The 20 Best Presidential Inauguration Performances of All Time

Ever since last November’s election, the nation has wondered: Would President-elect Trump enlist any A-listers for his inaugural music lineup? Or would the lack of them coincide with the narrative that his is a truly populist presidency — no stars required? Whatever music does or doesn’t go down when Trump takes office on Jan. 20 (a day still shrouded in mystery, although Lee Greenwood, Toby Keith, and 3 Doors Down have been confirmed for pre-ceremony celebrations Jan. 19), we can always look back to the days when stars were quicker to perform for the most powerful man on the planet. Here are 20 of the most memorable musical hails to the incoming chiefs.

20. Chuck Berry and Little Richard, for Bill Clinton (1993)

Any time you can get these two pioneers of rock together onstage, it’s worth noting, even if this medley seemed to be an exercise in finding the same key. Berry made the lyrics of “Reelin’ and Rockin’” occasion-appropriate with additions like “We wanted change and we got much more/Bill Clinton, Hillary, and big Al Gore.” This made Bill Clinton laugh and rock in place wildly, although, as you’ll see in other entries here, Clinton seemed to laugh and rock in place wildly at every musical performance put on for him, even Bob Dylan’s.

19. Ricky Martin, for George W. Bush (2001)

La Administration Loca was ushered in with the help of then-superstar Martin, who warmed things up in a long coat in front of the Lincoln Memorial with “Cup of Life,” after being introduced by Larry King as one of the greatest performers in the history of performing. All went well until Martin asked Bush to join him for a dance step, which basically consisted of the incoming president putting his hand on his hip. (Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any footage online from the “youth ball” that followed, featuring Destiny’s Child, where a young Beyoncé exhorted the crowd with “I wanna hear you say Bush!”) Watch Ricky’s performance here.

18. Nat King Cole, for John F. Kennedy (1961)

“Surrey With the Fringe on Top” had been a staple of American culture since 1943, when Rodgers & Hammerstein introduced it on Broadway, but no one ever swung the surrey like Cole, who bridged the gap between Oklahoma! and Camelot when he sang it for JFK and company in ’61. (Soon to be short-lived in their status as America’s sweethearts, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh provided the introductory dumb-blonde shtick.)

17. All-star “We Are the World,” for Bill Clinton (1993)

This is what’s known in the business as a cluster, often with an appendix attached. As random as the selection of celebrities who appeared on the original 1985 recording might have been, things got random-er on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial eight years later. Michael Bolton, at his most cascading-tressed? Melissa Etheridge, also a long-haired blonde at the time? Stephen Stills, Trisha Yearwood, and Ruben Blades? Why not? Naturally, Michael Jackson was the only one to get his own mid-song separate entrance.

16. Michael Jackson, for Bill Clinton (1993)

“Gone Too Soon” may not be everyone’s favorite Jackson song in the 21st century, but at the height of the AIDS crisis, it made for a trenchant moment when he sang it for the Clintons, along with a call for action inspired by the death of his friend, Ryan White, a teenager who became famous for being kicked out of the school after being diagnosed. “It is my hope, President-elect Clinton,” said Jackson, “that you and your administration commit the resources needed to eliminate this awful disease that took my friend…” Now, that’s lobbying.

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15. Linda Ronstadt, for Jimmy Carter (1977)

When the Patsy Cline standard “Crazy” was picked up by the Ross Perot campaign as a theme song, some politcos wondered if it was a good idea to associate a tune with that title with a potential leader of the free world. But no one had seemed to think it was nutty decades earlier when Ronstadt sang it for Carter, the first serious country (or country-rock) fan to become president. Given that Ronstadt is revered as one of pop’s most eternally on-point singers, it’s endearing to hear her betray a rare touch of nervousness at the beginning of her rendering of the classic ballad.

14. Jon Bon Jovi and Bettye LaVette, for Barack Obama (2009)

Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but the bi-racial, somewhat bi-generational pairing made perfect sense in both concept and soulful execution as the rocker and R&B singer blended voices on Sam Cook’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Slightly controversially, Bon Jovi changed the lyric to “the change has come” at the end of the duet, signaling that Obama’s victory represented a “mission: accomplished” in race relations in America. Eight years later, there’s still no consensus on that.

