As a 21-year-old Aretha Franklin worked on her singing voice in New York during the summer of 1963, her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, raced to finish the final touches on the planned March on Washington.
Nearly five decades later, Franklin found herself in Washington and performing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the inauguration of the nation’s first black president.
It wasn’t the first time she sang to a Leader of the Free World.
Throughout her career, the “Queen of Soul” often returned to the nation’s capital for performances that at times put her in line with key moments of U.S. history. She sang for diplomats, welcomed emperors and brought one president — Barack Obama — to tears. Franklin accepted many honors and performed for charities and civil rights groups in Washington. She even got in one heated argument at the White House with another unnamed diva that resulted in the two performers reportedly exchanging obscene gestures toward each other.
For the Memphis, Tennessee-born, Detroit-raised Franklin, it’s not surprising she found herself in Washington late in her career. Franklin surrounded herself with the politics of the day and often referenced her experiences alongside episodes of U.S. history in speeches, interviews and her 1999 autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots.”
She noted in her book, for example, that she was born three months after Pearl Harbor and her father backed Democrat Adlai Stevenson for president in 1956. “Daddy was a staunch, lifelong Democrat, as I am,” she wrote.
Franklin also mentioned that family passed down tales about the historic treatment of African-Americans, from slavery to sharecropping — something she’d never forget. “My grandmother, whom we all called Big Mama, had worked the fields herself and told us stories of those difficult days,” Franklin wrote in her autobiography. “No matter how much cotton you picked, you always owed the man.”
After Franklin found success, she began to make money. “I was intent on enjoying it,” she said. “I tithed and gave to many charities, including Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, the NAACP, Operation PUSH, UNICEF, and Easter Seals.”
Franklin hit the scene as soul and rhythm and blues had supplanted jazz as the preferred music of young African Americans. Performers like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald, though respected and admired, were falling out of favor among the younger generation. As a leader in the new soul movement, Franklin gain credibility and Democratic groups and civil rights organizations sought her out for performances that eventually landed her in Washington or near political centers of power.
In 1968, Democrats asked her to sing the national anthem at the Democratic convention in Chicago. As she prepared to sing, police and anti-Vietnam war protesters clashed in the street. Franklin performed although she famously forgot a few lines.
Then the disco era came, and sales of her albums fell. Like soul singers Ray Charles and Nina Simone, she performed overseas in places like Paris and London.
Franklin returned to the spotlight in 1977 during nationally broadcast “Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Gala” in Washington. In her first performance for a president, she sang “God Bless America.”
But it was through the election of President Bill Clinton that Aretha Franklin’s career experienced a resurgence. Both Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton told Aretha they grew up on “Respect” and loved soul. “To have a fellow baby boomer — a bubba and a saxophonist to boot — in the White House, well, let the party began,” Franklin said. In a violet-tulle-and-silver Bob Mackie evening gown, Franklin performed at two inaugural balls and on the inaugural telecast. It was during the Clinton celebration that Franklin said tempers flared over an “innocuous statement” she made about another diva’s escort and the pair of singers got in a heated argument under “one of the great works of art in one of the historic rooms” of the White House, Franklin wrote.
“As we sashayed away from each other, our parting gesture was the finger,” she said.
While Clinton was in the White House, Franklin sang in the Rose Garden during a visit by the emperor and empress of Japan.
In 1994, Franklin returned to Washington, becoming the youngest artist to receive a Kennedy Center honor. Fellow honorees included actor Kirk Douglas and folk singer Pete Seeger. Fellow diva Patti LaBelle performed in Franklin’s honor.
President George W. Bush, a Republican, awarded Franklin in 2005 the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award.
Four years later, the Queen of Soul was back in Washington, performing for Obama, the nation’s first black president. Her grey outfit and supporting grey hat dotted with Swarovski crystals, designed by Luke Song, became an Internet sensation and an early meme.
Franklin would perform in front of the Obamas again in 2015 during a Kennedy Center Honors in Washington to honor songwriter Carole King. King has penned the song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” that was a huge 1967 hit for Franklin.
Then 73, and much slowed, a fur draped Franklin sat at the piano. The Obamas sang along until Franklin got up from the piano midway through her performance, dropped the fur and belted out notes during the height of the song. Honorees George Lucas, Cicely Tyson, Seiji Ozawa, and Rita Moreno joined the crowd in rising up.
President Obama began to cry.