘Stay in School: Don’t be a Drop-Out’ and this caught the attention of politicians concerned about the racial divide. But it was the newer sound that really caught attention. 

Motown and Berry Gordy also shifted with the times. Although he worked more in Los Angeles, he fostered the new music emerging as well, through the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, whose album ‘What’s Going On?’ became an inner-city anthem. 

Memphis 68: The tragedy of southern soul 

The middle episode of the trilogy, this book is a sustained blast of information on changing music and socio-political tragedy. It is written like anthropology in accurate detail, but the effect is to convey the feelings captured in the changing music. But it is also written in parts like a murder mystery – the five chapters on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr set the scene of the crime, draw the characters and present incriminating evidence.  ‘Ben Branch’s Solemn Promise: 4 April’ is the chapter that describes King’s death (in minute detail) and the events leading up to it. These include the words of his famous ‘mountaintop’ speech and the weather at the time, which was a freak thunderstorm that prevented Ben Branch, the saxophonist, from reaching Memphis in time. He does however finally arrive and is talking to King at the time of his shooting. King’s last words before he was shot were to ask Branch to play ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’ on his saxophone which he had with him. 

That chapter ends with the words, ‘And then the inner cities erupted’, the events which permeate the following chapters. But those events are dealt with intertwined with the music: who played what, when and where, and how the sound changed as a result of those events.  Ben Branch, apart from collaborating with King on musical activities for ‘Operation Breadbasket’ feeding the poor and during his civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, played for Stax Records, the Memphis based company that is the main actor in the book’s story line. Branch we learn became a successful entrepreneur later in life, running the first African American owned soft-drinks company. Branch’s music came from R&B, spirituals and jazz, and he played with the young Isaac Hayes among others. 

King had come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike there. They had been locked in a battle about their appalling working conditions, up against the Mayor and the weight of the police and other agencies of power. The chaos that broke out after the assassination defeated these forces, which caved into their demands, unable any longer to exercise the same oppression. Across the country, residents of the inner city rose up in more riots that echoed those of the year before about working conditions in Detroit. Memphis and Washington DC were especially hard hit. 

The year had begun with the mourning of Stax Record’s greatest singer, Otis Redding, who replaced Elvis Presley as the world’s top male vocalist. Both from Georgia in the US South, Elvis Presley who held the top spot from 1956, and Otis Redding who held it from 1965, both sang soul music based on R&B, their two sounds riveting the world’s listeners. According to Cosgrove’s research, it was their vocal range that set both of them apart. Both recorded their music in Memphis. Redding had been killed in a plane crash, but like Elvis, his music lived on, including the iconic, ‘Sitting on the dock of the bay’. 

There was continuity across the racial divide in Memphis also in Stax Records, where white and black musicians worked together. This relationship was sorely tested after the King assassination however. By the end of 1968 Stax records had begun its long decline to collapse in 1975, but not before one of its greatest moments came in December 1968 with the breakthrough into funk music pioneered by Isaac Hayes at the Tiki Club in Memphis. Hayes went on to break into movie music and much more. But his transition to the spoken-word rap music with his backup band the Bar-Keys in December 1968 created the music that took over the world subsequently. Hayes had reportedly had a breakdown after Martin Luther King’s death, but recovered to make his musical mark. 

Another event of December 1968 was the resurgence of Elvis, returning to his musical roots in R&B with his TV special that made him a colossus in the music industry. According to Cosgrove’s research, his meeting up with his old R&B musician friends back-stage led him back to the music of his first success that had created the rock and roll movement twenty years earlier; and changed the world of music from the nineteen fifties onward. 

Harlem 69: The future of soul 

The last book of the trilogy takes us to New York, where music continued its explosive transformation, emerging from the street sounds of Harlem, labelled the black ‘ghetto’. The main character of the third book is not really a person or a music company but a place: a central part of the slim island of Manhattan that constitutes New York. In 1948 James Baldwin described, ‘Harlem’s invincible and indescribable squalor’ born forty years earlier ‘under the great weight of frustration and bitterness’, where one lived in the bowels of the city among garbage and decay. The word came from 16th Century Venice when Jews were confined to a ‘ghetto’, and was later used to characterise an overcrowded area of a city occupied by newcomers and low-income people (pp 85-86). 

The lives and music of Harlem’s inhabitants are documented alongside political events and social movements, mainly Black Power and the Black Panther Party, and a spectacular show trial at New York’s Criminal Courts building, starting in October 1969. The cast of characters is large, all documented in Cosgrove’s meticulous anthropological style. 

