Barack Obama remembered the “singular sound” of Ray Charles at the final White House “In Performance” event of his presidency. The show featured performances from Usher, Demi Lovato, Brittany Howard, the Band Perry and more.
The entire Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House is available to watch above (though the show doesn’t begin until 1:25:46 in). The event will also air on PBS stations February 26th at 9 p.m. ET.
In his opening remarks, Obama recounted Charles’ remarkable life and career, from his difficult, impoverished upbringing in the segregated South to becoming one of the world’s most prolific and influential musicians. Obama praised his ability to break musical barriers by blending gospel, jazz, R&B, rock & roll, blues and country, and cultural ones, including Charles’ refusal to play segregated venues in the Sixties.
“Whatever genre of music he was playing, there was no mistaking his singular sound,” Obama said. “That virtuoso piano playing that matched that one-of-a-kind voice. Even as a young man, he had the rich, raw-honey tone of an old soul. No matter the feeling, whether it was love, longing or loss, Ray Charles had the rare ability to collapse our weightiest emotions into a single note.”
R&B stars Andra Day and Anthony Hamilton kicked off the performance portion of the evening with a rousing rendition of “Let the Good Times Roll.” Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard followed with the gospel-tinged “Unchain My Heart,” after which Lovato delivered a sultry, brassy, “You Don’t Know Me.”
Elsewhere, Usher sang one of Charles’ signature tunes, “Georgia on My Mind,” Empire‘s Jussie Smollett tackled “I’ve Got a Woman” and the Band Perry hit “Bye, Bye Love.” Lovato, Howard, Day and gospel star Yolanda Adams later teamed for “Heaven Help Us All.”
And despite his earlier insistence that he wouldn’t sing that night, President Obama was the first person out of his chair and dancing during Usher’s closing performance of “What’d I Say,” gamely taking part in the track’s indelible call-and-response.