He’d made history as the country’s first black president. She’d made history as the Queen of Soul.
Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday at 76, sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. She’d stood on the steps in freezing cold in a gray hat, her voice sailing over the huge crowd that stretched back to the Reflecting Pool.
Now six years later, the president was sitting in the balcony at the Kennedy Center in Washington when Franklin took the stage. She was making a surprise appearance to honor Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors.
Franklin carried a silver sequin clutch and wore a lush, gray floor-length mink. Her necklace of diamonds might as well have been a crown.
The stage lights flashed, bouncing off the diamonds. The crowd gasped at the sight of Franklin, and King, who wrote “Natural Woman” with Gerry Goffin, stood in awe. Michelle Obama, in an electric-blue gown, sitting next to King, rose beside the president.
Franklin swept back her long mink, slid onto the piano bench and began to play “Natural Woman.”
“Looking out on the morning rain,” she sang in her signature soulful, rich voice, sounding like no other. “I used to feel so uninspired.”
The camera cut to President Obama, who wiped back a tear before Franklin sang the next verse.
Then Franklin hit that note: “You make me feel… you make me feel… you make me feel like a natural woman.”
Obama rocked as she sang.
Franklin, who had been the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, took the mic and rose. “You make me feel so good inside.”
Then wait. That high note.
Obama pumped his fists.
The camera cut back and forth between a president and a queen.
Obama would later write in an email to the New Yorker: “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears.”
On Thursday, Obama mourned the Queen of Soul on Twitter. “In her voice,” he wrote, “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.”
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