One is Betty Mabry, who fled to Harlem as a teenager from an oppressive Pennsylvania town built by Dale Carnegie, the Scottish proponent of capitalism. She built a career as a musician, song writer and performer, as well as a model and night club worker and owner. Her creative influence on jazz musician Miles Davis, to whom she was married for one year, 1969, is explained. The book documents their relationship, including their clothing and demeanour at Malcom X’s funeral. Betty Mabry created the Afro hairstyle and promoted the natural look. She was also an aggressively sexual feminist years ahead of her time in music, creating and performing songs that predated Beyonce, Madonna and Prince by twenty years. She got Miles Davis to listen to funk and Isaac Hayes, which brought him new success. Yet her later life was spent looking after her parents back home in the rust belt. 

Spanish Harlem, the area predominantly occupied by Puerto Rican migrants to New York, is the main character in another chapter featuring the ‘Young Lords’ a gang turned social activist movement. They created and ran the ‘Garbage Offensive’ that cleaned up East Harlem in mid-1969. Boogaloo was Hispanic music merging R&B, funk and salsa to generate a wild party scene in Harlem that presaged disco, club and House music. Music signalled and activated the transformation of that generation of Hispanic immigrants, and led to them demanding more as citizens of America than their parents had. 

The assassination of Malcom X in New York in 1965 is flagged as the moment many people in Harlem followed him in converting to Islam, changing their names, identity and values. The life of Malcolm X, including his personal friendships, is told in detail, including his death and the undercover police literally working with him. This story line is cross-linked to the subversion of the Black Panther party and its main leaders. The subversion contributed to the splits in that party, including between the West and East Coast branches. The latter was based mainly in Harlem, and the arrests of several of its leaders and their trial forms another major narrative arc of the book. 

Malcolm X was a friend of Nina Simone, whose life is tracked especially in relation to her performance at the ‘Black Woodstock’ festival that took place in a more organised but less publicised way than the Woodstock Festival also in New York State in August 1969.  Black Woodstock was actually called the Harlem Cultural Festival and took place in a public park in Harlem. The book shows that the funding, management and acoustics of the Harlem festival, which took place first, were much better. Some performers even moved from one to the other.  

Nina Simone’s performance changed music and African American consciousness and attitudes profoundly. A child prodigy as a classical pianist, she had been discriminated against and had an erratic career as a result. Her voice – merging speech and singing – and piano playing transfixed the Harlem crowd and many others. Her song ‘To be young, gifted and black’ and others calling on African Americans to rise up against oppression, were change makers. Miles Davis is reported to have been stunned by her musical prowess. 

The drugs crisis of Harlem and elsewhere in the African American community feature towards the end of the book, as many questioned the values of soul music as transmitted especially through the movies and other forms of performance. Michael Tabor of the Black Panthers wrote a report ‘Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide’ in 1969. He was the eloquent spokesperson of the party who conducted his own defence at the show trial and went into self-imposed exile while on bail. He and Donnie Hathaway are the two young men of Harlem to whom the book is dedicated. Hathaway was another musical genius whose song ‘The Ghetto’ changed perceptions and who grasped and performed the entire historical range of soul music. His co-worker Roberta Flack, herself a skilled musician, records his genius in the Cosgrove book. Hathaway suffered from mental illness and died in in 1979. Michael Tabor lived out his life in Zambia, until his death in 2010. 


There is much to praise in these books, including how they hang together as a dramatic narrative. There is one criticism, and that is the omission of the original source of the music. Cosgrove only tracks the origin of the blues as far back as 1837 – when slavery was still practised – to the music of W C Handy. He writes of the crude instruments and the degrading minstrel shows that entertained white audiences then. He analyses the feelings involved in blues music. 

But he fails to write of the work of his fellow Briton, Paul Oliver, whose book Savannah Syncopators describes his research in the Sahel of Northern Ghana and in the clubs of New Orleans. Oliver tracks the origin of the guitar and the specific beat of the blues back to the praise singers – the ‘griots’ – of West Africa, who were social commentators. This work was done in the 1960s when Cosgrove himself was growing up, with the blues brought to him on radio and in records. Paul Oliver died in 2018 and his life was celebrated as Cosgrove brought out his last book. 


Last modified on Wednesday, 04 March 2020 10:02
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