At best, presidents of the United States only get two inaugurations. For Aretha Franklin, there were no such limitations.
Franklin sang for three different presidents’ inaugural events -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Former president George H.W. Bush gave her the highest award available to citizens of the United States.
Franklin’s hat -- an over sized, Swarovski crystal-studded bow -- may have taken up some of the attention on January 20, 2009 when Obama officially became the first African American president. But Obama watched intently and smiled gently throughout her rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”
During Obama’s second term, he teared up when Franklin sang at the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2015. Singer-songwriter Carole King was being honored and when a fur coat-sporting Franklin sat down at a piano onstage and launched into a performance of King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” cameras caught former first lady Michelle Obama nodding and mouthing the words while her husband ducked his head and wiped at his eye.
Bill and Hillary Clinton were seated near Obama at his inauguration, and the former president was no doubt remembering when Franklin sang before his first swearing-in. In fact, the Queen of Soul headlined a concert that kicked off the entire Clinton/Gore Inaugural in 1993. Dubbed “America’s Reunion on the Mall,” the two-day event on the National Mall between Capitol Hill and the Washington Monument drew a record-setting crowd of one million people. It started with a two-hour concert where Franklin was joined by an only-in-America classic lineup of performers that included Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, LL Cool J, Diana Ross and Michael Bolton.
It was Jimmy Carter who essentially thrust Franklin onto the presidential stage to begin with. When the Plains native and former Georgia governor prepared to take office in January 1977, he made clear he wasn’t going to let Washington D.C. change him. And that included his affection for American music in all forms, as witnessed by the lineup of performers at his night-before-the-inauguration celebration at the Kennedy Center.
Linda Ronstadt sang “Crazy,” and there were also performances from the Broadway musicals “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” and by Gregg Allman. But the highlight of the nationally broadcast “Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Gala” was undoubtedly Franklin singing “God Bless America,” which had been written by Irving Berlin.
It wasn’t only Democratic presidents who appreciated Franklin’s talent and contributions to the country. During President George W. Bush’s second term, he awarded “the Queen of Soul” the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“The Queen of Soul ... revolutionized American music,” the citation from Bush read. “She is among our Nation's greatest musical artists and has captured the hearts of millions of Americans.
“The United States honors Aretha Franklin for her lifetime of achievement and for helping to shape our Nation's artistic and cultural heritage.”
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