Musicians In Chief
(The following is a feature from "The Music And Politics Issue" of GRAMMY magazine.)
It surely ranks as one of the most subliminal re-election pleas in the history of the U.S. presidency. At a fundraiser last January at the world-famous Apollo Theater in New York, President Barack Obama suddenly glided into song, crooning a verse from Al Green's 1971 hit "Let's Stay Together." The president’s surprisingly pleasant falsetto elicited approving squeals from attendees, some of whom might have been unaware that Obama had just issued a bluesy appeal for "four more years."
Proving it wasn't a fluke, a month later Obama sang "Sweet Home Chicago" alongside legends Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Mick Jagger.
Though he never formally studied music, these performances served as the latest examples of a president demonstrating musical skill, with Obama joining a distinguished list of musically talented presidents such as John Tyler (1841–1845), Harry S. Truman (1945–1953), Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974), Bill Clinton (1993–2001), and Warren G. Harding (1921–1923), who once boasted that he "played every instrument but the slide trombone and the E-flat cornet."
But while musical ability is sometimes a presidential talent, the nature of its role has changed dramatically. For presidents such as Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) and Tyler, music was a hobby and a form of relaxation. In their era, there were no PA systems, microphones, TVs, or social networks that could potentially promote their musical talents to a wider audience.
Now, thanks to the enabling wonders of modern technology, musical skill can play a more important role for presidents and presidential hopefuls. Nixon reached out to his conservative base in 1974 by playing a rousing piano interpretation of "God Bless America" at the 1974 opening of the new Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. For his classic 1992 performance on "The Arsenio Hall Show," presidential hopeful Clinton donned sunglasses and rendered a raspy saxophone rendition of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel."
According to presidential historian Barbara Perry, music can help politicians appear folksier and more approachable.
"It all depends on where a candidate is starting from," says Perry, who is a senior fellow and associate professor for the Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia. "If he's starting from a personality trait that's viewed as aloof, music helps bring him down-[to-earth] and makes him look more human. If it's someone like Nixon who feels inferior and is almost considered to be too much 'of the people,' music kind of lifts him up in status."
Jefferson appears to have been America's first musical president. The Virginian was "nearly always humming some tune, or singing in a low tone to himself," according to the late president's plantation overseer, Edmund Bacon.
A man of many interests, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and assembled a 10,000-book library, more than half of which was sold and became the foundation for the Library of Congress. Yet despite his all-encompassing genius, music topped Jefferson's list of interests. The Founding Father once described music as "the favorite passion of my soul." Though he played some cello, Jefferson's first musical love was the violin. Perry says Jefferson very likely used his musical chops to impress visiting dignitaries.
"Music must have been a major part of him entertaining himself, his large family and the many important visitors who came through [his home]," says Perry. "It was part of Thomas Jefferson being a Renaissance man."
Described as a "gifted violinist," Tyler performed at White House parties and often performed for guests during his retirement. Tyler is so associated with the violin that a statue of him holding the instrument stands today in Rapid City, S.D.
A century after Tyler's term, the White House welcomed Truman, its first real presidential piano man. As a child, Truman rose at 5 o'clock each morning for two-hour practice sessions. As president, he helped pioneer the use of music for media exposure and image enhancement.
At a Missouri county fair in 1945, the president charmed a group of Methodist women by pounding the ivories and joking, "When I played this, Stalin signed the Potsdam Agreement." Later that same year, controversial photos emerged of starlet Lauren Bacall sitting atop a piano while Truman played.
"Talk about being involved with celebrities," says Perry. "He must have thought, 'Hey, I'm cool! Lauren Bacall is lounging atop my piano.'"
By the time Nixon began his political ascent in the '50s, television had captivated the nation. Music was Nixon's lifelong passion — in his 1990 memoir, RN: The Memoirs Of Richard Nixon, he wrote that playing music gave him more pleasure than writing a book or speech in adulthood.
Having struggled most of his political career to soften his public persona, TV helped Nixon reveal his more human side. Performing a self-composed piano concerto in 1963 on "The Jack Paar Program," Nixon appeared in his comfort zone. "[Nixon] tickles the ivories with full orchestral accompaniment — and even more astounding, manages to come off as relaxed, funny and even slightly charming," Time magazine wrote of the performance.
It would be nearly two decades before another musical president would take office. Clinton learned to play tenor saxophone during his school years in Arkansas, even winning first chair in the state band's sax section. Yet as he noted in his 2004 autobiography, My Life, "I loved music and thought I could be very good, but I knew I would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz … I knew I could be great in public service."
Clinton may not have pursued a professional music career, but his televised saxophone performance helped earn him the youth vote and the 1992 election. Judging from his recent public singing performances, the lessons of Clinton and his performing presidential forebears are not lost on Obama.
"Music gives candidates that linkage to the people," says Perry.
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)