‘Detroit 67’ is a refreshing look at the heavy forces in play in Motown that year

The subhead for Stuart Cosgrove's 610-page tome Detroit 67 is "the year that changed soul." But this thing contains multitudes, and digs in deep, well beyond just the city's music industry in that fateful year. The threads that hold the Motown label together begin to unravel as the city is stretched thin by a variety of events and forces: the devastating impacts of the Vietnam War and police repression on poor and urban youth, the ascendancy of the MC5 as a potent cultural force instead of just a garage band, singer Florence Ballard's death at the age of 32, and of course the riots. All of this is written about with precision, empathy, and a great, deep love for the city of Detroit.

As the book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the great snowstorm that blanketed the city that year, potent anecdotes are related simply, allowed to speak for themselves. For instance, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were hired by the organizers of Montreal's Expo '67 to perform as "two young negro lovers out for the day" in order to try to quell accusations of racism against the trade exhibition. This was just before Terrell was diagnosed with her brain tumor. Mercifully, the incident's related without the overblown prose favored by rock critics, nor the heavy-handed rhetoric of so many historians. The obviously racist need to hire these great black musicians to pretend to be happy and free in this allegedly liberal place is largely left up to the reader to grasp. Similarly, one is expected to follow along as dozens of events unfold and are woven together. Even if one is a deep digger of soul as well as Detroit history, there is much to learn here.

Cosgrove is a professional TV commentator and journalist who lives in Perth, Scotland. He has previously been a staff writer and media editor for the infamous music weekly New Music Express (NME) and a contributor to the black music journal Echoes. He currently serves as an executive for Britain's Channel 4 and is well-known as presenter for the most successful radio show in the country, Off the Ball, on what we call soccer.

We caught up with Stuart Cosgrove over email to try to figure out why one of the most entertaining, thorough, and flat-out revelatory books about Detroit in many years has been written by a white, middle-aged Scottish dude.

Metro Times: I was surprised at first that there was so much cultural and social history, and also to see the MC5 in here so much — or to see Muhammad Ali and James Brown in here, at all.

Stuart Cosgrove: Yes, there is tendency in pop and rock writing to be purely biographical using backstage anecdotes and information gleaned from other musicians. I was more interested in the wider forces of history — civil rights, Vietnam and inner city poverty. Muhammad Ali is clearly not from Detroit and only appeared for a few fleeting days in June 1967 when he visited the city to fight an exhibition bout against local heavyweight Alvin 'Blue' Lewis. But it was an important moment; he flew on from Detroit to Houston where he was stripped of his titles for refusing the draft, and so became a significant figure to view resistance to the war in Vietnam.

MT: Have any soul fans complained to you that there's too much MC5 in your book?

Cosgrove: Not yet. There is a strong sense of purism within the soul scene in Europe, and it wouldn't surprise me if that criticism comes forward. But the MC5 story is crucial to 1967 and allowed me to pursue two strands of narrative: garage rock and soul, which emerged in the same city, but existed largely apart. Detroit should be phenomenally proud of its creativity. At the time it was the most exciting regional city in the world; only Liverpool came close.

MT: Did you make a conscious decision to exclude other labels/ artists aside from Motown, for fear that it would slip out of your grasp and be about too many things, also perhaps make it too obscure?

Cosgrove: Strangely, that was my biggest dilemma. There is no question that events at Motown were important and seismic. But Detroit was in the midst of a creative Klondike, and there were small independent soul labels across the city. It was tempting to stray from the main stories to smaller labels like La Beat, Palmer, Revilot, and others. I really had to restrain myself. As a hardcore Northern soul fan, there is a tendency within our subculture to be showy about knowledge and drift into obscure detail. But I was often able to indulge myself while sticking to the story. In one of the chapters on housing, an unknown local singer, Leah Dawson of Magic City Records, leads a demonstration against slum landlords.

MT: I'm also guessing that you're obsessed with Motown, and have been for a very long time, no?

