I’LL TAKE YOU THERE. “Oh, mmm, I know a place… When Mavis Staples sang those words, everybody in the audience was moved to move. The kind of primal itch you got to scratch, the kind of muscle over mind that makes toes tap, fingers snap, and hands clap.
“Ain’t nobody cryin’, ain’t nobody worried…"
The kind of beat that makes Baptists nervous and Episcopalians get rhythm, that makes daddies lock their doors, makes people dance who can’t, makes people forget who can’t, and makes people remember, deep down, why they call it soul.
“Ain’t no smiling’ faces, mmm, no no,
Lyin’ to the races, help me, come on, come on
Somebody, help me now…"
When Mavis Staples sang those words, she and her sisters took the song to No. 1 in 1972 for Stax, and she took over the White House for Memphis the other night. Even the wonks were wiggling when Mavis – the years falling away in perfect time – brought it home.
“(I’ll take you there)
Help me, y’all
(I’ll take you there)
Help me now
(I’ll take you there).”
And the there, y’all, is Memphis.
Right up there on the White House stage with icon Sam Moore doing “Soul Man,” and doing it so soulfully well that I screamed along out loud and drove the dogs from the room. Bridging the generations, our own Justin Timberlake did the late Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay,” and did it so soulfully well that the President of the United States and the First Lady sang along. The new Dave to Sam was 21-year-old Joshua Ledet, plenty enough soul man to honor and update the sound of Sam’s late partner, Dave Prater, and then Percy Sledge with a room-rattling “When A Man Loves A Woman.”
Eddie Floyd knocked on wood, Charlie Musselwhite blew the harp, and William Bell told us “you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.” And through it all and behind it all, Booker T. Jones’ fingers danced across the keyboard and Steve Cropper’s across the frets – the unmistakable chops of the world’s greatest house band, Booker T. & The MG’s
When “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul” came on PBS, President Obama came on stage to “Green Onions” and opened with this:
“I just want everybody to know, rather than ‘Hail To The Chief,’ we’re going with that.”
Memphis recently paid out-of-town – in fact, out-of-this-continent – consultants a couple hundred thousand bucks to brand us. They came up with “Memphis. The comeback.” Being from Europe and all, you’d think they’d know that we never left, that we were so cool that we’re cool still, and that the only people on the planet who don’t know that are Memphians.
To those consultants, I have a simple message: Don’t come back.
To Memphians, I have a simple message: We’re a city with a beat, and the rest of the world is moved by it.
I’m a Memphian, and the soul of my city just played the White House.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at email@example.com.