All good things must come to an end, and this is sadly true for Stuart Cosgrove’s epic and engaging soul and civil rights trilogy. What began with Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul, and moved to Memphis ’68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul, ends with Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul, and while it is a crying shame that, for the moment at least, we won’t find out more of what happens next (although, as suggested in the title, Cosgrove does touch upon the future), as James Brown knew, when you depart the stage do it in style and leave them wanting more. Cosgrove is leaving us in the finest style, job done.
Anyone who has read the previous books will know what to expect in terms of form. Cosgrove takes us through the year of 1969 chronologically, month by month, and looks at events which may have begun in Harlem but which had ramifications way beyond the neighbourhood boundaries. His cast of characters are a Venn diagram of the well-known, the lesser-known, the expected, and the unexpected. For every Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, and Donny Hathaway, there’s someone such as Fat Jack Taylor, Betty Mabry, Arthur Conley, and Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams) whose stories are vital – indeed they, and others like them, are the spine of Harlem ’69.
All four mentioned have the most remarkable life stories, as a musical impresario and drug dealer, a muse – and so, so much more – to Miles Davis, a man struggling with his sexuality in a none-more macho world, and a leading Black Panther and mother to a future superstar. Theirs are just a few of many such accounts, and they are evidence of what Cosgrove does so well – taking everyday people’s extraordinary lives and linking them to what’s going on, not just in Harlem, but across America.
Then there are those who appear who you, or rather I, just don’t expect. Famous names such as Jimi Hendrix, Luther Vandross, Frankie Knuckles, the aforementioned Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Nile Rodgers, and George Benson. Most music lovers will be aware of their lives and work but they seem to belong elsewhere, to other musical movements and eras. For all of those mentioned to appear in the story of Harlem in 1969 is as fascinating as it is surprising.
So far I’ve only really touched upon the music, but this is as much a story of civil rights (and social issues), if not more so. They are intrinsically linked with the time and place, and with each other. This is epitomised by the staging of the free concert which came to be known as ‘Black Woodstock’, with appearances from Sly and The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and a legendary performance from Nina Simone – her version of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ a highlight of the set, and as a result the song would become the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in 1969.
The backdrop to Harlem ’69 is dark and dangerous, with the increasing prevalence of heroin taking a terrible toll, street gangs at war, and crime and mortality rates through the roof. As the months unfold matters only get worse. There are events throughout the year which define the times – the raid leading to the arrest of 21 Black Panthers being one of the most far-reaching in its consequences. But perhaps the most shocking is the death of 12-year-old Walter Vandermeer, an event which came to symbolise Harlem’s problems.
I was wondering how Cosgrove was going to wrap things up before the close of this third act, and he does so by looking to the future, linking events and individuals to people, places, and music from the next five decades which only reinforces his central thesis that these are three years which shaped America, and shook the world, musically and politically. The influence on, and the links to, the greatest exponents of hip-hop and rap is particularly strong, and poignant.
Tupac Shakur, Dr Dre, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Tone Loc, Mantronix, NWA, Public Enemy, Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest – their music and politics can be directly traced back to the years and places covered by Cosgrove. The Black Panthers’ influence in particular can be felt in music, film, theatre, art, fashion, and elsewhere, and that continues to the present day (perhaps most obviously in Marvel’s recent Black Panther movie). All the issues that Cosgrove touches upon, in this volume especially, are still felt keenly, and there is a sense that he views 1969 as a year zero for America – socially, politically, and culturally – and things would never be the same again.
There’s a playlist on the Books from Scotland website which Stuart Cosgrove has carefully curated for your listening pleasure, but here are just a few of my favourite tracks mentioned in Harlem ’69:
It is to be hoped that this isn’t the end of Stuart Cosgrove’s writing about American soul music and culture, but if it is then it’s on a high. However, if you happen to read this, Stuart, I have one last thing to say, “One more year, one more year…!”.