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In the 1950s and 1960s, Memphis, Tennessee, was the launch pad of musical pioneers such as Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Al Green and Isaac Hayes, and by 1968 was a city synonymous with soul music. It was a deeply segregated city, ill at ease with the modern world and yet to adjust to the era of civil rights and racial integration. Stax Records offered an escape from the turmoil of the real world for many soul and blues musicians, with much of the music created there becoming the soundtrack to the civil rights movements. The book opens with the death of the city's most famous recording artist, Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash in the final days of 1967, and then follows the fortunes of Redding's label, Stax/Volt Records, as its fortunes fall and rise again. But, as the tense year unfolds, the city dominates world headlines for the worst of reasons: the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
In 1969, among Harlem’s Rabelaisian cast of characters are bandleader King Curtis, soul singers Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway, and drug peddler Jimmy ‘Goldfinger’ Terrell. In February a raid on tenements across New York leads to the arrest of 21 Black Panther party members and one of the most controversial trials of the era. In the summer Harlem plays host to Black Woodstock and concerts starring Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone. The world’s most famous guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, a major supporter of the Black Panthers, returns to Harlem in support of their cause. By the end of the year Harlem is gripped by a heroin pandemic and the death of a 12-year-old child sends shockwaves through the USA, leaving Harlem stigmatised as an area ravaged by crime, gangsters and a darkly vengeful drug problem.

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