Memphis 68

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From resistance to the American war in Vietnam to the instantly recognisable image of Tommy Smith and John Carlos holding high their clenched fists on the Olympic podium, 1968 was a year of uprisings and resistance.

But it was also a year of tragedy, of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, and the fall out from the death of Stax star Otis Redding at the end of 1967. Stuart Cosgrove’s Memphis 68 is the second in a trilogy looking at soul music in one of the most inspiring decades of US history and a bittersweet tribute to the city.

Throughout Cosgrove tells the story not just of the famous, but of the ordinary people who made up the city. So through the story of Roosevelt Jamison you get an understanding of the level of segregation — Jamison ran the Interstate Blood Bank, and in Memphis, blood was still donated along racial lines.

Many people will have heard of the sanitation workers’ strike (because that was the reason Martin Luther King was in Memphis) and the scenes of pickets marching with I AM A MAN written on placards hanging from their necks in front of tanks. But few will know the story Cosgrove tells about the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker and how that triggered the strike. And by telling the tale of Juanita Miller’s politicisation we learn about the Poor People’s March on Washington that King had been organising.

Cosgrove loves music and this book is about music in a time of social unrest. Much as Detroit 67 focussed on Motown, Memphis 68 has Stax as the central player. And 1968 is a critical year for Stax. It starts with the label mourning the loss of Otis, as a white-owned company blazing a trail in the black soul music scene. 1968 ends with Stax having more black employees, with Al Bell replacing Estelle Axton as he tried to put his beliefs in black-run businesses into practice, and with the politically engaged “Black Moses” Isaac Hayes replacing Redding as their main star.

Cosgrove describes how it wasn’t all plain sailing for Stax to make this transition, but at the same time it was reflective of an increasingly confident and combative movement, and the tensions that brought to a head in society. He also considers how the city became such a creative touchstone, where albums like Dusty in Memphis and Hot Buttered Soul were recorded, where artists like Otis and Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, Margie Joseph, Ann Peebles and of course Al Green made some of their best work.

One of the joys of Cosgrove’s book is finding out about both the different political groups like the Memphis Invaders and the Memphis Black Knights, and also the scale of involvement by artists in political campaigns and movements. Isaac Hayes was by no means the only artist to march with the sanitation workers or lobby the racist mayor. I smile now when I play a record if I know the singer or musicians, songwriter or producer joined some of the poorest black workers in their fights.

There’s lots more than I can possibly do justice to here so you really do need to get a copy and read about the city that shaped soul and politics for a generation.