Stuart Cosgrove's got Soul!

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Perth born journalist, broadcaster and television executive Stuart Cosgrove, has always been passionate about Soul music in all its forms.  He got into music journalism with contributions to Northern Soul fanzines, before moving on to write for Echoes, which was, and remains the best and biggest monthly magazine about black music there is.

After Echoes, Stuart went on to be a writer and Media Editor for the NME becoming the in-house proselytiser for black music, picking up the moniker ‘Hip-hop Hitler’ in the process.  During his time at the NME, he interviewed the likes of Prince, Stevie Wonder and Public Enemy and helped introduce a bit of diversity into a publication that had become a bastion of white indie rock bands. 

His knowledge of and passion for soul music culminated in a trilogy of non-fiction books that simultaneously charts the progress of civil rights and the evolution of soul musicHis knowledge of and passion for soul music recently culminated in a trilogy of non-fiction books.  They simultaneously charted the progress of civil rights and the evolution of soul music over three years in three different American cities.  The first book ‘Detroit 67’, tells the story of a city coping with the loss of its youth to the Vietnam War and ferocious inner-city rioting.  This is interspersed with the story and music of Motown.  The follow up ‘Memphis 68’, is bookended by two tragic events in a deeply segregated city struggling to adjust to an era of civil rights and racial integration.  The book opens with the death of city’s most famous recording artist, Otis Redding, and concludes with the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.  This time, Stax records and the 1969 Black Woodstock Festival form the musical backdrop.

I sat down with Cosgrove to talk about the themes and events of the concluding instalment of the trilogy, ‘Harlem 69: The Future of Soul’.  This exciting book features a cast of characters including bandleader King Curtis, soul singers Aretha and Donny Hathaway. Set in a city gripped by heroin addiction courtesy of drug peddler Jimmy ‘Goldfinder’ Terrell.  All this is a far cry from Cosgrove's formative years in Perth, hanging out in Sandeman's library.  We talk soul music, family, and pets in this week's Small City Interview.


Your previous books Detroit 67 and Memphis 68 were as much about the civil rights movement and social history as they were about soul music.  How does this trend continue in Harlem 69?

It brings the trilogy to a conclusion in the last dramatic days of 1969 but also looks forward to what is on the cusp of happening. The subtitle is 'The Future of Soul' and the book unearths the origins of great black music forms yet to come - psychedelic soul, jazz-funk, disco and hip-hop.

The ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin just passed away.  What was her connection to Harlem?

Aretha was born in Memphis and lived most of her life in Detroit.  However, like many great soul musicians, she was magnetically drawn to Harlem, in the main to perform at the legendary Apollo Theatre on 125th Street.

1969 was the year that Heroin really took a hold in Harlem, and heroin use seemed to define the area for years to come.  Is that one of the reasons you picked that year for Harlem?

Yes, it was for three reasons - the drug-barons that controlled the area, the influence on music and in the final chapter the death of a young boy called Walter Vandermeer, who became the youngest heroin victim in America. His death woke the nation up to a real problem that had blighted Harlem.  

Both Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway have a connection to Curtis Mayfield and Chicago.  Were you ever tempted to do a book on soul music set in Chicago?  What year would you set it in?

Chicago features in the Harlem book but it's not the primary focus. I thought very hard about Chicago for the reason you mention but I couldn't settle on a major year with enough distinctive events. I seriously thought about 1966 when Martin Luther King extends his southern civil rights campaigns to the industrial north focussing on Chicago but it was too big an overlap with Memphis and so I went for the more dramatic days around King's assassination.  Memphis won out.

At NME you were a voice for black music and were dubbed the “Hip-hop Hitler”.  When no was looking or listening did you ever sneak away and listen to The Smiths or Orange Juice?

To be honest, no. My obsession with soul music has been lifelong and there is too much still to discover.  People often say I have an encyclopaedic mind when it comes to soul, that is untrue. I know a good bit but there is so much yet to discover. The Smiths would be a distraction.

What are you listening to these days?

I'm still listening to soul in its many modern forms - mostly quality R&B. Because I've been immersed in Hathaway's story I listen to Donny's daughter Lalah Hathaway.  Tracks like 'Change Ya Life' and she has done one of the best versions of the soul standard 'Angel'.

What is the proudest moment from your time at Channel 4?

Leading the TV coverage of the 2012 Paralympics.  This has played a role in the foregrounding of disability onscreen and shifting public attitudes. 

When you did a book reading at the A.K. Bell Library last year, you said that the original Sandeman Library meant a lot to you as a kid.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?

It was where I first fell in love with books, in the deep sense of understanding their value. My mum worked in a kid’s clothes shop called 'Christeen Reids' in Methven Street - a block away from the old Sandeman. In Primary School I waited for her in the library until she finished work and we got the bus home from the Mill Street toilets bus stop. I vividly remember borrowing a copy of John Lennon's satirical book 'In His Own Write', it was a cult book at the time and it fired my interest in his life. He appears briefly in Harlem 69 due to his close relationship with the saxophonist and bandleader King Curtis.

You’ve got a wee boy now.  How is life as a father treating you?

It certainly shifts your priority I take him to and from school every day and listen to his surreal shtick. He has a very active mind and seems besotted with the story of Peter Rabbit, so he spends most days trying to force feed me imaginary worms or chasing around the house trying to escape from Mr Todd, the Fox.

Do you have any pets?

I've got severe allergies to cats, dogs and horses, so the mainstream pets are out of bounds. Jack likes aquariums but we wouldn't buy fish until he can tend to them himself, and it's way too early for that.  I like pets but too many people buy them for kids and then end up being the reluctant carer.


Harlem 69: The Future of Soul published by Polygon is out now.  Available from all good bookshops

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