Before Donald Trump became president-elect, inauguration performances weren’t nearly so fraught. Singing for a new president wasn’t even a partisan statement, really. Illustrious contralto Marian Anderson performed for two presidents with opposing ideologies. So did opera singer Jessye Norman. Ethel Merman was an outspoken Republican, so it was no surprise when the Broadway star belted out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” at Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural gala. Then again, she performed at John F. Kennedy’s, too.
In 1973, the master of ceremonies at Richard M. Nixon’s swearing-in festivities, Sen. Marlow Cook (R-Ky.), said: “The inauguration of a president is more than a tradition of ceremony. It is an opportunity to recommit our nation to the ideals of liberty and peace upon which it was founded.”
That’s why getting an invitation to take part was once an unequivocal honor. It was a way to celebrate the country — not just the individual taking office.
This year is different. The stars aren’t lining up to perform at Trump’s inauguration. So far the biggest names he has secured are “America’s Got Talent” contestant Jackie Evancho, to sing the national anthem at the ceremony, and country duo Big & Rich, playing the gala the night before.
Trump’s inaugural chairman, Tom Barrack, tried to explain it all away.
“What we’ve done instead of trying to surround him with what people consider A-listers is we are going to surround him with the soft sensuality of the place,” he told the news media. “It’s a much more poetic cadence than having a circuslike celebration that’s a coronation.”
These misgivings from performers are unprecedented, according to Jim Bendat, author of “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, 1789-2013.” After all, Ray Charles, a Democrat, was willing to perform at Reagan’s inauguration.
“People wanted to be a part of the celebration,” he said. “But now you have so many singers and entertainers who perform and talk about issues of love and togetherness and freedom and fighting oppression, and it’s not really surprising that they don’t want to associate themselves with someone as divisive as Donald Trump.”
Trump can take comfort in the fact that not all past presidents had A-listers at their inaugurations. For a long time, military bands generally played the ceremony, and an orchestra might provide dance music at a celebration soon after. The modern marriage of celebrity and inauguration originated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and presidents since have had varied interest in recruiting big names. Here’s a look at some of the highlights.
During his third inauguration, Roosevelt spiced things up with a Constitution Hall gala the evening before he was sworn in. This was the first time that big-name celebrities participated in an inauguration event and it was quite a slate, including Ethel Barrymore, Irving Berlin and Raymond Massey. Mickey Rooney — just 20 years old then — tickled the ivories and did impersonations, and Charlie Chaplin performed a monologue from his hit film “The Great Dictator.”
Marian Anderson — the famed black singer who was once barred from performing at Constitution Hall — sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Anderson returned four years later for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. The 35th president was the first to invite a poet to his inaugural festivities: Robert Frost penned “Dedication” for the occasion but couldn’t read it because of the sun’s glare, so he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. The gala, meanwhile, had glamorous highlights: Gene Kelly danced, Frank Sinatra sang a reworked version of “That Old Black Magic” (“That Old Jack Magic”) and Sidney Poitier performed. “The world of entertainment — showbiz, if you please — has become the Sixth Estate, just as Hawaii became the 50th state,” Bette Davis said during the show. Though there was one conspicuous absence: Sammy Davis Jr. was asked not to attend, lest he ruffle feathers over his recent marriage to a white woman, actress May Britt.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration was the first for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one of the few groups that have agreed to perform for Trump. (In a December news release, choir president Ron Jarrett said: “Singing the music of America is one of the things we do best. We are honored to be able to serve our country by providing music for the inauguration of our next president.”)
Jazz singer Ethel Ennis was not a Republican, but she had a fan who was: Spiro T. Agnew, Nixon’s vice president. At Agnew’s behest, she performed during the Republican National Convention in Miami and again a few months later for the inauguration. She did, however, turn down an offer from the Marine band to accompany her. The Baltimore native was the first singer to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” a cappella during the inauguration ceremony.
The closest thing to the brouhaha surrounding Trump’s A-list inadequacy is perhaps Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. After all, he came from Hollywood and yet, according to a New York Times story about the festivities, “some critics said that what was surprising was [the event’s] lack of stars. The suggestion has been made that the Democrats still have most of the big stars, especially the youth-oriented ones.”
Compared with 2016, however, the lineup at the gala looked pretty impressive with such big names as Johnny Carson, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Sinatra and — for the younger crowd — Donny and Marie Osmond.
“Roots” actor Ben Vereen showed up with a tribute to the early-20th-century black vaudeville star Bert Williams, and Vereen performed in blackface, just as Williams was required to do. (Vereen, too, is black.) After a rollicking tune, Vereen transitioned to a somber song, which he performed while rubbing the makeup off his face. It was supposed to be pointed commentary for the mostly white audience, but ABC, which aired the telecast, cut that portion of his performance.
The biggest name at George H.W. Bush’s inaugural gala was Sinatra, by that point an inauguration fixture.
“Only the appearance of Frank Sinatra gave the audience a palpable thrill — which gave way to disappointment with his performance, and then puzzlement as he was cut short before a second song,” read a Washington Post article about the gala. “There could be no clearer ending to the Reagan era than the day Frank Sinatra is hustled off the stage.”
After a few inaugurations with a dearth of big names, Bill Clinton recruited serious stars. Opera singer Marilyn Horne performed during the ceremony, and Fleetwood Mac, then broken up, agreed to reconvene for a gala performance, given that Clinton had used their hit “Don’t Stop” as his campaign anthem. Bob Dylan might not make it to Nobel Prize ceremonies, but he did turn up for an acoustic performance at the Lincoln Memorial.
Clinton was also the first president since Kennedy to bring a poet to the swearing-in ceremony: Maya Angelou.
Bipartisan performances were still the norm during Clinton’s second inauguration. Singer Jessye Norman, who performed for Reagan a decade earlier, sang a patriotic medley.
Few inaugural lineups are more like time capsules than George W. Bush’s slate, which included Ricky Martin, Jessica Simpson and 98 Degrees. But Bush was just piggybacking on Clinton’s push for pop-star celebrity.
The inaugural ceremony itself was never a bastion for big names — until Barack Obama took office. At his first inauguration, Aretha Franklin sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman performed. Outside of the swearing-in ceremony, a huge concert on the Mall featured an eclectic lineup of singers, including Beyoncé, Garth Brooks, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, plus readings by Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Samuel L. Jackson and Jamie Foxx.
Obama’s second inaugural ceremony was even more pop-oriented. Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” Beyoncé had national anthem duty and James Taylor strummed and sang “America the Beautiful.” Interestingly, Clarkson had tweeted support for another 2012 candidate, Ron Paul. (She later said it wasn’t necessarily an endorsement.) Regardless, she tweeted about how “excited & honored” she was to take part in a celebration that was about more than one person or political affiliation.