Top 10 Musical U.S. Presidents

Keep Houston Press Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Houston and help keep the future of Houston Press free.

"The future of our nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music."

- Gerald Ford

Today is President's Day, and if you'll think back to high-school U.S. History, you'll remember that potential Commanders In Chief must be at least 35 years of age, natural-born American citizens and permanent residents in this country for at least 14 years. Musical talent is nowhere on that list, but that unfortunate fact hasn't stopped several tunefully gifted men from taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Some of them may surprise you. Herbert Hoover, 19th-century balladeer?

10. Barack Obama: Although our current chief executive's own musical gifts have so far been limited to some pretty lyrical speeches, he became the first Grammy winner to be elected president after taking home Best Spoken Word Album in 2007 for his memoir Dreams From My Father. (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton won the same award, but after leaving office.) The Prez is also buddies with Jay-Z and Beyonce and, according to People magazine, has a soft spot for Dylan's Blood On the Tracks and Springsteen's Born To Run.

9. Lyndon B. Johnson: Like many other future presidents, the greatest Texan to ever sit in the Oval Office's schoolboy pursuits leaned more toward debate and journalism than music. Nevertheless, while he was Senate Majority Leader - the best ever, according to many historians - he, no doubt indelicately, pushed through legislation that somehow made it legal for him to purchase a handful of Austin radio stations while still in office, albeit technically in his wife's name. Today, KLBJ-FM has enjoyed a long run as one of the Southwest's leading rock stations, and its namesake also signed the National Endowment for the Arts into existence in 1965.

8. Woodrow Wilson: The staid, professorly League of Nations founder was a member of the Virginia Glee Club in his younger days, as well as a somewhat accomplished violinist. Small wonder, then, that according to Edward Spann and Michael E. Williams' book Presidential Praise: Our Presidents and Their Hymns, he said "Music now more than ever before is a national need" at the height of World War I.

7. Herbert Hoover: Hoover is generally thought of as one of the most personality-free presidents of all time, perhaps because not a whole lot of people know he wrote the following rather ribald lines to an Austrailian barmaid while a twentysomething gold-mining engineer in the late 1800s: "I have fought my fight and triumphed, on the map I've writ my name/ But I prize one hour of loving, more than 50 years of fame. " These words were published the 1965 volume Great Australian Folk Songs; read the entire story here.

6. John Quincy Adams: The only son of a president to hold the same office as his father until Jan. 20, 2001 studied the flute at Harvard in the 1780s - not very well, by his own admission in a diary entry you can bid on here: "I am extremely fond of music, and by dint of great pains have learnt to blow very badly the flute. But could never learn to perform upon the violin, because I never could acquire the art of putting the instrument in tune."

5. Harry S. Truman: "Give 'Em Hell Harry" practiced the piano for a solid two hours a day until age 15. He continued tickling the ivories in the White House, when not firing unruly generals, desegregating the armed forces and fending off both Thomas E. Dewey and errant Chicago Tribune headline writers.

4. Andrew Jackson: Old Hickory and wife Rachel were said to be quite adept on both guitar and banjo. The hootenannys the couple hosted at The Hermitage (above), their home outside Nashville - whose poplar-lined driveway is supposedly patterned after a guitar - made the Tennessee state capital into Music City long before Roy Acuff and the Grand Ole Opry showed up.

3. Warren G. Harding: Generally thought of as one of the worst presidents in history, Harding was also one of the best musicians. At age 18, his Citizens' Cornet Band won third place and $200 in the Ohio State Band Festival, enough to cover the cost of their uniforms - which, foreshadowing some of his more suspect financial transactions later in life, Harding had bought on credit.

It was said Harding could play anything but the trombone and clarinet, and he certainly lived like a rock star - hosting whiskey-fueled White House dinner parties at the height of Prohibition and reportedly getting it on with his mistress in a closet not far from the Oval Office.

2. Richard M. Nixon: He bonded with Elvis over their shared distaste for hippies, reason enough to put him on this list. According to George Washington University, the famous photo of their meeting not only inspired a movie, but is the National Archives' No. 1 requested document.

However, "Tricky Dick" turned out to be as deft with the piano keys as he was at the arts of manipulation and subterfuge. Before he said "Sock it to me!" on Laugh-In, Nixon showcased his keyboard skillz on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar (above) and the Grand Ole Opry, and serenaded none other than Duke Ellington with "Happy Birthday" at a White House reception for the jazz legend in the early '70s.

An accomplished accordionist, Nixon also gave rise to one of the most important operas of the last 50 years, John Adams' Nixon In China, which premiered in Houston in 1987 and was recently revived to widespread acclaim at the Met in New York.

One more to go... think you know who it is?

1. Bill Clinton: How could anyone else top this list but the world's most famous saxophone player? Clinton is himself a FOB (Friend of Bono), his famous Arsenio Hall appearance single-handedly won him the 1992 Democratic nomination, his player ways endeared him to rappers far and wide (if not Hillary), and he showed an early knack for diplomacy by convincing Fleetwood Mac to let bygones be bygones and get back together to play his 1993 inauguration. Bubba's Secret Service code name was "Elvis," for God's sakes, and he also inspired the following joke:

Did you hear the one about Al and Tipper Gore making pillow talk one night after a state reception at the White House? Al, of course, was the center of it all, but he was telling Tipper that he couldn't wait to live in the White House. He knew it was a most prestigious place, but had never realized how opulent it was. He even told her about the gold urinal in the executive bathroom.

Tipper found that a bit difficult to believe, so she called Hillary to confirm the story. That night as Bill and Hillary were making pillow talk, Hillary said, 'Bill, honey, I think I know who pissed in your saxophone last night.'

Happy President's Day!

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.