Well, the “hook” for Cassius X may be the early professional boxing career of Cassius Clay, and his migration from that identity to Islam and Muhammed Ali. (For the purposes of this piece, I’ll refer to Cassius Clay rather than Ali, to avoid confusion.) But the book also echoes Stuart Cosgrove’s recent Soul Trilogy by exploring the development of black music in the Sixties, against the backdrop of the wider black experience in the period.
|Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali - jive talkin'!|
As Cosgrove says in his foreword, on one level Cassius X “can be read as a prequel to my soul trilogy . . . in that it details the emergence of soul music”. This seam in the book contains numerous interesting nuggets, such as the bewildering - with hindsight at least - story of Sam Cooke’s live album, Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963, recorded in Miami in front of a black audience. Cosgrove tells us that the performance was “too black” for management at Cooke’s record company RCA. The tapes were shelved, and weren’t released on record until 1985, twenty years after his death. Having bought the album on the strength of Cosgrove’s description, I can say that, drenched in a vibrant, party atmosphere, those RCA executives really didn’t get it. Check out his performance of 'Somebody Have Mercy' to see what I mean.
Miami was also the early Sixties home of the dynamic duo Sam and Dave, and Cosgrove ‘Lotta Lovin’’, en route to their 1964 discovery by Atlantic's Jerry Wexler and reinvention with Stax Records. (Though as a point of detail, Stax was not a “subsidiary” of Atlantic, as Cosgrove puts it. They had a loose production and distribution deal.)
Cosgrove also paints a pen picture of Sonny Liston that is rather more rounded perception than
|Sam Cooke - blowing up a soul storm in Miami|
For me though, the most striking aspect of Cassius X is the litany of black people’s oppression throughout the era; not just the segregation which was drawing protests, or the fierce defending of it by white communities, but the parade of black people being killed in the most despicable fashion. And here we are 60 years later, and it seems that so little has changed in America. When Cosgrove describes George Wallace proclaiming, in his 1963 inauguration speech as Alabama governor, that “the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright man”, my immediate reflection is that in 2020 the knee of authority could still fit the neck of a black man, George Floyd, for over eight minutes until he was dead.
Cassius X has its flaws. Like some of Cosgrove’s soul trilogy, it could have done with more rigorous editing. A better chronology of Cassius’s fights than the one in the index would also have been helpful to track the course of events as Cosgrove flits here and there to explore different themes. But it’s still a captivating account of an emerging black hero: hyperactive and curious; hip but disciplined; mischievous and occasionally cruel. Stuart Cosgrove captures all these facets of the young Cassius Clay and how events, people and music shaped him into the man who would become “the Greatest”.
Cassius X: A Legend In The Making is published by Polygon.
Stuart Cosgrove’s Soul Trilogy comprises the books Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul (2015); Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul (2017); and Harlem 69: The Future Of Soul (2018). All published by Polygon.
Also recommended is documentary movie The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, available on Netflix.
The movie One Night In Miami is also available on Amazon Prime from 15 January 2021 – a fictional account of the closed doors encounter between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and American Football star Jim Brown that occurred immediately after the world title fight with Sonny Liston.