Soul diva Aretha Franklin, who died on Aug 16 of pancreatic cancer at 76, had legions of fans — including a bunch of folks from both Democrats and Republicans who lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Franklin’s legendary career included performing at the inauguration celebrations of three US presidents over a span of 30 years, and receiving the highest civilian honour that a commander in chief can bestow.
Her history of presidential performances began in 1977, when she was one of the artists who played for Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Gala, a televised concert taped at the Kennedy Centre on the eve of the swearing-in of the Georgia Democrat. Her rendition of the all-American God Bless America was a highlight.
From Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, Aretha Franklin was the soundtrack for presidents
Fast-forward to 1993, when a superfan ascended to the White House. Franklin was among the heavy-hitting lineup of stars who performed at the pre-inaugural events for President Bill Clinton. She performed twice at the now-demolished Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland (including the televised Presidential Gala, in which she belted out I Dreamed A Dream from Broadway’s Les Misérables). She also headlined the traditional big shindig on the Mall along with Michael Jackson, Ray Charles and Michael Bolton, and sang at no less than three inaugural balls. She was back for Clinton’s second inaugural in 1997, when she again took the stage at the Presidential Gala.
Her first performance at the White House itself was in 1994: Bill and Hillary Clinton invited Franklin to the intimate setting of the Rose Garden for PBS’s In Performance at the White House series, where she had the first couple swaying to gospel tunes and torch songs, and finally “rocked so hard that she lost a shoe crossing the stage”, according to The Washington Post’s coverage of the show.
President Clinton called her “a part of American musical history”, and the Queen of Soul was happy to return the admiration. Asked whether Clinton was more down to earth than some of his predecessors, she agreed: “Well, they said he was a bubba, didn’t they?”
As news of Franklin’s health failure was announced, the former president wrote Aug. 13 on Twitter, “Like people all around the world, Hillary and I are thinking about Aretha Franklin tonight & listening to her music that has been such an important part of our lives the last 50 years. We hope you’ll lift her up by listening and sharing her songs that have meant the most to you.”
After her death, Hillary Clinton tweeted: “Mourning the loss today of @ArethaFranklin who shared her spirit and talent with the world. She deserves not only our RESPECT but also our lasting gratitude for opening our eyes, ears and hearts. Rest in eternal peace, my friend.”
In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour, to Franklin. Her fellow honorees included comedian Carol Burnett and legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.
“Her instantly recognisable voice has captivated listeners ever since she toured with her father’s gospel revue in the 1950s,” the award citation read. “She is among our Nation’s greatest musical artists and has captured the hearts of millions of Americans.”
President Barack Obama continued in the tradition of fandom, inviting Franklin to perform at his actual swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol steps in 2008, where her rendition of My Country ‘Tis of Thee (and that hat, of course) for an audience that included Beyoncé, Jay-Z, most of the Senate and Oprah, threatened to steal the show from its ostensible star.
She performed at various times throughout the Obama administration, including at the 2011 dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. And she brought the usually stoic Obama to tears in 2015, when she performed at the Kennedy Centre Honours in a tribute to Carole King. Her fur-throwing, bring-the-house-down version of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman had the president on his feet — and dabbing at his eyes.
The former first couple wrote about the singer after her death was announced. “Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade-our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace,” the former president wrote.
Michele Obama noted, “Watching Aretha Franklin perform at the White House, and on so many other occasions, made time stand still. @BarackObama and I are holding Aretha’s family in our hearts right now. She will forever be our Queen of Soul.”
— By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 26th, 2018