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.
“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.”
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 Cropper’s rendition of Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ 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 President even sang along with J.T. during his performance.
Other performers included Alabama Shakes, Ben Harper, Cyndi Lauper, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples, Queen Latifah and William Bell. Latifah also was the host and Jones led the band.
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.
She noted Memphis’ history as the birthplace of Elvis Presley’s rock and roll and B.B. King’s blues.
“And while you can hear both of those influences in Memphis soul, this music has a style and a story uniquely its own,” Mrs. Obama said, before launching into the story of Stax Records.
She noted that the label also represented “somebody my husband thinks he sounds like” — Green. “Let’s just tell him he does, OK? Since he is the president, we like to boost him up a little bit.”
It was a reference to Obama singing a few bars of Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” during a Democratic fundraiser at New York’s Apollo Theater in February 2012.
Obama also joked about his singing during his brief remarks opening the concert. “Tonight, I am speaking not just as a president, but as one of America’s best-known Al Green impersonators,” he said to laughter.
At the workshop, Mrs. Obama also tried to encourage the students, including some aspiring musicians, by noting that it took years of perfecting their talent for the artists perched on stools in front of them to get where they are.
She recalled playing the piano as a young girl and said she regretted not sticking with it. But she said the skills one learns by studying music are useful in other areas of life.
“The discipline, the patience, the diligence I learned through the study of music, those are all skills that I apply every single day in my life,” Mrs. Obama said. “I applied them as a student, as a lawyer, as a first lady, and definitely as a mother.”
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.
(Reported by the Associated Press_