One of the most eagerly anticipated books of 2017, at least round our way, is Stuart Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul. It follows on from Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul which was one of SWH!’s Books of the Year for 2015 and which Stuart spoke about in depth when he was a guest on the SWH! podcast. Both books are part of his ‘Sixties Soul Trilogy’ (Harlem 69 is due in 2018) which takes the music of those cities as a starting point to further explore arguably the most explosive and important years of 1960s America.
Memphis 68 is defined by two deaths; Otis Redding’s in December of 1967 and Martin Luther King Jr’s in April ’68. The book begins with a city in mourning for its favourite son. For many music fans, this was the day the music died, with Redding’s demise in a plane-crash as shocking and untimely as that of Buddy Holly in similar circumstances in 1959. As with the earlier incident, it is easy to overlook the other individuals who also lost their lives, but Cosgrove makes sure they are not forgotten, reminding readers that while Redding may have been Stax Records’ shining star, he was a member of a large musical family whose loss was great and deeply felt.
As well as the fluctuating fortunes of Stax, there are many other strands to Memphis 68 which Cosgrove weaves together with the confidence of a writer who knows his subject inside out. One of these is the strike of black sanitary public works employees, a protest which brought Martin Luther King Jr to the city. If Redding’s death shook Memphis and music, the shooting of Dr King on April 4th shook the world. Cosgrove takes time and care to contextualise his death, looking at the weeks and days before and after, but also adding a historical and cultural overview.
Redding and King aside, the characters we are introduced to are varied and remarkable. Some of them are well-known, such as gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson – in town to promote her “glori-fried” chicken franchise, a young Black Panther named Samuel L. Jackson, the mercurial Booker T. Jones, the unpredictable Wilson Pickett, an insecure Dusty Springfield who would record her greatest record in the city, and guitar legend Albert King with his famous ‘Flying V’.
But it is the lesser known who make this story so compelling. The inspirational Juanita Miller, the tragic story of Larry Payne, the intimidating Dino ‘Boom Boom’ Woodward (with “fists that hung heavy like swollen fruit”), and Olympic sprint hopeful Bill Hurd. They all make have their parts to play as the year’s events unfold. Then there is the strange story of Agent 500.
Agent 500 is the name given to Marell McCollough, a government spook who has a central role in the historic events of the 4th April, and he is just one example of the US authorities fear of the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, which Martin Luther King Jr was obviously central to. It’s fascinating to realise how keenly this sense of ‘Big Brother is watching you’ was felt in the wider culture of the US at the time. This was reflected in TV and movies, but also in the music with a range of songs referencing the FBI, double agents, and a fascination with spies all becoming hits in the ’60s.
In the book Cosgrove includes a letter written to King, supposedly concocted on the order of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, which is quite astonishing, and which shows the fear and paranoia which was prevalent. It is in this sort of detail that Memphis 68 excels and that the bigger picture emerges. Cosgrove looks at individual lives but he also links events to the Paris riots of that same year, the Mexico Olympics, the emerging American black cinema, as well as the musical developments in Memphis and beyond.
If you read Detroit 67 you’ll have been as eager as I was for Memphis 68 to continue the story. If you haven’t and are not sure if Memphis 68 is for you I’m going to suggest something simple. Visit a bookshop and pick it up, then read the first three pages. You’ll know by then if you want to read on as this is a book which grabs you from the off. The constant throughout the book is the music, in which Cosgrove is immersed, and he writes about it with a passion and fire which is infectious. In those opening pages there are mentions of Rufus Thomas, BB King, Carla Thomas, Bobby Womack, Elvis Presley and many more promising a must read for anyone with an interest in popular music and culture.
Here are three of the most important tracks referenced in Memphis 68:
Johnnie Taylor – Who’s Making Love?
Sam & Dave – I Thank You
Isaac Hayes – By The Time I Get To Phoenix
If the death of Otis Redding had changed Stax Records for ever then the emergence of Isaac Hayes, and especially his ‘Black Moses’ persona, by the end of ’68 would change the music and cultural landscape yet again, and take it as far away from the romantic pop and soul of Motown, (which was the focus of, and soundtrack to, Detroit 67), as could be imagined, and this feel of a story unfolding and developing is key.
If Detroit 67 was the first part of a three-act play, then Memphis 68 fulfills the role of the second act, where things get worse before they can get better, setting the scene perfectly for the denouement. Yet again music would come to reflect the times, and in bringing the two together Stuart Cosgrove paints a vivid picture of people and place. There are few writers who so clearly and powerfully evince the relationship between popular culture and politics as he is doing with these books. Harlem 69 can’t come quickly enough.
Posted in: Books