Having performed at the White House in the past, James Taylor was prepared to deal with reporters and cameramen as his car service pulled up to the building’s security gate on Saturday, June 13th. Instead, it was all quiet. “I thought there was going to be a lot of press on the way in,” he says. “But there was nobody there.” The only other person Taylor saw was comedian Dave Chappelle, who was escorted into the building at the same time.
The event taking place in the East Room was a performance by Prince for about 500 A-list friends, supporters, and entertainment-world pals of President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama. Pop and rock acts playing the White House isn’t news; what set the Prince event apart was its secrecy. Called a “private party for friends and family” by one White House official, the bash featured a lengthy set by Prince and a cameo by Stevie Wonder, and it was kept so under the wraps — before and after — that it quickly became one of the year’s most talked-about pop shows.
The reason for the event remains unclear – the best guess is that it was a thank you to supporters. Prince, a longtime Obama favorite, was already scheduled to play a show in D.C. the following night, and according to one source close to one of the guests, “It wasn’t connected to a birthday or anniversary. Prince was playing in D.C. and Obama is a big Prince fan and thought about doing something around it.”
The centerpiece of the evening was a two-hour performance by Prince and his band that included, among other songs, “Raspberry Beret.”
When Prince invited up Wonder, the two shared keyboards on a version of Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and one other jam. “Prince’s set was unbelievable,” says Taylor. “The energy was incredible. It was loud and everyone was on their feet and it was electric. It was definitely a funky kind of groove.” After that, DJ Cassidy — the celeb-favorite DJ who’s spun at Jay Z and Beyoncé’s wedding and Obama-connected events — cranked classic Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Earth, Wind & Fire songs into the night.
According to various sources, among those listening and dancing were musicians (Taylor, Jon Bon Jovi, Ciara, accompanied by her boyfriend, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson), media friends (Al Roker, Gayle King, the Rev. Al Sharpton), Hollywood creative types (Chappelle, Tyler Perry, actresses Angela Bassett and Connie Britton of Nashville, and director Ava DuVernay). Taylor’s wife Kim, who joined her husband, is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and Taylor himself performed at Obama’s 2012 inauguration. Some of the same guests, including Taylor, Bassett, and Wonder, were also invited to Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday in the East Room last year.
However, the White House declined to release a guest list for the evening, and at least one of the entertainers in attendance had to sign a non-disclosure form agreeing not to talk about the event. Nearly every guest invited to the party who was contacted by Rolling Stone declined to comment on the party, including Bon Jovi, who made a special trip to D.C. for the event. “He’s observing the private nature of event — just not commenting,” Bon Jovi’s rep told RS.
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The party was so under the radar that word didn’t leak out until Sharpton excitedly tweeted that night: “Leaving the White House party w/POTUS and FLOTUS. Awesome to see Prince and Stevie Wonder on keyboards together. Unbelievable experience.” In doing so, Sharpton — who also declined to comment further — inadvertently broke the news of the party to the world.
At the daily White House press briefing two days later, press secretary Josh Earnest was grilled on why the administration didn’t “verify the event” until after it was over — and even then only reluctantly. Earnest called it “a non-public event that occurred at the White House” and added, “Given the private nature of the event, I don’t have a lot of details to discuss from here.” He also declined to comment on rumors that the Obamas had tried to recruit Prince for one of his campaigns but confirmed that the Obamas personally paid for the event.