A familiar face on the media scene and very familiar voice on the radio Stuart Cosgrove regularly has listeners laughing out loud or phoning up to complain about the state of Scottish football. As co-host (with Tam Cowan) of Off The Ball, the media personality is never short of a word or two to say about the beautiful game.
His passion for his home team St Johnstone is legendary, and his lifelong support makes him cherish the small moments. ‘We won the Scottish Cup in 2014,’ he says. ‘But I have pretty much gone my whole life with them losing,’ he says gamely.
Football he cares about but it is soul music that has really shaped his life, hence our meeting over a pot of tea at his home in Glasgow’s East End to discuss the middle book in his trilogy on soul music and social change. Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul is the tale of one city, two high profile deaths, countless hit records and the rise and fall of Stax records. It covers 12 months of civil unrest, race riots and political assassination.
Awarded music book of the year, winning the Penderyn Prize this April, Memphis 68 is sandwiched between Detroit 67: The Year that Changed Soul and Harlem 69: The Future of Soul which comes out this Autumn. Memphis in 1968 is remembered for two tragedies – the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King as he stood on the second floor balcony of his motel, and the fall out from the death in a plane crash of soul superstar Otis Redding, who at only 26 was already huge on the music scene.
The same year, thousands of miles away across the Atlantic Stuart was a teenager growing up on a housing estate in Letham in Perth experiencing his first taste of soul music. ‘My older sister was a mod and in the 60s in Scotland there was a network of youth clubs in housing schemes. The club in my local community centre had a Friday night disco for teenagers. It played mostly Motown but I quickly discovered there was a whole hinterland of other stuff that wasn’t in the charts,’ he chuckles.
The obsession with American soul deepened as he went to study first at Hull University followed by a post graduate scholarship to a University in Washington DC. He became immersed in the culture, the collecting of rare vinyl, the club nights and fanzine scene and developed a reputation for being one of the foremost writers on Northern Soul. This led to more established black music writing and eventually a job at NME.
‘Northern Soul is a tough subculture to get into,’ Stuart laughs, ‘it’s prone to internal wars and disputes over absolute minutae, but people trusted me as I wrote as a fan from the inside.’ The recent end of the print run of NME has left him feeling nostalgic about the early days. ‘It is like your school closing, you have that sort of warmth about it – even though a lot of the time I was in dispute over the funk versus indie coverage. Clearly I had my view,’ he says wryly.
As a Smash Hits rather than NME kind of girl I wonder who Memphis 68 is aimed at. ‘There is a core readership of music fans,’ he admits, ‘but the trilogy is much more than that. In lots of ways readers have been starved of books that put music in its cultural context. I wrote a book a few years ago (Young Soul Rebels) on the Northern Soul scene in England and it prefaces Brexit. It touches on some of the really big tensions in industrial urban Britain.’
In America it’s a different story he continues, with the soul scene being completely fragmented. ‘Race over there is so splintered, there is obviously a black American music scene but people are more interested in its present than its history. There are books on Black Lives Matter and contemporary issues, but not so much on traditional soul.’
It was a mammoth research task to bring this book together. We learn the personal stories of the well known and the ordinary characters who made up the city. In the opening chapter we meet Roosevelt Jamison who ran the lnterstate Blood Bank, and clearly see the level of segregation that existed in Memphis. In those days blood was donated along racial lines.
Much of the fact finding was done in America, reminding Stuart of how little can actually be found online. The idea that everything cannot be googled is eye opening for a generation growing up to ask the internet. ‘I spent weeks poring over old newspapers and found out about people I would never have found anywhere else. Google is ok, but you need to be able to dig much deeper.’
He continues, ‘my partner thinks that I am never happier than when I am surrounded by books. She thinks I am socially dysfunctional and that I like being immersed in a bubble and I do think there is some truth in that. I love research because I can go into a library and sit for hours on end and be perfectly happy. She is a social butterfly and I am the opposite.’
So ironically for someone so outgoing and funny, working alone suits Stuart down to the ground, and at home surrounded by work, books and his extensive record collection is a pretty good place to be. ‘I love it round here,’ he says. ‘Dennistoun has the highest concentration of contemporary artists in Europe – I like to joke with the neighbours that it is humiliating going to pick up our milk as I am the only one who has not been nominated for the Turner Prize!’
Compared to the West End it has an industrial history rather than a university one. ‘When I first came here twenty years ago the area was in decline but it has become useful for young couples, students, lecturers who want a bigger house but cannot afford West End prices. It’s a great place to live,’ he laughs.
‘There is a perception of me that is just a mask,’ he concludes. ‘I walk my boy to school each morning and speak to everyone. Everyone knows me. But I am happy alone.’ He goes back to music to explain it. ‘There are three great records written by Smokey Robinson: Tears of a Clown, The Tracks of my Tears and The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage. All three songs are about disguise. People having inner and outer personalities.’
So where does this leave our beloved Off the Ball? If it was a choice between continuing with the radio show or writing books Stuart is very clear. ‘If someone put a gun to my head and said it’s writing or the radio, I would without doubt write another book. Sorry Tam!’
Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul is out now published by Polygon (£9.99 Paperback only).