Fifty years (and five months) since the epochal tour of artists associated with Memphis-based Stax Records ended in London seems as good a reason as any to devote a Prom to this music. Hence this late-night concert which saw Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, hardly strangers to the Royal Albert Hall, as the classy backing band for a host of musicians – several of whom featured on that original tour – to perform a set of numbers that brought the “Stax Sound” over the Atlantic and into the lives of unsuspecting listeners all those years ago.
The evening began with Beverley Knight, James Morrison and Tom Jones (at the age of seventy-seven the latter was making his Proms debut) kicking out the jams to Arthur Conley’s ‘Sweet Soul Music’; after which Sir Tom took centre-stage for a high-octane rendering of ‘Hard To Handle’, the first of several songs immortalised by Otis Redding. Sam Moore joined him for a propulsive take on ‘I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down’, made famous by Sam and Dave, before his deserved solo spot with a smouldering account of another classic, ‘Soul Man’. Knight duly confirmed her Classic Soul credentials in the Carla Thomas number ‘B-A-B-Y’, and Stax stalwart William Bell rolled back the years with his burnished take on ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’, Knight taking on the Judy Clay role for their sassy duet ‘Private Number’.
Another Stax veteran, Eddie Floyd was on hand for the title-track from his debut album – a blistering ‘Knock’ On Wood’ further distinguished by the elegant guitar of Steve Cropper, himself present on most of the ground-breaking Stax records as well as that European tour. James Morrison sadly failed to acquit himself with his take on Redding’s ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, its forced emoting smacking of X-Factor desperation. No matter, as Booker T. Jones – with Cropper the only surviving founder member of Stax’s house-band The MG’s – assumed the limelight for his signature ‘Green Onions’. JHRBO-regular Ruby Turner upped the emotional ante with Mavis Staples’s classic ‘I’ll Take You There’, then Sir Tom joined Cropper for an intimate take on ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ that captured the poignancy of Redding’s original. Booker T’s trademark Hammond left its mark in Duke Ellington’s ‘Blues for New Orleans’ (with which he might have established himself in the latter’s band had his mother not intervened), but Rufus Thomas’s ‘Walkin’ The Dog’ barely survived transformation into bubble-gum rap courtesy of reggae has-been Sweetie Irie and rapper wannabe Nadia Rose. Knight and Moore got things back on track with Isaac Hayes’s classic ‘Hold On I’m Coming’, then Floyd and Morison did justice to their ‘634-5789’.
Something for everyone, then, in this varied and unpredictable set which (unlike many late-night Proms) kept almost exactly to its seventy-five minutes and, in so doing, never risked outstaying its welcome. Holland remarked wistfully in his programme interview that such an event may not be possible too far into the future; all credit to him and the organisers for making it so. Certainly, there was no sense of valediction as Booker T., Steve Cropper and all of the singers reassembled for an even more OTT take on ‘Sweet Soul Music’ to send us home.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms