The First Lady called her a "national treasure." The president proclaimed her to be "already a part of American musical history" and said she has a "genius for moving an audience with her sincerity, her passion and her grace."
As a gentle breeze meandered through the White House Rose Garden last night and the city's sirens echoed through nearby porticos, Aretha Franklin took a privileged few on a musical journey back to her roots. She sang the gospel she learned in her father's church and the torch songs she plied before putting her foot down for some R-E-S-P-E-C-T. She leaned forward and peered deep into Bill Clinton's eyes, singing "Smile (Though You Feel Like Crying)." Before long, he was swaying -- to "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" -- while Hillary Clinton nodded in time.
With the Eastern High School Choir as backup, Franklin dedicated "Tomorrowland," from one of her favorite movies, "An Affair to Remember," to the Clintons. The concert, taped by WETA as part of its "In Performance at the White House" series, will be aired on PBS Oct. 12.
Franklin got two Chicago crews rolling -- tables anchored by Rep. Bobby Rush and by the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- with her "Brand New Me." She rocked so hard that she lost a shoe crossing the stage. And then she slowed to a dirgelike pace for "Ol' Man River."
She sang it, she said, "in honor of our foremothers and -fathers, who so courageously faced the cotton fields from sunup to sundown, and whose descendants became the sharecroppers of the time, of which my grandmother's family was one of the many thousands."
It was one of several moments that verged on the melodramatic or could have been off-key, but which Franklin pulled off expertly. Toward the end of the program, when she and veteran bluesman and balladeer Lou Rawls were poised to sing "Tobacco Road," they discovered piano man Les McCann had his cues crossed and had taken a break. No problem. Franklin sat down at the keyboard and improvised a boogie-woogie bass that walked tall.
The nation has known her as the Queen of Soul since 1962. She was crowned that year during a show at Chicago's Regal Theatre after topping the polls in Playboy and Down Beat and other music industry magazines. Even so, this is the first time Aretha Franklin has sung at the White House.
Not that she hasn't been asked before. She has vague memories of Marvin Hamlisch making overtures some time back for her to join in with a group of other presidential entertainers. It wasn't a bit part, but it wasn't front and center either. It apparently took Bill Clinton to pay proper homage to the queen, offering to host her in the intimate Rose Garden setting.
So does that make Clinton more of a homeboy than his predecessors?
"Well, they said he was a bubba, didn't they?" Franklin fired back with a grin yesterday afternoon as her handlers swarmed around her. "I think he's very down to earth, very decent. That's the impression I get. Someone who is really trying to pull it off, to get a true democracy."
Someone worth working for. Because she has habitually kept a low profile with the press, Franklin isn't widely known for her charity work, or for the political work she did in the early years of the civil rights movement, supporting the likes of Martin Luther King. But, she said, she has never gotten involved with a president before as she has with Clinton, performing during his inaugural ceremonies and socializing with his politicos.
It was noontime, which Franklin said was early for her to be up and about, let alone holding court in a hotel lobby. But there she was, surrounded by the media, who seemed uncharacteristically awed. They asked for autographs and forgot their questions, studied her in silence until she said, laughingly, "This is a press conference, isn't it?"
Her royal highness. She refused to enter the ballroom that had been set aside for her. Too much air conditioning. "They should have turned it off an hour ago," she said. "Can't risk laryngitis." Not with her scheduled to croon for Clinton a few hours hence. The hotel turned the heat on but Franklin preferred to plop down in the lobby, directly in line with the door and the furnace of outdoor air that regularly blasted through it.
She was chillin', laid back in some light-colored jeans and a charcoal Michigan T-shirt, both of which hugged her body and made her look much trimmer than the shimmering white off-the-shoulder gown that displayed her prodigious bosom last night or the Scaasi monstrosity she had worn the night before at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. She was singing gratis to raise money for the Congressional Black Caucus Spouses' scholarship fund. That fearsome frock of royal blue covered her considerable bosom, but had a sparkling see-through lower skirt. Other things seemed strange as well. Franklin said she couldn't hear what she sounded like from the stage, only that the volume level seemed to fluctuate.
From several spots in the Concert Hall the sound was downright painful in its volume and distortion. The music was more muted from some balcony seats -- but you couldn't decipher what Franklin was saying from those heights, as when she explained how she had gained weight while quitting smoking. She went on to compare the advantages of young men versus Slim Fast as dieting aids, but her risque opinions were lost on many.
The crowd was loyal, though, popping onto their feet repeatedly for "Ree-Ree." Franklin did her part, dipping and shimmying through her mega-hits -- "Chain of Fools," "Freeway of Love (In a Pink Cadillac)," "Respect."
Born 52 years ago in Memphis, Franklin was raised in Detroit by her prominent father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Her mother died when she was 10. She started singing in the church as a young girl. At 15, she had a hit gospel record and was pregnant with the first of her four sons. She segued into jazz after moving to New York and signing with Columbia Records. Then came "Respect," released in 1968, which earned her the first two of her 15 Grammy Awards. Overall she has recorded 58 albums containing 17 Top 10 singles. Franklin also was the first female performer to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
After her performance last night, Franklin was ready to celebrate. The World Cup, the Congressional Black Caucus Spouses' affair and the bash at the White House had brought lots of her friends to town, she said. So she invited them to the Ritz. But another female powerhouse singer -- Betty Carter -- was the entertainer. It was time for the queen to be one of the crowd.