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McCartney Rocks Obama at the White House

Beatle picks up Gershwin Prize, delivers hits alongside Elvis Costello, Jack White and Stevie Wonder

June 3, 2010 10:02 AM ET

With stacks of amps behind him and the leader of the free world just two feet in front, Paul McCartney brought rock & roll to the East Room of the White House last night as he collected the Library of Congress' Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, an award that acknowledged his contributions to the American songbook. (McCartney is the first person who is not American to receive the award.) Joined by a diverse group of musicians from Elvis Costello to the Jonas Brothers, the mood was mostly playful and the assembled musical guests performed stirring versions of songs from the Beatle's decades-spanning career.

Barack Obama's Rock & Roll White House: check out photos of his most famous guests.

But there were somber moments, too, including remarks from Obama about the BP oil disaster, and some overtly political comments from McCartney, who praised Obama and took some digs at George W. Bush. "Getting this prize would just be good enough, but getting it from this president …," McCartney said. Later, he noted, "After the last eight years, it's great to have a president who knows what a library is." But the evening, after all, was about McCartney, and Obama praised the timelessness and the universal appeal of McCartney's music — and also geeked out with some Beatles statistics: 200 of McCartney's songs have charted, Obama said, and they've stayed there for "a cumulative total of 32 years."

Throughout the evening, the president — sitting with the first family and McCartney's girlfriend, Nancy Shevell — occasionally let down his guard and was visibly transported by the Beatle's music. During McCartney's opening number, "Got to Get You Into My Life," Obama briefly closed his eyes, smiled broadly, and swayed his head sideways. During Stevie Wonder's lean and energetic rendition of "We Can Work It Out," the president and first lady grooved and made eye contact, even as their daughters appeared somewhat stone-faced. Sasha and Malia Obama, however, were more receptive to the next performers: the Jonas Brothers, who turned in a note-perfect, lively version of "Drive My Car."

For every joyous anthem, there was a quiet, pensive number: Emmylou Harris delivered an earthy and reflective "For No One" while Jack White seemed to cover "Mother Nature’s Son" with the Delta blues in mind. Herbie Hancock and Corinne Bailey Rae's "Blackbird" was gentle and unrushed, greatly enhanced by Hancock's prismatic flourishes. Faith Hill's "The Long and Winding Road" treated the meditative ballad like a popular — and not a pop — standard, with muscular backing from McCartney's band.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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