13. James Brown, for Richard Nixon (1969)

James Brown also represented racial reconciliation, in his own way, performing “Say It Loud — I’m Black and Proud” at Nixon’s inaugural bash. Unfortunately, no public video exists, but we do have photos to prove it happened. The singer had supported Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the ’68 election, but agreed to sing for Nixon to foster bringing people together. The incoming president didn’t actually show up to the ball, but at least VP Spiro Agnew was there to hear a very small contingent of black partygoers engage in the titular call-and-response amid the glitterati. Four years later, Brown actually endorsed Nixon for reelection, and met with him at the White House (which led Nixon to complain, on a secret Oval Office recording: “I’ve already done the blacks!”). Facing cries of “sellout,” Brown skipped the ’72 inaugural festivities.

12. Bruce Springsteen, for Barack Obama (2009)

It would have been harder to pick a better anthem for Obama’s first days than “The Rising,” a song that looks to past tragedy and anticipates better days, in this life or the next. Throw in a choir that never existed on any of Springsteen’s previous renditions of the 9/11-inspired song, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and you’ve sealed the deal. (Springsteen also stood alongside, and sort of halfway performed with, Pete Seeger on an epic reading of “This Land is Your Land.”)

11. Army of sax heroes, for Bill Clinton (1993)

“New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” as the punk band Fear once said. As it turns out, so is D.C., or at least it was during the administration of celebrated amateur sax man Bill Clinton. In his honor, 10 of the best known sax players in the world lined up in front of Lincoln to serenade the Clinton family with an instrumental jam that allowed each of them a chance to solo, from bestsellers Kenny G. and Dave Koz, to pop accompanists like David Sanborn and Tom Scott, to even a serious jazz cat or three.

10. Anita Baker, for George H.W. Bush (1989)

Who says Republicans can only get country stars? The first Bush to rise to the Oval Office snagged Baker, quite a get at the time — her song, “Giving You the Best That I’ve Got,” was up for Record and Song of the Year at the Grammys, and the album of the same name went platinum — even if she wasn’t quite “America’s No. 1 recording artist,” as an announcer introduced her to the Washington crowd. At the end of the number, Bush even wiped away a tear. OK, so maybe he was just scratching his cheek, but still, he was clearly appreciative to have gotten the best R&B had to offer.

9. Barbra Streisand, for Bill Clinton (1993)

Serenading Clinton, Streisand quipped, “I’m a little hoarse tonight — you’ll have to forgive me — but thank God the president-elect has made it fashionable.” Streisand herself has been a fashionable stalwart of inaugural galas throughout the years, starting with LBJ’s in ’65, at which point the newcomer was said to have stolen the show. Sadly, no footage seems to exist of that theft, but you can see her sing for the Clintons, introduced by Warren Beatty, who made a joke about the length of time since he last got to introduce an incoming Democrat (though his math was a little off). Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” was an appropriate pick for a show dedicated to honoring example and leadership — even if you could argue whether this president, or many others, was worthy of it — but it’s hard to beat “Evergreen” as an evergreen, wistfully reflecting our wishes that Camelots would last.

8. Loretta Lynn, for Jimmy Carter (1977)

Jean Stapleton introduced her in her non-dingbat voice: “I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate the presidential inauguration of a peanut farmer from south Georgia than with the artistry of the queen of country music, Miss Loretta Lynn.” Lynn indicated just how appropriate she thought that was by quipping, “I’d like to say also that he’s the only president we’ve had who don’t talk with an accent.” Her medley encompassed “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and her ode to repeat pregnancies, “One’s on the Way.” Year later, she would sing at inaugural festivities for both presidential members of the Bush family, and more recently reveal that Donald Trump “sold me” on his candidacy — but she hasn’t been booked (yet) to sing for Trump.

