WASHINGTON - First Lady Michelle Obama launched Tuesday's workshop saying the White House "is buzzing with excitement today as we celebrate the rhythmic groove of Memphis soul…Memphis is in the House."
The celebration lasted just over an hour as students from invited to the State Dining Room from schools around the country got a chance to ask soul five musicians – most concentrating on Justin Timberlake – about their work.
It was very much a teaching moment, and the First Lady stressed to the 120 students from around the country the qualities music training, discipline, hard work and practice bring to any success.
"The discipline, the patience, the diligence I learned through the study of music – those are all skills I apply every single day in my life," Obama said.
The event Tuesday morning precedes the "In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul" to be staged Tuesday night in the East Room and broadcast nationwide April 16 on PBS. The concert will be live streamed at www.whitehouse.gov/live.
The workshop was led by Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angles, who talked about the history of soul – from Ray Charles' 1959 "What'd I Say" and Aretha Franklin's version of Otis Reddings' "Respect" to Otis Redding's own version of "Tennessee Waltz."
As the recording of Redding's "Waltz" played to the audience, Timberlake let out a loud "woooo" from center stage and strummed an air guitar.
"Soul music is so emotionally intense," Santelli told the assembled students -- most of them musicians -- because it came out of the churches.
Mavis Staples told the students that she'd sing gospel music on Sunday and soul on Saturday nights, the difference being "rather than saying ‘Jesus,' you're saying ‘baby.'"
Staples was also in a teaching frame of mind when she told the students she didn't particularly like to rehearse. She said her father said her voice was a gift from God and He'd take it if she didn't use it.
"You've got to climb that ladder to get where you want to go," she said.
Blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite paid tribute to Memphis gospel radio as an early influence in this work.
"I just soaked that up," he said.
Timberlake said soul got his early attention because it was clear there was a link between "faith and soul…They believed what they were singing." He also told of his discovery that the Rev. Al Green lived only "seven or eight minutes" from his home in suburban Memphis, and how that made him recognize "so much of that music was right where I lived."
Timberlake also credited gospel for his start in music.
"Church was the first place I ever got brave enough to sing," he said.
Seven students got to ask questions and most were directed to Timberlake. A girl named Jordan from Herndon, Va., asked him about sources of inspiration.
Breaking into song, Timberlake said seeing a couple holding hands could result in the Beatles "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Or, he said, scatting the song's opening non-verbal notes, inspiration could result in the Al Green classic "Love and Happiness."
After the teach-in, Adrian Williams, an 18-year-old guitar player from Stax Music Academy in Memphis, showed off a guitar pick Ben Harper gave him after singing the workshop's closing number -- "We Can't End This Way," with Musselwhite accompanying him on harp.
Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame had already been summoned back to the rehearsal that could occasionally be overheard emanating from the East Room stage nearby.
Pianist Stephani Brownlee, 17, also of the Stax Academy, said she appreciated Mrs. Obama recognized the importance of Memphis music and seeing "a person of her caliber honor it."
Both Stax students took to heart the First Lady's advice on perseverance.
"It's not always easy, but the ones who endure it, she said, are the ones that end up successful," said Browniee.