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'Soul Crooners' at Straz Center aims to stir the soul with classic songs

Nate Jacobs and his new production company will present classic 1970s hits.
Nate Jacobs and his new production company will present classic 1970s hits.
Published Jun. 16, 2015

The songs are as familiar to Nate Jacobs as a family quilt.

He wraps his most cherished childhood memories in the lyrics.

So maybe his fellow singers shouldn't have been surprised when Jacobs began crying during one particular rehearsal for Soul Crooners. As tears streamed down his face, he stopped singing Sadie, the 1974 ode to mothers by the Spinners.

"I really felt the essence of my (late) mother," Jacobs said. "My whole mother's essence came into the studio. The essence of my mother touched me."

The story reflects Jacobs' belief that soul music serves as more than an apt name for the genre; it's what it does.

Nate Jacobs and his new production company will present classic 1970s hits from the Stylistics, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder and more, during a two-week run that begins Thursday in the Jaeb Theater at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

He insists it will stir the audience in a far different way than much of today's music.

"It will snatch you and take you away," Jacobs said. "There's no power like it. I love what it does to people."

Jacobs has been the engineer on this night train to the past since he developed the show in 2010 as founder and artistic director of Sarasota's Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. It drew initial raves even though Jacobs was performing in a small space.

After the troupe gained greater support — including former Sarasota banker Christine Jennings, former Asolo Theatre director Howard Millman and talk show host and part-time Sarasota resident Jerry Springer — Jacobs' group became one of the most successful black theater production companies in the nation and one of the few that annually produces a full season.

Jacobs adapted the show for a larger stage in 2013 and the audience reaction proved even more significant. It earned a spot at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the show went over so well that Jacobs earned an invitation to return to Winston-Salem for what amounted to a command performance.

This year, Jacobs will be honored at the festival with the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award, named for its founder.

Though he's quick to credit "angels," it's clear that Jacobs has poured his life into performing and making the troupe a successful platform for young African-American talent. More than once, he considered leaving Sarasota to pursue individual goals, but he said something kept calling him back.

Now with this new production company, he's getting a chance to deliver for larger audiences. Straz Center CEO Judy Lisi invited Jacobs to Tampa.

"It's been really wonderful getting to know Nate because he gets it," Lisi said. "He realizes that young people need to understand their heritage and what they come from. He has a willingness, and urge and a passion to help them with that.

"In that regard we have so much in common."

Soul Crooners helps fulfill the mission. Soul music fans get to hear some genre favorites, but the performers connect with the songs while showcasing their abilities.

Jacobs said the strength of the program comes from ensuring that the performers understand the heritage, the inspiration and the era that yielded socially conscious songs of Marvin Gaye and the romantic rhapsodies of Al Green.

"It's a full night of some of the best music ever created," Jacobs said. "It's performed by some of the most talented artists that have come on the scene. People will clap their hands and sway to the music everybody knows."

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow @hoop4you.