After Aretha Franklin died Thursday at 76, Barack and Michelle Obama paid tribute to the late music icon, saying she “helped define the American experience.”
“America has no royalty. But we do have a chance to earn something more enduring,” the Obamas said in a statement.
“For more than six decades since, every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine.”
“Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience,” they said.
“In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade — our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect,” the Obamas said.
“She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human,” they said. “And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”
The former president was a big fan of Franklin’s, and the two met many times over the years. At his presidential inauguration in 2009, she sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
Former Obama White House staffer Alyssa Mastromonaco said Thursday that Obama hadn’t needed a moment to think when asked who he wanted to perform at his inauguration.
“I don’t talk a lot about private conversations me and @POTUS44 ever had,” tweeted Mastromonaco. “But when I started a conversation with him about talent for the first inaugural he cut me off and said “Aretha.’”
Obama was making his Franklin fandom known even before he was elected. At a 2008 campaign stop in Detroit where Franklin was present, Obama sang a few lines of “Chain of Fools.”
Franklin would later sing at the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in 2011, where then-president Obama gave a speech.
She performed at the Obamas’ "Women of Soul" White House concert in 2014, along with Melissa Etheridge, Patti LaBelle, Janelle Monáe, Ariana Grande, and others.
At the concert, Obama called Franklin’s “Respect” “a rallying cry for African-Americans, women and then everyone who felt marginalized.” (He also flubbed spelling "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," earning laughs from the audience.)
On Thursday, Michelle Obama remembered the White House performance, tweeting that it “made time stand still.”
She also sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at a farewell ceremony for former attorney general Eric Holder in 2015, which Obama attended.
The two even shared a fist bump.
Franklin’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center in 2015 prompted president Obama to openly wipe tears from his eyes.
Obama later told the New Yorker it moved him so deeply because “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,” he said.
“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,” he said.
Obama pondered “what other artist had that kind of impact.”
“Dylan. Maybe Stevie, Ray Charles. The Beatles and the Stones — but, of course, they’re imports. The jazz giants like Armstrong. But it’s a short list,” he said.
“And if I’m stranded on a desert island, and have 10 records to take, I know she’s in the collection,” he said. “For she’ll remind me of my humanity. What’s essential in all of us.”
Obama closed with a word of advice.
“Here’s a tip,” he said. “When you’re deejaying a party, open with ‘Rock Steady.’”