Cosgrove: I have a healthy passion for Motown dating back to my early teenage days. It's still the music that makes me smile and gets me up in the morning. Damn fine coffee. My older sister was a first generation mod, and we had R&B and soul records in the house when I was growing up. I grew up being aware of names like Smokey Robinson and Jimmy Ruffin.

MT: What was the writing process like?

Cosgrove: I work for a major UK television station, Channel 4, in a senior management role. So the frustration was carving out time to write, setting the alarm very early. The research was done in vacations, which were all spent in Detroit. In a previous life, I was a PhD student and completed a doctorate in American theater history, and so had a good researcher's training. There were frustrating times when I was [at work], but wanted to be in Detroit.

MT: How did you arrive at the idea to write the book with this structure, just following the events of the year and weaving narratives throughout?

Cosgrove: It came to me, gradually. I went to see the movie Dreamgirls. There is a scene where the central character, Effie, is sacked, and walks out into rioting streets outside. I was convinced it was dramatic license, but it gave me the idea of plotting all the events of 1967 in deep detail.

MT: How much time did you perform your research?

Cosgrove: I was visiting at least once a year, sometimes two or three times. The main objective was researching primary sources, newspapers, private papers, and the like. I had to be disciplined and only allowed myself a few hours of crate hunting. The library at Wayne State is too close to Peoples Records, so I often took a break to caress old vinyl.

MT: Can you briefly explain what Northern soul is, and what it means to you?

Cosgrove: Northern soul is a youth subculture in Britain which is built around soul music, especially rare and difficult to find sounds. Dancers travel huge distances to listen and dance to great music at all-night events. I have been connected to the Northern soul scene most of my life and feel very honored to have met people at places like Blackpool Mecca, Wigan Casino, and Stafford all-nighters that are so deeply informed it's sometimes intimidating. Soul clubs have been my alternative university. Detroit looms large on the scene; it is by some distance the city most loved by the Northern scene.

MT: Why do you think this music spoke so deeply and so intensely to British people at that time?

Cosgrove: Britain has a remarkable track record in areas like fashion, youth culture, and club music. And at a very early age — at least in my youth — there was a tendency for people to fragment into their tribes. If you were a skinhead, you listened to Jamaican ska; a Northern soul boy, it was '60s Detroit; and if you were an indie kid, it was The Smiths. It could get very intense, but it was great. What you wore and what you listened to mattered.

MT: Are you now or have you ever been a record collector?

Cosgrove: I am an obsessive collector and have a big rare soul collection. You should never monetize great music, but my records are worth much more than my house. I collect what is known in the Northern scene as OVO, original vinyl only. You have to navigate your way through reissues and bootlegs to get the 'original.' I have many records worth upwards of $1,000, but probably the most I have spent is a few hundred dollars. I bought an original of a Detroit release on the Palmer label, "My World Is on Fire" by Jimmy Mack, an unknown singer who recorded in Detroit in 1967.

MT: Have you begun work on the thematic follow-ups to this title? What are the basic stories to be in Memphis 68 and Harlem 69?

Cosgrove: The Memphis book is already in development, and it has a very clear structure between two massive deaths: the death of Otis Redding in December 1967 and the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis in the spring of 1968. Harlem 69 takes place over a long weekend, but it's still to be fully researched yet.

MT: I'm curious if you have any thoughts at all about the current state of the city?

Cosgrove: Detroit is a great city, a place I passionately defend wherever I am. One thing that may not be well known to Detroiters is that I live in Glasgow, in Scotland, a city with not only long connections to Detroit, but with a similar story. Both places were devastated by de-industrialization and have been forced to reinvent themselves against a backdrop of decline. It is not an exact comparison, but in the 1990s, Glasgow defied all the odds to become the 'European City of Culture.' Much of its reinvention is down to artists, creative entrepreneurs, and lifestyle businesses. I can see similar trends in Detroit. It's a phenomenally creative city with passionate people and new communities, and I think its greatest days are ahead.

Detroit '67 has just been published in paper, digital, and hardcover editions by Clayton Media and Publishing. For more information, check out www.detroit67.com.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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