7. Bob Dylan, for Bill Clinton (1993)

A lot of references have been made over the years to Dylan’s “acoustic” rendition of “Chimes of Freedom” at Clinton’s inaugural concert. There is a band down there in the pit, rocking out — honest! At the time, there was also a bit of controversy over Dylan not seeming particularly engaged, before people realized that that was just Dylan being opaquely Dylan. It’s actually quite a nice update of the tune, certainly not overly reverential in the arrangement, but appropriate in its evocation of the optimism of the mid-‘60s… at least for Democrats who were feeling their oats after 14 years of Republican rule.

6. The Beach Boys, for Ronald Reagan (1985)

For Reagan’s second inaugural celebration, the core Beach Boys sang “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring,” the Four Freshman a cappella number that helped cement their harmonies in their early ‘60s beginning. Even Brian Wilson, coming out of the woods at last, was on board. The reason for doing this particular song, Mike Love said, was to honor the long love affair of Ronnie and Nancy. (No one paid much mind to the fact that the song ends with the lovers side by side in their graves, of course, but that part came more into play when the current lineup of the Beach Boys revived the song on tour after Nancy Reagan’s death in March 2016.)

5. Beyoncé, for Barack Obama (2013)

As much as we might want to limit repeat inauguration performers like Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin to just one moment on this list, that’s really not possible with Beyoncé, who is associated with essential moments at both of Obama inaugural festivities. (As noted earlier, she also sang for George W. Bush, though that might not be the one she emphasizes on her résumé right now.) In 2013, she nailed the national anthem… though an asterisk was put on that when it was revealed, and she confirmed, that she singing along to her own pre-record. Shades of Mariah: You can see her pull her earpiece out here, mid-song… but the result, augmented or not, is still the opposite of a meltdown.

4. Aretha Franklin, for Jimmy Carter (1976)

Franklin has sung for all the incoming Democratic presidents from the ‘70s on forward. Her most famous appearance was before Obama in 2009, singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” though the song was overshadowed by The Hat, which turned into a monumental meme. But although it’s hard to pick just one favorite from her inaugural performances, we have to go with the Duke Ellington medley she sang for Carter, encompassing “Shining Stocking,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Perdido.” If you had to choose between a democratically elected government or a Queen, after a performance like this, even a hardcore patriot might have to go with royalty.

3. Kelly Clarkson, for Barack Obama (2013)

She’s a grand young flag-waver. Clarkson might have supported Ron Paul, once upon a time, but thankfully that didn’t keep her from giving Obama, and us, a “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” for the ages. As loose and fun as a lot of these other performances are, the majesty of this (un-lip-synched) performance, and the appropriate solemnity on the president’s face, provide a moment of grounding that’s worth revisiting.

2. Fleetwood Mac, for Bill Clinton (1993)

The legacy lineup of Fleetwood Mac had not performed with Christine McVie in tow in nine years, and even then, doing “Don’t Stop” for the Clintons wasn’t an entirely easy sell to the entire band. “This is pretty much a one-off thing, as far as I’m concerned,” Lindsey Buckingham declared at the time. “In fact, if we had been asked to do much more than the one song, I don’t know if I would have been able to do that.” Tell us how enthusiastic you really feel, Lindsey! But even when not every feeling has been smoothed over, it’s hard to resist when the first member of your favored party to be elected in 18 years adopted your song as a campaign anthem and wants a live reading as a victory anthem. It paved the way for a resumption of affections after all, as the classic Mac lineup got back together a more productive year or two in ’97.

1. Beyoncé, for Barack Obama (2009)

Before he was the “gray fox,” as Michelle Obama referred to her husband on The Tonight Show recently, he and his wife had a JFK-and-Jackie-like appeal for a generation of voters eager to see a fairly youthful president and First Lady as romantic role models. Beyoncé sealed that hopeful image with a kiss, as she sang the classic Etta James ballad for the Obamas at the Neighborhood Ball following his first inauguration. Was the title to be taken to allude to the delay in electing a president of color, or was a cigar just a cigar, when it comes to a great pick for a first dance? Politics and culture aside, it’s hard to erase the sublime elegance of this moment, even if it seems a lot more than eight years ago.

 

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