Executive Entertainers: America's Most Musical Presidents
Big-money supporters were treated to the first indelible moment in Barack Obama's reelection campaign last Thursday when the President crooned the opening lyric from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" from the stage of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It was just the sort of off-the-cuff instance that can humanize a President, turning a living symbol -- however briefly -- back into a regular guy capable of appreciating a classic soul jam.
Obama's falsetto declaration of love wasn't the first time a sitting President has used music to connect to his constituency. America has always been steeped in music both refined and rough, and even the powdered wig set that birthed our nation played and enjoyed everything from Haydn to "Yankee Doodle." In honor of Obama's tribute to "The Rev," Rocks Off has put together the following list of Presidential musicians and their instruments of choice.
Ah, Bill Clinton -- the Rock 'n Roll President. In 1992, Clinton the candidate cemented his rep as a pop music personality when he showed up on The Arsenio Hall Show with his saxophone and his shades, blasting out a pleasantly surprising version of "Heartbreak Hotel." It was a star-making turn that helped Clinton capture the youth vote and make the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, seem like the oldest man alive. "It's nice to see a Democrat blow something besides the election," Arsenio quipped. Blowing would continue to figure somewhat prominently in Clinton's political career.
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Given his status as one of American history's most revered Renaissance men, it's no surprise that Thomas Jefferson liked to play a few tunes when he wasn't writing the Declaration of Independence or inventing the dumbwaiter. Jefferson played the cello and a baroque keyboard called the clavichord, but his main ax was the violin. For our third President, music was "an enjoyment, the deprivation of which...cannot be calculated." It even played a big role in the courtship of his wife, Martha, who played guitar and keys. Today, Jefferson's extensive music library is housed at the University of Virginia.
"My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician," President Harry S. Truman once said. "And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference." Several hundred thousand Japanese might have begged to differ with that sentiment, but Truman's great affinity for the piano was undeniable. Give-'Em-Hell Harry treated the nation to his talents on a 1938 Steinway during a televised tour of the White House in 1952, but he also played for more exclusive audiences. Truman tickled the ivories for Stalin and Churchill at the Potsdam Conference, which we can assume went over well enough to help usher in four decades of Cold War.
During the darkest days of World War I, Woodrow Wilson once said, "Music now more than ever before is a national need." For Wilson, that need was fulfilled by the violin. The President grew up playing it and continued to fiddle around into young adulthood. No records exist of the President playing (on YouTube, anyway), so there's no telling how good he was. Even if he was no Paganini, though, he did get into Princeton, which is the only reason kids are forced to learn the violin, anyway.
In the popular imagination, Richard Nixon's years in the White House are often reduced to a single incident: that time he was photographed shaking hands with Elvis. Tricky Dick had harbored a burning love for music since much earlier, however. A lifelong pianist, Nixon dropped his guard long enough to perform live at the Grand Ole Opry in 1974, playing a version of "God Bless America" that was so good that many Opry fans still vote Republican to this day. It wasn't his first high-profile performance: Nixon showed off a concerto that he wrote himself on The Tonight Show in 1963. He may not have been the perfect politician, but his musical talents were unimpeachable.
John Tyler holds a special place in our hearts as the first president who pushed hard for the annexation of Texas into the U.S. Maybe it was because he knew our state would one day be home to some pretty excellent music. Tyler was a big-time music lover who dreamed as a young man of becoming a concert violinist. Though history ultimately had other plans for him, Tyler still became a fine fiddler. After he retired from office, he often entertained guests on his violin at parties, accompanied on guitar by his wife Julia. By some accounts, Tyler even organized his 15 kids into a minstrel band, making him something of a 19th Century Joe Jackson.
Chester A. Arthur
President Chester A. Arthur is remembered by most Americans for two things: the baddest-ass sideburns in presidential history, and nothing. That's kind of a shame, because Chester seems like a pretty interesting guy. The former New York boss of the Republican Party, Arthur wouldn't deign to live in the Executive Mansion until it was completely refurbished by famed designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. He also liked to change his clothes several times a day for no apparent reason -- the man owned 75 pairs of pants just in case he needed 'em. Nevertheless, he also had a touch of the common man. Arthur was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed nothing more than plucking dulcet tones from his banjo. This musical predilection would later become the basis for the popular presidential TV drama, Hee-Haw.
John Quincy Adams
America's first second-generation president, John Quincy Adams, was almost certainly the only chief executive (so far) who was also a skilled flutist. He apparently took the instrument seriously enough to compose his own flute music during his studies at Harvard. Adams' musical tastes were probably informed by his extensive travels through Paris, London and Berlin, where we assume one can practice his flute without being called a sissy-boy. Though history would remember him as the man who ended the War of 1812, annexed Florida and wrote the Monroe Doctrine, the flute was perhaps not the instrument that the American public was looking for in a leader. Adams only served one term.
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