There is something about music that touches our hearts and reaches places within us that nothing else can. Of course, not many musicians can boast that they made the President cry!
The late great Aretha Franklin, nicknamed the Queen Of Soul, appeared onstage at the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. The Honors are awarded to performing artists who have made a substantial contribution to American culture. It is a prestigious show, and being asked to perform is an honour.
Aretha was not receiving an award herself that night; she had already been honoured 21 years earlier, in 1994. She performed during the tribute to Carole King, one of the most successful and influential female American songwriters of all time and an honouree that night. Aretha strolled onto the stage and blew everyone away with her performance of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
She first released the song in 1967, when it shot to number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 2 on the Billboard R&B charts. It has been covered numerous times since, including by Carole King in 1971, but it will always be Aretha’s version that everyone remembers. It’s one of her signature tunes.
Aretha swept onstage beautifully dressed in a fur coat and a beaded cream dress. She calmly sits at the piano and starts to play, and the crowd goes wild. Carole King watches open-mouthed as that rich, soulful voice fills the hall. As she continues her gorgeous and effortless performance, the audience is transfixed. Very quickly, Barack Obama can be spotted wiping away tears, visibly moved by her performance.
At the end of the song, Aretha leaves the piano and comes to centre stage. She ends the song with a flourish, and the audience explodes. Everyone leaps to their feet, screaming, cheering and applauding. Barack and Michelle Obama and Carole King are three of the most enthusiastic participants in this standing ovation.
President Obama spoke about the effect Aretha’s performance had on him in an interview a year later:
“..When she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles’ 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.”
Aretha Franklin is one of the best-loved and most successful soul singers of all time. Her music touches everyone who hears it deeply, which explains why she sold more than 75 million records and won 18 Grammys, the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Following her death, the world paid tribute to her blazing talent, and the guest list at her funeral was a who’s who in music. Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan were all in attendance, along with former president Bill Clinton. Aretha’s name and her music will never be forgotten. Check out this incredible performance now.