Jefferson Center brings Memphis Soul with “Take Me to the River” R&B concert

R&B legend Bobby Rush (left) with Ashton Riker performing at “Take Me to the River Memphis Soul Rhythm & Blues” concert held January 26 at The Jefferson Center. Photos by S. Hale

by S. Rotan Hale

In its effort to provide exceptional entertainment (and other services) to the area, the Jefferson Center hosted a showcase Friday, Jan. 26 whereby a group of artists took the packed Shaftman Performance Hall on an extraordinary soulful journey.

The “Take Me to the River Memphis Soul Rhythm & Blues” concert featured three ‘old school’ iconic vocalists backed by an incredibly tight septet of musicians. Two backup singers: Sharisse Norman and Ashton Riker also accompanied the collective–steeped in that unmistakable Memphis soul sound that was generated through the famous Stax record label around the ’60s and ’70s.

Don Bryant

As headliners, Grammy award-winning crooners: William Bell and Bobby Rush were joined by Don Bryant another iconic singer/songwriter on the Memphis scene. Together they lead the group through a menagerie of rhythm & blues selections that anyone of that era could identify with.

Scenes from the ‘Take Me to the River Tour’ documentary served as an intro to the power-packed show that lasted for almost two hours.

The night’s performances began surprisingly with Riker–a young charismatic ‘blue-eyed soul brother’ with impeccable credentials in the genre. Riker mesmerized the audience and perfectly captured the essence of soul music singing such greats as Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and two of Otis Redding’s greatest hits “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” and Try a Little Tenderness”–two R&B classics that Riker demonstrated his proper voice, feel and inflections for the music.

Cedric “Frayser Boy” Coleman

Cedric “Frayser Boy” Coleman and Al “Kapone” Bailey added another dimension to several tunes throughout the show–rapping smoothly to various rhythms.

Yet quite naturally it was the headliners with their tried and true styles that carried the show backed by the rock-steady backup band comprised of: Andrew Saino (guitar), Rev. Charles Hodges (organ), Leroy Hodges (bass), Edward Cleveland (drums), Marc Franklin (trumpet), Jamel Mitchell, (saxophone) and percussionist Martin Shore who also served as MC.

Al “Kapone” Bailey

Despite his gospel roots, ie being brought up in the church, the silver-haired Don Bryant electrified the crowd. Bryant, now in his 80’s with a voice strong as ever performed an explosive set that at one point mellowed with gospel hits as his “How Do I Get There,” and his epic hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” Most impressive was his screaming “I love you” and blowing cupped hands full of kisses to the audience as they applauded vigorously.

Sharisse Norman, known as a backup singer for some of the biggest names in the business, took center stage with her own rendition of Al Green’s “I’m So Tired of Being Alone.”

Bobby Rush strutted and played harmonica on several of his songs opening with a choppy tune “Porcupine “Meat.” With the swagger of a true ladies man, his performance was accentuated with antics that emphasized hot passionate interaction with the ladies.

He did “Push and Pull” made famous by soul singer Rufus Thomas and performed his 2000 hilarious hit “Garbage Man” solo with the help of his harmonica.

William Bell performed his entire set behind his signature dark glasses and satin brim hat. Bell’s set was strong with heavy horn accompaniment. He performed “Easy Comin’ Out,” and “Trying to Love Two.” Bell finished tiptoeing through “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” with a delicate and sultry cadence–proving the old adage “less is more.”

From l-r: Rev. Bobby Rush, William Bell, Jessica Taylor, program director; Fred Pryor, Don Bryant, and Rev. Charles Hodges.

Rhythm & Blues fans all over the world understand this music as being totally about people and the deep abiding and timeless desires that connect us all through the power of music–the universal language.