The Washington Post

Justin Timberlake, Mavis Staples and others bring sounds of soul to the White House

Justin Timberlake’s campaign to charm the universe in its entirety breezed through the White House on Tuesday as he sang, laughed, made others laugh, confessed to stalking the Rev. Al Green and pontificated on the greater spiritual properties of music itself.

The 32-year-old Memphis-born omnipresence floated into the East Room about 8 p.m. as if he lived upstairs. Then he sang “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” as if he wrote it. Then he threw his arm over the shoulder of Steve Cropper, the pioneering guitarist who, along with Otis Redding, actually wrote the song.

The guy made everything look easy during a sequence of emotive, lung-
flexing performances that made heartbreak sound so very difficult.

“In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul” was the 10th gig of its kind since President Obama took office in 2009, each celebrating American music as a sonic metaphor for the collision of cultures that has defined our nation. And few genres capture that mash as potently as soul music, the fantastic result of blues rubbing up against gospel, blurring the line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Timberlake obviously didn’t have a hand in forging the Memphis sound, but he’s the 21st-century product of the singers who first exemplified it, including Stax Records royals Sam Moore and William Bell, who each performed tear-extracting ballads with subtle authority: “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” respectively.

The great Booker T. Jones served as the bandleader, giving the cast — Mavis Staples, Eddie Floyd, Queen Latifah, “American Idol” survivor Joshua Ledet, neo-old-soul band Alabama Shakes and new-wave-singer-reborn-as-Memphis-blueswoman (real­ly!) Cyndi Lauper — a comfortable bed to sink into. Songwriter Ben Harper and harmonica hero Charlie Musselwhite, meanwhile, pushed the band into rougher, more riveting waters with their duet, “I’m In, I’m Out, and I’m Gone.”

There’s often a stiffness to the concerts at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but few in Tuesday night’s audience seemed more vulnerable to the rhythm than Obama, who bobbed his head, stomped his feet and frequently mouthed along.

Or was he actually belting? “Tonight, I’m speaking not just as president but as one of America’s best-known Al Green impersonators,” he quipped during his opening remarks, which came after a walk to the lectern to “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs.

“I just want everybody to know that it is now my second term,” Obama said. “So rather than ‘Hail to the Chief,’ we’re going with that from here on out.” Let’s hold him to this, America. As for the impersonator bit, it would have to do, considering that a back injury forced Green to cancel at the last minute.

Earlier in the day, first lady Michelle Obama — graceful even with the spring sniffles — welcomed a group of students from across the country to a panel discussion in the State Dining Room with Harper, Moore, Musselwhite, Staples and Timberlake that examined soul music’s birth in the church and its ascension to the airwaves.

Staples explained it to the kids best: “Rather than sayin’ ‘Jesus,’ you’re sayin’ ‘baby.’ ”

“Jesus was a baby first,” Timberlake added.

“He was!” Staples said. “My baby left me!” — then, singing the same melody — “Jesus is with me!”

Timberlake twisted with laughter while his right hand clutched the back of Staples’s chair. The 73-year-old soul icon— who remains giant in voice but can’t be much taller than 5 feet — had struggled to reach the top of her stool at the beginning of the program.

Timberlake steadied her for the rest of the presentation without drawing any attention to the gesture. So, yes, this is a man who will do everything in his earthly power to win over a modest gathering of schoolchildren, but now we have hard proof that he is a kind and conscientious human being, too.

When organizers passed the microphone over to students, you can guess who fielded the bulk of the questions. Timberlake advised anyone pursuing music to nurture the instinctual (“You can’t worry about who likes it and who doesn’t”), welcome strange influences (“Keep your satellites open”) and embrace the rare freedom of it all (“There really are no rules to it!”).

He also admitted to once tracking the whereabouts of a particular reverend of note.

“It’s seven to eight minutes,” Timberlake said of the driving distance between his childhood home and Green’s. “Some might call that stalking. I just call it driving by to see . . . where he lived.”

“In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul” airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS stations nationwide.

Chris Richards is The Washington Post's pop music critic. He has recently written about the best recordings and lyrics of 2015.
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