Three years ago at the Kennedy Center Honors, a 73-year-old Aretha Franklin took the stage in a floor-length fur coat, sat down at the piano and brought President Obama to tears. Her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” was so rousing that it elicited a standing ovation a full minute before she was even done singing. It would last for just as long after she lowered her mic and bowed. Obama was among the thousands standing for the first lady of soul, and as she sang, the camera caught the president and the first lady swaying their heads and pumping their fists to one of the nation’s greatest living musicians and the woman Rolling Stone named the Greatest Singer of All Time.
Franklin died Thursday morning at the age of 76, her publicist confirmed to the Associated Press. She was at her home in Detroit, surrounded by friends and family, who had been with her throughout the week. The cause was pancreatic cancer. Franklin’s health had been in decline for most of 2018. She announced in February that it would be her last year touring, and a month later canceled a string of performances, citing health concerns.
“In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart,” her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn, said in a statement. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”
The aforementioned 2015 performance at the Kennedy Center Honors will likely endure as the defining exchange between Franklin and Obama, but the president’s love for the Queen of Soul is a thread that can be traced through most of his career in public service, from the tail end of his presidency back to when he was on the campaign trail in 2008. After that historic campaign ended, Franklin was there at the National Mall when Obama was inaugurated in January 2009. She sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and though he wasn’t bobbing and weaving like he was during the Kennedy Center Honors just under seven years later, Obama stood with his chin up, resolute as Franklin paid homage to the “holy light” of freedom that shines within the nation he would soon swear to protect. Again, Obama looked as if he were fighting off tears.
One of the charms of Obama’s time in office was his appreciation of popular music, especially anything with soul. During a 2012 campaign fundraiser at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, he famously sang a few bars of Al Green’s “Let’s Get Together.” A few months later he brought B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger and a host of other legendary musicians to the White House to perform. As they cued up the opening chords of “Sweet Home Chicago,” Guy convinced Obama to take the microphone and pay tribute to their adopted home city. “I heard you singing Al Green,” Guy said after pointing to the mic. “You done started something, you gotta keep it up now.”
From 2009, when he sang Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” during a Democratic rally in New Jersey, to 2016, when he chimed in — and then ultimately led — a performance of “What’d I Say” during a White House tribute to Ray Charles, Obama was never shy about expressing himself through song. The most powerful example of his vocalizing came during the funeral for South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was killed along with eight others when on June 17th, 2015, Dylann Roof opened fire in a Charleston church. After reflecting on the idea of grace, the president paused, bowed his head, and began singing “Amazing Grace.” Everyone in attendance stood up and joined him. Where President Trump has largely refused to acknowledge arts and culture in America, Obama was a champion of the artistic community. He regularly invited artists to the White House, released playlists of his favorite music and has shared a stages with everyone from Willie Nelson to Lin Manuel-Miranda. He has embraced the cultural leaders of the future like Chance the Rapper, while honoring those who have passed. When Prince died in 2016, Obama released a statement — not just a tweet — mourning the loss.
Franklin was of course among the many musicians Obama welcomed to the Washington. Just a few months before the president would sing “Amazing Grace” at Pinckney’s funeral, he hosted a celebration of the gospel tradition at the White House, headlined by the Queen of Soul and the Morgan State University Choir. It wasn’t so much a concert as a religious experience. Despite a broken air conditioner that left many in the room dripping with sweat, an inspired Franklin invoked a higher power for nearly 30 minutes. Obama stood clapping along in the front row before eventually taking the stage. “We’ve been to church tonight,” he said. “It feels like old-time religion here. Air conditioner broke. Women all fanning themselves.”
“That’s getting it the old-time way,” replied Franklin before accepting a program from the First Lady to cool herself off with. Obama remained onstage to dance and shake hands with the other performers as Franklin closed out the performance with an inspiring call-and-response rendition of “Lord Lift Me Up.”
No performer stood closer to the core of Obama’s love of music, an in turn his love of America, than Aretha Franklin. When New Yorker editor David Remnick emailed Obama after her performance at the Kennedy Center Honors later that year, the president didn’t hold back in his response:
“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 — the same way that Ray Charles’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”
After she died on Thursday, the Obamas released a statement commemorating Franklin’s life:
There was a good reason, then, why Obama wanted Franklin to sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at his inauguration in 2009, a watershed moment for the prevalence of hope in America, and a shining triumph for the determination of the African-American community. Her voice rang louder and longer than any of her contemporaries, representing both the struggle and the “beauty and vitality and hope” it can yield.
Just a few months before that performance, a not-yet-elected Obama was stumping during a campaign stop in Detroit when he decided to acknowledge Franklin’s presence in the audience. You can probably guess what happened next.
“I wasn’t going to do that,” the future president said after wrapping up the chorus, “but—”
Then he trailed off. Unable to articulate exactly what compelled him, all he could do was smile.
This post has been updated to include the Obamas’ statement on Franklin’s death.