Philly soul queens strut their stuff at the White House and on WHYY

Posted: April 04, 2014

* IN PERFORMANCE AT THE WHITE HOUSE: WOMEN OF SOUL. 9 p.m. Monday, WHYY12.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - On a blustery March morning, the heat was turned way up inside the White House as first lady Michelle Obama welcomed more than 120 students (including 20 from Olney Charter High) to celebrate "Women of Soul."

First came an interactive student workshop in the State Dining Room - "I'm Every Woman: The History of Women in Soul." That evening, some major figures in that history strutted their soulful stuff at a concert that was filmed to air Monday night.

Obama entered the workshop to rousing applause, followed by Janelle Monae, Melissa Etheridge and Southwest Philadelphia's gift to the world, Patti LaBelle.

"Soul music. Sometimes it makes your hips move. Sometimes it makes you rock your head. Sometimes it helps you just kick back and relax and soak it in," said the beaming first lady. "But no matter what form it comes in, you know this music always comes straight from the heart. You know you're listening to someone who's found her own unique voice, and isn't afraid to show it to the world. And these women are perfect examples of just that."

LaBelle, who spent three days in D.C. for the event, returned the compliment in a recent interview.

"That was one of the highest honors, for them to ask me to perform at the White House with all of those wonderful ladies of soul," LaBelle said. "The White House experience was like Christmas five times over. Just having access to all of the different areas there.

"And when they said you can have anything you want, I helped myself to a lot of napkins, programs and boxes of those cookies. Honey I was stuffing cookies everywhere - chocolate, coconut, raisin cookies - and I gave them away later."

During the morning session, students looked on in awe as pint-size beauty Monae articulated her passion for performing and the importance of honoring those who paved the way. Etheridge piggybacked on that sentiment and shared the moment she was bitten by the soul music bug as a child in Kansas.

"I was able to listen to Aretha Franklin on the radio at a young age, and I was moved," said Etheridge, who spoke while sitting beneath the world famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. "When I heard her sing 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' it brought me to my knees."

Philly reps

Along with LaBelle and Jill Scott, Philadelphia also was represented by the students from Olney Charter's senior AP English class. They included Jamal A. Jackson, a 17-year-old who knocked two items off his bucket list - going to the White House and seeing one of his favorite singers.

"I love Patti LaBelle and I've listened to her since I was about 3 years old," said Jackson. He'll attend Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the fall. "My mom played [LaBelle's music] when she was cleaning the house and cooking, so her music was a big part of my Sunday morning childhood memories."

The outgoing senior, who named Bruno Mars and Alicia Keys as new-soul pioneers, said that Etheridge's testimony changed his perspective on race and music.

"I didn't know that there were Caucasian soul singers," Jackson said. "I always thought most soul singers were in the African-American race, and then I realized that it wasn't just us, but anyone who had something to really sing about from their heart."

LaBelle, turning 70 next month but showing no signs of slowing down, anchored the morning performances with a goosebump-inducing, a cappella rendition of "The Lord's Prayer."

More than 100 pairs of arms were raised high in the air, holding cell phones up to record the once in a lifetime moment.

Scott rocks the room

That evening, President Obama joined his wife to sit front and center for the "Women of Soul" concert, featuring the "Queen of Soul," Aretha Franklin, plus LaBelle, Monae, Etheridge, Ariana Grande, Tessanne Chin, and North Philly's shining star, Jill Scott.

The Girls' High grad covered "Rock Steady," performed her own hit "Golden" and later joined the others for a rocking rendition of "Proud Mary."

In the midst of the rehearsals and performances, LaBelle, author of numerous cookbooks, made it her business to check out the White House kitchen.

"I didn't cook this time, but the President and first lady asked me to come back to the White House and cook for them, and I promised them that I would," said LaBelle. (Her line of sauces and seasonings and other home items hit Walmart shelves nationwide next month.)

"Baby, I'm going to get busy in that White House kitchen!"

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