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President Barack Obama kicked off a celebratory night of Memphis Soul performances in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday by suggesting a small change in presidential tradition.
“Give it up for our musical director, Booker T. and the Memphis Soul All-Stars,” Obama told the audience, as Booker T. Jones wrapped up “Green Onions.” “I just want everybody to know that it is now my second term, so rather than ‘Hail to the Chief,’ we’re going with (‘Green Onions’) from here on out.”
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It wasn’t a hard sell for this crowd, which gathered to hear Justin Timberlake, Alabama Shakes, William Bell, Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd, Ben Harper, Queen Latifah, Cyndi Lauper, Joshua Ledet, Sam Moore, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples and Jones perform a dozen Otis Redding hits as part of an night that event producer Ken Ehrlich dubbed “Otis for POTUS.”
Before moving on with the music, Obama announced the engagement of two White House staffers, Kenny Thompson, the director of Vice President Joe Biden‘s messaging, and Jessica Wright, White House director of scheduling, according to a pool report. Obama said the two of them had worked for him since Iowa in 2007.
“A beautiful couple,” Obama told the crowd. “We love them. They are wonderful. They’ve been loyal, shown such great friendship to me, and I’m so glad that they have gone ahead and taken the plunge.”
After suggesting Timberlake as an excellent singer for the wedding reception (and noting that Timberlake recently married Jessica Biel, who was sitting in the front row), Obama said he has gained new appreciation for the Memphis Soul sound.
“Tonight, I am speaking not just as a president, but as one of America’s best-known Al Green impersonators,” Obama said, jokingly.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, Memphis knew its share of division and discord and injustice. But in that turbulent time, the sound of Hi, and Duke, and Sun, and Stax Records tried to bridge those divides — to create a little harmony with harmony,” Obama continued. “The great Memphis musician Don Nix went to an all-white school, and he described what it was like. He said, ‘If you could imagine, nobody’s ever heard R&B music before. White kids had never heard it. And you can imagine what that did to us.’
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“So he and others kept playing music that everybody could get into. They created a whole new sound, and as they did, they broke down barriers.”
It’s no surprise, Obama said, that Memphis Soul “swept the nation, and it has stood the test of time.”
The concert is part of the Obamas’ “In Performance at the White House” series, where music legends and contemporary major artists are invited to participate in concerts that are later shown via the American Forces Network to American service men and women and civilians at U.S. Department of Defense locations around the world.
Tuesday’s event, called “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul,” will also be broadcast April 16 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS stations nationwide.
“We’ve got folks here who were there at the beginning, legends like Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite, William Bell and Eddie Floyd,” Obama said. “We’ve got artists like Cyndi Lauper, and Ben Harper, and Queen Latifah, who still turn to Memphis for inspiration. We’ve got Justin Timberlake, a proud son of Memphis who’s never forgotten his roots, and the Alabama Shakes, who are bringing the Muscle Shoals sound to a new generation.”
As Obama sat down in the front row with Michelle and their two daughters, Moore and Ledet sang a rousing rendition of “Soul Man.”
Other performances included Timberlake and Cropper singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” Alabama Shakes and Cropper performing “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and Lauper singing “Try a little Tenderness,” with Musselwhite on harmonica.
Timberlake lead an all-cast finale of “in the Midnight Hour” as the Obamas mingled onstage.
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