The BBC Proms celebrated Stax Records with a performance by Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. Joining him were legends of the label and some other famous faces.
We were there to witness this special night at the Proms.
If we’re being pedantic, ‘Prom 65, Stax Records: 50 Years of Soul’ is actually a fairly inaccurate title. A quick Google search would have revealed to the BBC Proms planners that Stax was actually founded in 1957 as Satellite Records, and re-branded in 1961. They would also have found out that although 2017 isn’t the fiftieth anniversary of the label’s founding, it is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Otis Redding. Presumably someone somewhere conflated the two, and assumed no one would care and that a prom honouring the death of Otis Redding was a bit morbid.
Now some have suggested that the Proms is no place for such popular music to be played: the Proms is, on their account, for “serious music” only. Sure, the Proms are traditionally a celebration of classical music, but to suggest it diminishes the event is absurd. The inclusion of a Late Night Prom that celebrates soul music does not take away from the two months of classical performances beforehand. And who gets to determine what “serious music” is? What could be more serious than music that was integral to the American civil rights movement, inspiring generations of Americans to fight for their freedoms?
Those who shunned the Prom missed out on an excellent 75 minutes of soul music. Jools Holland might not be to everyone’s taste (particularly his weird way of introducing acts whilst walking and speaking backwards), but his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra did an excellent job serving as the night’s house band. They were aided by the presence of two of Stax’s greatest legends: Booker T Jones on Hammond organ, and Steve Cropper on guitar. Jones and Cropper were part of the MGs at Stax, serving as the label’s house band for many of the label’s earliest hits. It was clear that Cropper, decked in black shirt and trousers, and Jones, looking hip in his blue suit jacket and matching hat, were enjoying themselves, with Cropper at times seemingly overwhelmed by the reaction of the crowd.
No doubt in order to try and give the Prom a bigger appeal to television audiences, the BBC hired the services of James Morrison, Beverly Knight and Sir Tom Jones for the night. The trio kicked off the night’s music with a lukewarm cover of ‘Sweet Soul Music‘, before Sir Tom was left to perform a heartfelt cover of Otis Redding’s ‘Hard to Handle‘. Sir Tom looked a little frail (he cancelled a planned US tour the same day as the Prom) but he still put in a decent performance, honouring a man who he’s named dropped repeatedly on Saturday night TV.
However, the inclusion of Morrison, Knight and Sir Tom wasn’t really necessary once Holland started brining out the Stax big guns. First on the stage was none other than Sam Moore, one half of the electric duo Sam & Dave. Though the duo weren’t technically Stax artists however, they, along with Wilson Pickett, were signed to Atlantic Records but were then sent to Stax to record (Atlantic also had a distribution deal with Stax in the early sixties).
Moore is 81 and rarely makes live appearances these days; usually these are reserved for Bruce Springsteen or, more recently, the 45th President of the United States. Given his age Moore is still pretty impressive vocally, summoning some of the energy he and Dave exuded back in the sixties. He performed a duet with Sir Tom, ‘I Can’t Stand for Falling Down’ before being left alone on stage to perform the classic ‘Soul Man’.
Given the time constraints (the Prom started at 10:15 with an 11:30 curfew) Holland was forced to keep things moving pretty quickly. Out came William Bell, looking a bit like a pimp in his bright white suit and matching hat, to perform his classic ‘I Forgot to Be Your Lover‘. Bell was in great voice, hot off winning a Grammy this year for his new album on the new-incarnation of Stax Records, This Is Where I Live. He was later joined on stage by Beverly Knight, and together they performed Bell’s classic ballad ‘Private Number’. The two had a surprisingly great chemistry on stage, making for one of the highlights of the show.
Also joining the line-up was Eddie Floyd, who also dazzled in a colourful blue jacket. He performed his classic hit ‘Knock on Wood‘, backed superbly by the horns in Jools Holland’s impressive ensemble. Like Bell, Floyd’s voice is still impressive given his age.
Arguably the highlight of the show was Sir Tom Jones’s performance of ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’, the Otis Redding classic, accompanied by just Steve Cropper on guitar, the man who co-wrote the song with Redding. Cropper is a virtuoso guitarist, and his subtle playing gave Sir Tom amble room too deliver a knock-out performance of the soul classic. Cropper, overwhelmed at the end of the song, hugged Sir Tom before retreating back to his seat with the band.
Ruby Turner, the vocalist with Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, was then brought out for a rendition of The Staples Singers’ Stax classic ‘I’ll Take You There‘. Whilst Turner is no Mavis Staples – but then, who is – she sounded superb, and it was sad that she was only allowed to perform one song, particularly after viewing what was to come later.
But before we get to that, it was time for some ‘Green Onions’, the instrumental hit that made youngsters Booker T & The MGs stars. It was truly a delight to see Booker T play the organ with Steve Cropper playing his guitar on this classic, backed with a new horn arrangement for the song.
By this point, time was running out for the performance. Holland then introduced a song by Rufus Thomas, ‘Walking the Dog’. Fair enough, it’s a Stax classic, and Thomas was an integral part of the label and an early pioneer in the development of funk. Yet, someone at the BBC Proms team had the bright idea of bringing in rapper Nadia Rose and MC Sweetie Irie to perform, no doubt as part of the BBC’s strive to be inclusive and reach out to bigger and younger audiences. But from where I was sat their performance was just naff: you couldn’t tell what they were saying nor indeed what they were supposed to be performing. Booker T, who was all smiles all night, looked unimpressed seeming to fake a polite smile as they walked off stage, looking more triumphant than they had actually been.
Fortunately, to rescue the end of the show Eddie Floyd returned to perform an electric version of ‘634-5789‘ a song both he and Wilson Pickett recorded (and performed together in the film Blues Brothers 2000). Then, all the other singers were invited back out for another rendition of ‘Sweet Soul Music’, and then the curfew had been reached. As the audience applauded on the off chance we might have been given more, Sam Moore boomed “There’s no more, go home!” His advice was heeded after laughs and more applause, as the capacity crowd left the Royal Albert Hall knowing they had witnessed something truly special.