There were so many artists among the “who’s who” in music at the White House on Wednesday to pay homage to the music of the “High Priest of Soul,” Ray Charles you would have thought it was a Grammy event.
During the day, White House regulars like Yolanda Adams and Demi Lovato were joined by Andra Day, Empire’s Jussie Smollet, and Leon Bridges for an interactive student workshop with school children from all over the country that covered the legacy of the iconic singer, songwriter, musician, composer. The workshop was the 11th such event the Obama Administration has hosted since the series started in 2009.
Encouraging music students to diligently pursue their dreams, First Lady Obama said, “As Ray Charles said, if there’s truly something you want to do in the world, you can’t be satisfied until you do it. And today is your chance to learn from him as well as all these extraordinary folks on stage.”
On Wednesday night, after the President’s long day that involved entertaining a meeting with the King of Jordan, more stars showed up to entertain him and an audience that also included some of Charles’s children, First Lady Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rev. Al Sharpton. Usher, The Band Perry, Anthony Hamilton and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes joined the fold for “Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance At the White House.” A contemporary of Charles’, Sam Moore of the legendary Stax records soul duo Sam and Dave (“Soul Man”) also took part in the salute. All of the genres Charles extended his extraordinary gift to were represented in the fete — country, jazz, soul, blues, R&B and gospel. This concert was the finale in a series of “In Performance At the White House” TV specials.
Before the performance,viewers will learn that Ray Charles was more than a musical prodigy. He was a change agent. A product of the Jim Crow South, blind and orphaned, Charles wanted to be respected as a man. As he gained popularity as an entertainer he rejected the boundaries of the segregated South, refusing to play venues that were not integrated. Noted President Obama, “. . .in 1961 — the year I was born — Ray refused to play for a segregated audience in Augusta, Georgia. He was sued for breach of contract, but he continued boycotting segregated venues and became an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Of the 17-time Grammy Award winner, the president also said, “From the tiny clubs in which he started out to the arenas he eventually filled, Ray was an electrifying performer. He couldn’t see us, but we couldn’t take our eyes off him.”
A 17-piece music ensemble under the direction of Ricky Minor backed the artists with their take on Ray Charles classics. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Jussie Smollett performed a riveting rendition of “I Got A Woman”
- Demi Lovato delivered a sultry version of “You Don’t Know Me”
- Usher graced the stage twice for “Georgia On My Mind” &leads an ensemble performance of “What I’d Say” featuring all of the night’s performers
- Anthony Hamilton joined by Shelea Frazier turned up the heat in the East Room with “Night Time Is The Right Time”
- Yolanda Adams, who was once a background singer for Charles, performed “Spirit In the Dark”
- Sam Moore recounted his 40-year friendship with Charles before performing “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
- Andra Day channeled Charles’ blend of blues and jazz influences for “Drown In My Own Tears”
- Brittany Howard put her spin on the bluesy number “Unchain My Heart,” wearing one of Charles’ actual sport coats
- Donning one of Charles’ own sports coats, Leon Bridges performed his favorite Charles single “Lonely Avenue”
- In a show-stopping collaboration, Yolanda Adams, Andra Day, Demi Lovato and Brittany Howard performed the inspirational tune “Heaven Help Us All”
- President Obama pitched in on the start of the last song of the night, “Let the Good Times Roll” which features an Andra Day and Anthony Hamilton duet
The 90-minute “Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House” will simulcast tonight (Feb. 26) at 9 p.m. ET nationwide on PBS and TV One. Concluding its Black History Month programming, TV One will also air encores on Friday, Feb. 26 at 10:30 p.m. ET and Sunday, Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. ET.