Barack Obama photo

Remarks at PBS's "In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul"

April 09, 2013

Everybody, please have a seat. And give it up for our musical director, Booker T. and the Memphis Soul all-stars. I just want everybody to know that it is now my second term, so rather than "Hail to the Chief," we're going with that from here on out. [Laughter] Little change in tradition.

Now, before we get started, I am going to exercise some Presidential prerogative to say a few words about two very special people who are here tonight. This will humiliate them, but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. Jess Wright and Kenny Thompson both work on my staff, crucial members of my team since way back in Iowa in 2007.

Over the weekend, Kenny popped the question, and Jess said yes. So I want to congratulate—publicly—Kenny Thompson, Jess Wright. Beautiful couple. 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.

By the way, guys, Justin Timberlake just got married to this lovely young lady right here, Jessica Biel. So Justin can probably offer you a few pointers. And, Justin, they are looking for a wedding singer. [Laughter] I'm just saying.

Tonight I am speaking not just as a President, but as one of America's best known Al Green impersonators. [Laughter] So I have a new appreciation for what Al once said about the Memphis soul sound that he helped create: "We don't even know ourselves how that music has endured for so long and how that came out of us."

All I know is I've been looking forward to tonight because, let's face it, who does not love this music? These songs get us on the dance floor. Even the Governor of Tennessee said he's going to dance tonight. [Laughter] They get stuck in our heads. We go back over them again and again. And they've played an important part in our history.

In the sixties and seventies, 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. 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."

So he and others kept playing music that everybody could get in to. They created a whole new sound, and as they did, they broke down barriers. On McLemore Avenue, in the heart of a segregated city, Stax Records was integrated from the studio musicians all the way to upper management. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, who are both here tonight, 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. 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. 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. [Laughter] And it's the music that challenged us to accept new ways of thinking with four timeless words: "Can you dig it?" [Laughter]

So it's really no surprise that Memphis soul swept the Nation, and it has stood the test of time. Tonight we bring it to the White House.

We've got folks here who were there at the beginning, legends like Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite, William Bell, and Eddie Floyd. 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.

So to all of you, even more than for the music you've created, I want to say a special thank you for the difference that you've made in our lives. More than half a century after Soulsville, U.S.A., first opened its doors, you still bring us together. You still remind us how much we have in common. You still help us imagine a better place. And you promise, through your beautiful music, that you can take us there.

So tonight we're going to start things off with two extraordinary artists who span the generations. One's a Memphis legend who's been around just about forever, the other an "American Idol" who's turning 21 today. In the heyday of soul music, no band had more hits than the group known simply as Sam and Dave. Here to perform his classic "Soul Man" along with Joshua Ledet, please welcome the great Sam Moore.

NOTE: The President spoke at 7:40 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Kenneth D. Thompson, director of messaging, Office of the Vice President; actress Jessica C. Biel; Gov. William E. Haslam of Tennessee; musicians Al Green and Dana Elaine "Queen Latifah" Owens; and the musical group the Alabama Shakes.

Barack Obama, Remarks at PBS's "In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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