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New Orleans influence dominates EXPO entertainment

Attendees from last year’s Mississippi Business & Technology EXPO are still talking about the surprise entertainment arranged by Raphael Semmes.

“I reunited the available members of the Dawg Band, a jazzy bluegrass/swing/country band that was a Jackson favorite back in the ‘80s at the old George Street (Grocery) and around town,” said Semmes. “It was the first time we’d been on stage together doing those tunes in 15 years. It was fun, unexpected and we got a tremendous response.”

Every year, MBJ special projects director Robbie Bell rings Semmes to line up talent for EXPO special events.

“I really get a kick out of planning performances with Robbie and playing for the EXPO in January because first of all, just having a gig in January is a good way to start off the year and hopefully sets the pace for getting busy,” said Semmes. “And hopefully while I’m there playing, some business skills will rub off on me, ‘cause Lord knows I can use ‘em.”

Named 2002 Musician of the Year at the Jackson Music Awards, the charismatic Semmes has played and sung blues, jazz, country and rock and has toured and recorded extensively throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan during the last quarter-century. He has played with Mississippi music legends John Lee Hooker, Mose Allison and Dorothy Moore, and stays busy performing for corporate events and festivals with the Raphael Semmes Orchestra. He wrote a musical revue, “Mississippi Live,” which promotes Mississippi’s musical heritage, and composed “Mississippi Feels Like Coming Home,” the official state tourism song.

Working with Bell “usually means I’m going to get to do some cool stuff,” said Semmes. “She is very creative and energetic, and her aim is to present something at the functions that is entertaining and a little unpredictable. If you’re attending an event like EXPO, or one of the awards ceremonies, then chances are you’re all about business, and a little entertaining diversion is a good thing.”

Semmes’ Metro Jazz Krewe will kick off the inaugural EXPO event with foot-stomping Dixieland jazz tunes and then transform into a New Orleans Second Line parade group, marching through the Trade Mart and leading attendees to the ribbon cutting.

Joanne Parks, who was recently featured on the Mississippi Educational Network program “Mississippi Roads,” will headline the Top 40 Under 40 Awards Luncheon, backed by a Semmes-led group. The Raphael Semmes Group will entertain the crowd from the time the doors open until Parks is led to her baby grand piano.

The New Albany native began playing the piano at the age of six. After earning a degree from the University of Mississippi in 1992, Parks moved to Jackson, where she has been a regular weekly performer at the Hilton Jackson and other popular nighttime venues. Her first CD, “Live at the Hilton,” was released in late 2003 and features “Fly Me to the Moon,” “It Had to Be You” and “What a Wonderful World.”

“Joanna is a wonderful young woman who sings and plays everything from pop to torch songs and who has a really devoted following with the young professional set,” said Semmes.

Jackie Pearson Bankston, headliner for the Mississippi Business Woman of the Year Luncheon, can best be described as “a musical phenom,” said Semmes.

“She’s a great player-singer-songwriter … a funny, wonderful, high-energy performer, whether she’s at Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street or somewhere in Europe,” he said. “I’ll promise you one thing: she leaves no audience unentertained. And she’s a helluva businesswoman.”

Semmes traveled on the road with Bankston early in her career as a bassist and sometimes vocalist on duets. “I was always struck with her uncanny ability to adapt to whatever environment we were performing in,” he said. “In the penthouse atop the Excelsior Hotel, she could be Judy Garland for the society bluebloods, Anita O’Day for the traveling jet-setters, ‘Big Mama’ Thornton for conventioneers in town wanting some blues, and Linda Ronstadt or Bonnie Raitt for the bartenders and staff. But when she occasioned to unleash one of her original pop ballads, there was a collective chorus of ‘What was that?’ Jackie’s originals won their approval and some of their hearts, regardless of musical tastes.”

For the EXPO, Semmes will direct The All Business Band until Bankston presides over her baby grand piano. “I’ll share songs from New Orleans to pop/rock and country,” said Bankston. “I’ll also play some originals, including one entitled ‘Mississippi.’ I am so proud to be a Mississippian, proud to live in Mississippi when I’m not on the road, and proud to take my southern roots with me everywhere I go.”

Henry Rhodes and the Mo’ Money Band will rock Business After Hours “with a variety of smooth and spicy music with a touch of funk,” described Bell. “Henry said for everyone to brush up on their Electric Slide, because he does intend to get them out on the floor!”

Rhodes sings in the style of Luther Vandross and Peabo Bryson, and the band members’ backgrounds range from classical to blues, rock and jazz, Bell pointed out.

“They offer a high-energy show that encourages foot tapping that leads to hand clapping … and that generally leads to dancing,” she said. “They play frequently at the Ameristar in Vicksburg and for other clubs and events, always leaving the audience wanting more.”

Semmes said, “As for me, I’ll be around there playing as well, along with some of my favorite cats and the metro’s finest musicians. And, oh yeah, I can assure you that Robbie has got at least one musical surprise planned, if I can just figure out how to pull it off.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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