Sounds of Blackness cap a remarkable Black Music Month

Photo by Tony Kiene Sounds of Blackness as Sly and the Family Stone

“We’re going to turn the Dakota into the Apollo Theater. That’s the setting for ‘Soul of the Sixties’… In the middle of Harlem, New York. 1960s. How can you experience that anywhere else?” –Gary Hines 

America’s 44th annual observance of Black Music Month proved to be particularly historic here in the Twin Cities. It kicked off with the culmination of the Crown our Prince project, a seven-year journey that gifted us Hiero Veiga’s 100-foot mural of Minneapolis’ favorite son and the ceremonial renaming of a one-block stretch of First Avenue as Prince Rogers Nelson Way.

That first weekend in June also witnessed the long-awaited return of Celebration at Paisley Park, the first such gathering since April of 2019.

The Minnesota Black Music Awards, founded by Pete and Kimberly Rhodes, celebrated its 40th anniversary and honored a pair of Minneapolis Sound legends in Jellybean Johnson and St. Paul Peterson. Both Johnson and Peterson headlined their own shows this past month, and each released new music to boot. 

And finally, there may not have been a local act that was busier this June than the three-time Grammy Award-winning Sounds of Blackness. Now in its 51st year of dazzling audiences across the globe, the Sounds performed a number of gigs and debuted its new single and the accompanying music video, “Juneteenth Celebration,” in honor of the nation’s newest federal holiday. 

To close out Black Music Month 2022, they brought the house down with two sold-out shows at The Dakota Jazz Club on Nicollet Mall. Billed as the “Soul of the Sixties,” on June 30, the Dakota was transformed into the Apollo Theater for a night, recreating elements of the legendary Motortown Revue and other live showcases that featured the top African American artists of the day. 

Under the direction of Gary Hines and backed by a 10-piece ensemble (dubbed The Satellite Band for the evening), the Sounds of Blackness scored again and again with its musical selections, while seamlessly replicating the choreography and costuming of the very icons they were emulating. 

After opening remarks from Sharon Smith-Akinsanya of the Rae Mackenzie Group (the event’s executive producer), and Tracey Gibson and Chris Galvin of show sponsor Andersen Windows and Doors, emcee “TJ the Dee Jay” (of WBLK) took over.

The first act of the night, “Martha and the Vandellas,” raced through four of their biggest hits, including the top-five Billboard classics “Heat Wave” and “Dancing in the Street.” 

“The Four Tops” and “the Marvelettes” then graced the stage next before Detroit gave way to Memphis, Stax Records, and the soul stylings of “Otis Redding” performing “Try a Little Tenderness” and his lone number-one single “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

Motown then returned with the likes of “Mary Wells,” “Gladys Knight & The Pips,” and “Marvin Gaye”, who after three solo numbers was joined by “Tammi Terrell” for a trio of their most famous duets including “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Both the “Queen” and the “Godfather of Soul” made appearances as “Aretha” ran through six of her standards while “James Brown” added four of his own, closing with “Please, Please, Please,” accentuated by his famous cape routine.         

The performance did include a little bit of levity at the expense of “Ike Turner.” While “Tina” and the “Ikettes” captivated the crowd with a full rendition of “Proud Mary,” “Ike” was sort of relegated to the side in one of his trademark jumpsuits that was more 1970s Elvis than the man who penned and recorded “Rocket 88,” widely considered the first Rock and Roll song of all time.

Another shot of Memphis Soul literally brought the crowd to its feet as “Sam & Dave” ripped through four numbers, beginning with their first R&B number-one hit, “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” and ending with their second, “Soul Man.”

To close out the night, “TJ the Dee Jay,” introduced “Sly and The Family Stone,” joking that they saved the Bay Area funk legends for last because “we’re not always sure they are going to show.” But they did, opening their seven-song set with “I Want to Take You Higher” and the evening’s finale, “Dance to the Music.”

All told, 13 of the greatest acts from the era were represented. Moreover, Sounds of Blackness managed to work in perfectly paced and arranged medleys (as well as a few full-length versions) that showcased a total of 47 songs in just under 90 minutes—retaining all the flair and fashion, style and substance, and perhaps most importantly, meaning of the original performances. 

It was a night to remember and a perfect way to wrap up a remarkable month in Minneapolis.