Friday, January 15, 2021

Reading Matters: Cassius X - A Legend In The Making, by Stuart Cosgrove

What’s this?  A book about a boxer on a music blog?  For why?
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'!
The primary timeframe of Cassius X runs from November 1960 to February 1964.  At the start of this period the young Cassius Clay lately crowned Olympic light-heavyweight champion, arrives in Miami to begin his professional career in the gym of trainer Angelo Dundee, and it ends with him winning the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston.  Cosgrove dots around related events either side of this period as the fancy takes him, but the primary focus is the development of the young Cassius.  In Miami, and on his travels around the States for a succession of fights, he encounters black icons such as Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, who fuel his interest in black music on the one hand, and the Nation Of Islam on the other.  In essence, the book is a study of emerging black consciousness and empowerment through the lens of Cassius, as under the influence of the Nation Of Islam, he first quietly divests himself of the surname Clay to become Cassius X, and then having won the world title is re-named Muhammed Ali.
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

records their early false starts and travails, in the process mentioning the worthwhile B-side ‘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
the usual caricature of a thuggish former jailbird.  Born the twenty-fourth child in a family of twenty-five – think on that – Liston was an illiterate teenage delinquent who inevitably ended up in jail, where he was rescued by boxing.  But those who knew him, Cosgrove notes, told of a shy and sensitive man with an IQ much higher than that of Cassius, who was appalled by Clay's invasion of his personal life in pursuit of promotional stunts.  In the midst of this account, Cosgrove reveals Liston’s fascination with the song ‘Night Train’ – the 1952 original, by Jimmy Forrest, in preference to the James Brown version – which was played over and over in the gym as he trained for fights.  But I find it hard to discern in the Forrest version “the shuddering image of a relentless train rumbling in the black of night” that Liston may have thought matched his own image.
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.

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