Soul diva Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, had legions of fans — including a bunch of folks from both parties who lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Franklin’s legendary career included performing at the inauguration celebrations of three presidents over a span of 30 years, and receiving the highest civilian honor 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 Center on the eve of the swearing-in of the Georgia Democrat. Her rendition of the all-American “God Bless America” was a highlight.
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 in 1993. She performed twice at the now-demolished Capital Centre in Landover, Md., (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, natch, for Clinton’s second inaugural in 1997, where she again took the stage at the Presidential Gala.
Her first performance at the White House itself was in 1994: The Clintons 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?”
President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2005. Franklin’s fellow honorees included comedian Carol Burnett and legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. “Her instantly recognizable 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 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 dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 2011. And she brought the usually stoic Obama to tears in 2015, when she performed at the Kennedy Center Honors 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.