Stuart Cosgrove’s ‘Soul Trilogy’ (Detroit 67, Memphis 68, Harlem 69) offered readers an alternative history of the USA in the late 60s through the prism of the rise of soul music and the places, and people, who were central to it, and they introduced many readers to Cosgrove’s forensic investigative style of writing which manages the balance of educating and entertaining perfectly.
His latest book, Cassius X: A Legend in the Making, does something similar by looking at the early days of Muhammad Ali as he worked his way through the ranks of heavyweight boxers towards his legendary first world title fight against Sonny Liston, an event which arguably marked the end of one era in the twentieth century and the beginning of another, in a manner similar to The Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show only weeks before.
As Cassius / Ali begins to become famous, and infamous, to the wider American public, he also becomes interested and involved with the Black Power movement, the Nation of Islam, and particularly the equally charismatic Malcolm X, a relationship which dominates Cosgrove’s book even when the two are apart. He manages to get behind the barnstorming and bluster, and the poetry and poise, for which Ali would become notorious for in later years, and examines the insecurities of a young sportsman trying to make his mark.
We learn how Cassius / Ali constructed the personality that the world would come to, mostly, love and admire, combining the showmanship of the performers with whom he was starting to mix (his friendship with Sam Cooke is a key one, as is his relationship with soul singer Dee Dee Sharp) and the fast-talking, boastful, DJs who played their music on local radio stations. This was a time when everyone wanted a piece of the young fighter and he was being shaped not only by events, but by those round him – and those against him.
If Cassius X doesn’t quite have the authoritative authorial voice that is found in the ‘Soul Trilogy’, the detail and depth of research is as thorough and impressive as ever. Cosgrove clearly has an interest in Muhammad Ali as a cultural icon, but he does seem less keen on the sport of boxing itself (for understandable reasons, when you consider some of the characters he details). As you read on you can’t shake the feeling that he is always looking for a way to return to writing about the music in which he is so immersed.
However, that matters little as Cassius X is not simply a biography of the young Muhammed Ali, it puts those early years into a cultural context that shines a light not only on the man himself, but on the country which shaped him, and which he, in turn, changed for good.
*A version of this review first appeared in SNACK Magazine