REVIEW: Prom 65 – The Sound of Soul: Stax Records

Booker T. Jones with Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra
Photo credit: © BBC/Mark Allan

Prom 65 – The Sound of Soul: Stax Records
(Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2017. Review by Jake Werth)

Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra presented a fast-paced, dense programme showcasing a number of legendary artists from the Memphis-born Stax record label, alongside lifetime fans of the Southern soul pioneers from across the generations. The Albert Hall buzzed with anticipation as the orchestra’s stars made their way onstage individually; a charming motley crew of seasoned members drifted out to aid the evening’s celebrations, marking 50 years since the Stax/Volt tour of the UK in 1967.

Speaking to the BBC about the tour, Sir Tom Jones, who joined them on this occasion, said many of the Stax stars were “surprised about the reception that they had” half a century ago. “They went crazy,” noted Sam Moore, whose hit Soul Man, released in September of the same year as the 13-date European excursion, ignited audience members ferociously on Friday night. His tongue-in-cheek demeanour, combined with several aloofly hurried stage exits, went some way in explaining the infamously tumultuous relationship he had with Dave Prater, as part of the iconic soul duo Sam & Dave before their split in 1981. Strongly featured on this tune were the gospelly ripples of legendary organist Booker T. Jones, whose warm, rich Hammond sound sat comfortingly in the mix. Occasionally dashed with bluesy inflections, his supportive soundbed texturally underpinned the evening’s revelries, making no surprise of the fact that at 14 years old he was invited to join the Duke Ellington orchestra, prevented from doing so only by his somewhat concerned mother at the time. A tune he would have performed with Ellington, Blues for New Orleans, featured roaring alto playing from R&B Orchestra saxophonist Lisa Grahame later in the evening.

Booker T. & the M.G.’s, an early flagship Stax group, challenged the racial appropriation of soul music in Memphis at its conception, integrating the white bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper. The latter star featured on Friday night yet carried himself humbly throughout the night’s proceedings, taking a lowly seat by the orchestra before arising for a thumping rendition of the 1962 hit Green Onions. If a little safe, both Cropper’s and Booker T.’s solos evoked the straight-talking spirit of the blues, bringing a welcome instrumental break to the singer-led catalogue that had by that point featured the powerful British vocalists James Morrison and Beverley Knight. Morrison’s raspy, rugged tone carried a rawness that contrasted the polished, agile purity of the impressively wide-ranged Knight on the opening Arthur Conley classic, Sweet Soul Music.

Steve Cropper and Sir Tom Jones
Photo credit: © BBC/Mark Allan

A legend of the label, sharing the youthful zeal of the aforementioned talents, was Eddie Floyd. His slinky, restless stage presence invigorated a performance of his 1966 hit Knock on Wood, a song initially intended for Stax’s biggest artist, Otis Redding, whose iconic song (Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay later received intimate ballad treatment from co-writer Steve Cropper and Sir Tom Jones, accompanied by the delicate, trebly shimmers of Booker T. at the organ. Another smooth, ebbing ballad, I Forgot to Be Your Lover, penned by William Bell and performed by the man himself, featured beautiful, soaring horn writing for the R&B Orchestra marking a highlight in the set’s orchestral arranging.

Ruby Turner, a long-time collaborator with Jools Holland, later appeared with a powerful deliverance of I’ll Take You There, which saw the night’s presenter, MD and pianist take an energetic solo amidst an arrangement containing some satisfyingly grungy bass and vocal unison. Certainly the wild card in the line-up was modern rap duo Sweet Irie & Nadia Rose, whose reggae-infused rendition of Rufus Thomas’ Walking the Dog possessed a spirited, good-humoured quality positioned well within the set, again featuring a thunderous alto solo – this time from the silver-toned Derek Nash.

The final encore, featuring all artists on the bill in a down-the-line fashion, saw seated audience members rise to their feet in droves, creating an image that perhaps best captured the achievement of a globally received, racially unified Southern soul genre that began at Stax in Memphis in 1957; a thoroughly memorable edition amongst this year’s nine late night proms.

The full cast of featured artists in The Sound Of Soul Prom (L to R): Jools Holland, Sir Tom Jones, Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Beverley Knight, Ruby Turner, William Bell, James Morrison, Nadia Rose and Sweetie Irie.
Photo credit: © BBC/Mark Allan

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