WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — President Barack Obama said he’d been looking forward to a White House celebration of Memphis soul music for one reason.
“Let’s face it, who does not love this music?” he asked Tuesday, opening the night’s concert in an East Room bathed in amber light and transformed by the addition of a stage and backup musicians.
“These songs get us on the dance floor,” Obama said. “They get stuck in our heads. We go back over them again and again. And they’ve played an important part in our history.”
Memphis, Tenn., was segregated in the 1960s, but blacks and whites came together despite the institutional racism to create a soulful blend of gospel and rhythmic blues music that sought to “bridge those divides, to create a little harmony with harmony,” Obama said.
He noted that two of the night’s guests, Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, helped form one of the city’s first integrated bands.
“They weren’t allowed to go to school together. They weren’t always allowed to travel or eat together,” the president said. “But no one could stop them from playing music together.”
“And that was the spirit of their music — 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,” Obama said. “After all, this is the music that asked us to try a little tenderness. It’s the music that put 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?’”
And with that, Obama took his seat and the show opened with Sam Moore, half of the duo Sam & Dave, and “American Idol” finalist and gospel singer Joshua Ledet belting out Moore’s “Soul Man,” followed minutes later by Justin Timberlake and his rendition of Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, sat in the front row. The president and first lady at times clapped their hands and bobbed and weaved their heads to the pulsating rhythms.
The concert was the 10th in the “In Performance at the White House” series since Obama took office. Other performers included Alabama Shakes, Ben Harper, Cyndi Lauper, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples and William Bell. Queen Latifah was the host and Jones led the band.
Earlier in the day, Bell said the concert reaffirmed years of hard work that began in the 1960s when Stax Records was created in Memphis, and the label cranked out one soul and R&B hit after another for more than a decade.
Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Bell and Sam & Dave were among the company’s artists.
“As kids coming up, we didn’t think it would last this long,” the 73-year-old Bell said during a rehearsal break. He later performed his hit, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”
Al Green had been scheduled to perform but, about an hour before the show, the White House released a statement from the singer’s spokesman who said Green had suffered a back injury and would be unable to attend.
Hours before the show, Michelle Obama kicked off a workshop featuring Moore, Staples, Timberlake, Musselwhite and Harper for students from 16 schools and organizations in Virginia, California, Memphis, New York City, Maryland, Florida and Washington, D.C., who got to question the artists.
Since February 2009, “In Performance at the White House” has highlighted the music of Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, plus Hispanic music, music from the civil-rights era, Motown and the blues, Broadway and country music. The series itself dates to 1978.
The Memphis soul concert is set to air next Tuesday on PBS stations. It will also be broadcast at a later date over the American Forces Network for service members and civilians at Defense Department locations worldwide.
While the artists involved said they were thrilled to be performing, the concert was not without its controversy.
“If you’re a pop star you can get into the White House but not if you’re a taxpayer,” says Taxpayers Protection Alliance President David Williams.
TPA is a non-profit organization based out of Alexandria, dedicated to educating the public on the government’s effects on the economy.
“It really sends a mixed message to folks,” Williams says. “You can’t come tour the White House but if we want to put on a star-studded gala, we’ll do it.”
Citing the impact of new spending cuts on staffing, the U.S. Secret Service and the National Park Service announced in March that public tours of the White House would be canceled.
While the concert is a production of WETA Washington, D.C. and not paid for by the government, Williams says some related expenses, such as added security, are taxpayer-funded.
Started in February 2009, the “In Performance at the White House” series has celebrated the music of Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Hispanic music, music from the civil-rights era, Motown and the blues, Broadway and country music.
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