Memphis Soul Celebration Rocks the White House

Posted April 17, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in News

Southern soul entree by JT, Alabama Shakes and Stax all-stars is served at 2013’s White House edition of “In Performance”

During last year’s “In Performance at the White House” festivities, President Barack and Michelle Obama paid tribute to Motown, which featured a list of stars including John Legend, Ledisi, Sheryl Crow, Smokey Robinson, Seal and Nick Jonas. Last Tuesday, the Obamas decided to go down south.

The spirit of Stax and Hi, and a little bit of Sun, invaded the White House with brute force during the latest chapter of “In Performance at the White House.” The special, an annual favorite celebrating various forms of music and the legends that defined them, focused squarely on the music that invaded Stax Records. The legendary studio, which showed a great vibrancy of racial integration and brotherhood during one of the turbulent eras of the 20th century, gave birth to soul legends like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers and Carla Thomas, and defined the heart and soul of R&B. The label’s economic boom took off when Ahmet Ertegen, co-founder of New York’s Atlantic Records, worked up a partnership and lucrative distribution deal with the small independent label in the mid ’60’s, leading Atlantic signed acts like Solomon Burke, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, even the Memphis-born Aretha Franklin to cull their records on Stax’s campground. Due to the studio’s unavailability during busy seasons, much of the work at Atlantic made its way to Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Studios, only two hours away from Memphis.

“The sound of Soulsville, U.S.A., a music that, at its core, is about the pain of being alone, the power of human connection and the importance of treating each other right,” President Barack Obama told the crowd. “After all, this is the music that asked us to try a little tenderness. It’s the music that put [Jean Knight’s] ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ in his place. And it’s the music that challenged us to accept new ways of thinking with four timeless words: ‘Can you dig it?'”

High-profile legends behind Stax’s success were in attendance. Producer and Stax songwriter Booker T. Jones along with guitarist Steve Cropper led the house band, while William Bell, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples and Eddie Floyd bedazzled the audiences with their own big hits from the Stax catalog. Singer-songwriter Ben Harper and Mississippi-bred harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite also joined together for “I’m In, I’m Out and I’m Gone,” which can be heard on their new collaborative project on the Stax label.

The evening was ripe with young talent, many who have also been inspired by the soulful brew that championed soul music in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. Justin Timberlake, dressed in suit and tie, wowed the audience with a smooth rendition of Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” while American Idol Season 14 finalist Joshua Ledet joined Moore on “Soul Man” and his cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” The evening’s host, Queen Latifah, even participated in the evening of song, working her magic on “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” a song Ann Peebles originally recorded at the neighboring Hi Records. Alabama Shakes also took the stage with a bluesy throwback of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The evening capped off with Cyndi Lauper rocking the crowd with a surprisingly thunderous remake of Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Soulsville U.S.A. is often used to describe Memphis, and was actually used as counter-response to the Hitsville U.S.A. banner that Berry Gordy used on his Motown empire.

Sponsored by Pepsi, the event was televised on PBS on April 16th.



Watch Memphis Soul on PBS. See more from In Performance at The White House.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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