Gershwin Prize event at White House: A really big night for Sir Paul McCartney

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; C02

Hope may have gotten him elected, but in President Obama's White House on Wednesday evening, it was all love. The reverent, paralyzing, smile-until-your-face-cramps kind of love -- all of it aimed at Paul McCartney.

(Photos of Paul McCartney at the White House)

Arguably the most influential musician alive, the 67-year-old pop architect was in the East Room to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, celebrating an unparalleled career that spans his years with the Beatles, Wings and on his own.

"In a few short years, they changed the way we heard music," Obama said of the Beatles before presenting McCartney with the prize. He added that he was "grateful that a young Englishman shared his dreams with us."

The president also welcomed an array of artists to perform McCartney's tunes and genuflect before the maestro. Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl, Faith Hill, the Jonas Brothers, Jack White, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Herbie Hancock, Corinne Bailey Rae and classical pianist Lang Lang each offered thoughtful reads on the McCartney songbook.

But McCartney was the first to perform, and despite feigning nerves at a Tuesday news conference, he waltzed into the East Room as if it were his living room. He dived into "Got to Get You Into My Life," plunking away on the same Hofner bass he played on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964 -- his once-boyish yelp now an older, coarser shout.

Wonder came next with "We Can Work It Out." His 1970 version is the only Beatles cover ever to top the original. But the first take was a wash -- someone had misplaced Wonder's harmonica. "I don't see it!" he joked. With Take 2, Wonder tucked McCartney's melodies deep into the pocket. The cover still wins.

Wonder and McCartney would duet later in the program with "Ebony and Ivory," but first came Rae and Hancock for a poignant take on the Beatles' "Blackbird." Recorded in 1968, it was McCartney's gracefully melodic response to ugly racial discord then festering in the United States. Rae sang it for its author and for America's first black president with an elegance befitting the moment.

McCartney sang along as heartthrobs-in-his-image, the Jonas Brothers, delivered a punchy "Drive My Car." (A few seats down from McCartney in the front row, an even more enthusiastic response: glowing smiles from Sasha and Malia Obama).

There was somber balladry, too. "I'm going to be playing the sad song," Harris said before a delicate "For No One," while Jack White of the White Stripes sang "Mother Nature's Son." His voice quivered -- half affectation, half butterflies.

Costello took a crack at "Penny Lane," a song written about a place not far from where the singer grew up. Costello said that when his family first heard the song, "My dad, my mam and the cat all stood up and took notice."

Grohl romped through the Wings-era hit "Band on the Run" -- but not before shouting out his hometown Washington roots. He also called McCartney his hero, and added, "Mr. President, you're my other hero." By the time the song's third movement arrived, Grohl was roaring through the most assured and raucous selection of the night.

Earlier in the day, performers emerged from the White House for interviews on the front steps, with traces of Wonder's rehearsal seeping out the front door.

Grohl arrived first and flashed back to countless childhood weekends spent listening to the Beatles' greatest-hits albums (the blue one and the red one). "It's how I fell in love with music," said the lead Foo Fighter and Nirvana alum. "It's the foundation of my musical being."

Others cited intense and early bonds with McCartney's work. "We used to sing his music in school like hymns," said Rae, a 31-year-old who grew up in England. Harris reminisced with a soft smile about seeing the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan." Hancock said his first exposure came later, when he saw Beatles album jackets strewn across the floor of Miles Davis's apartment.

McCartney, who will celebrate his 68th birthday in a few weeks, was accepting a relatively young award. Named in honor of songwriting giants George and Ira Gershwin, the prize was established in 2007 to honor la-la-la's the same way the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor honors ha-ha-ha's. Paul Simon won a Gershwin in 2007 and Wonder was honored in 2009. McCartney is the third recipient.

WETA filmed Wednesday's program, but it won't air on PBS until July 28. The 60-minute performance will also be intercut with archival footage, puffing it up to 90 minutes.

They shouldn't cut a note from McCartney's closing suite. "I hope the president will forgive me if I sing this song," he quipped after Obama presented him with the Gershwin, and began crooning "Michelle." During the I-love-you-I-love-you-I-lovvvve-you, the president leaned over to sing into the first lady's ear.

When it was over, McCartney joked under his breath, "I'm gonna be the first guy to get punched out by a president."

Then, "Eleanor Rigby," "Let It Be" and "Hey Jude" -- followed by what felt like endless applause.

A sweet moment, but McCartney topped it off with a bite. After thanking the Library of Congress one last time, he let it rip: "After the last eight years, it's good to have a president that knows what a library is."

More McCartney

A review of Paul McCartney's performance at the White House.

Paul McCartney photos in Washington.

The long and winding road of Paul McCartney's career that led to his award.

Video of McCartney receiving his Gerswin award and acceptance speech.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company