Ceremonies accompanying the quadrennial U.S. presidential inauguration have changed significantly since George Washington delivered a private address to Congress and danced the minuet at his 1789 inauguration, with festivities later stretching across multiple days and expanding to include each era’s biggest names in arts and entertainment. Here are 10 of the most memorable inauguration performances in recent decades:
Marian Anderson (1957)
In an acknowledgment that the times were a-changin’, Dwight Eisenhower invited Black opera star Marian Anderson to sing at his second inauguration, 18 years after her rejection from D.C.’s Constitution Hall led to a legendary outdoor performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson subsequently delivered a flawless rendition of the national anthem in front of the commander-in-chief, showing that a Black woman could represent the country just as well as the white men invited to the stage that day, and paving the way for performers of all colors to welcome future presidents into office.
Robert Frost (1961)
The Frank Sinatra-produced inaugural gala featured an impressive roster of talent that included Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Kelly, but the enduring moment of the year’s events came when Robert Frost, the first poet invited to partake in an inaugural event, attempted to read an original piece for John F. Kennedy. Unable to make out the words amid the glare of the sun, the 86-year-old instead began reciting his Depression-era ode to American exceptionalism, “The Gift Outright.” It was an effort that encapsulated both the thrills and dangers of live performing, with Frost’s stumble and improvisation to right the ship providing some extra heart-pumping juice to the otherwise formal proceedings.
James Brown (1969)
Twelve years after Anderson broke ground with her pitch-perfect national anthem, James Brown took inaugural race relations to the next level during the All-American Gala at D.C.’s National Guard Armory. It was a night that reflected both the accomplishments of the civil rights battles and the work still to be done, as President-elect Richard Nixon was kept from attending due to security concerns, but Brown nevertheless ignited the audience with his patented theatrics, with Jet reporting how even the white audience members joined the Godfather of Soul in singing along to “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Linda Ronstadt (1977)
Although she had campaigned for her Democratic candidate boyfriend Jerry Brown, and subsequently swore off public political involvement, Linda Ronstadt agreed to sing at the 1977 inaugural concert for Jimmy Carter. Her choice of the Willie Nelson-penned “Crazy” seems a little odd in hindsight, even when considering that it was her most recent single, but Ronstadt ultimately delivered a mesmerizing version of the sultry classic, overcoming her nerves-induced shakiness at the beginning to again demonstrate the built-in unpredictability that comes with the assignment to entertain an entire country.
The Beach Boys (1985)
The Beach Boys‘ inclusion in Ronald Reagan‘s second inauguration came with a juicy backstory, as both he and wife Nancy Reagan had sided with the band in their public spat with ex-secretary of the interior, James Watt. As such, the good vibrations were apparent throughout their performance at the 1985 inaugural gala, from the participation of oft-troubled but revived leading man Brian Wilson, to their choice of “The Hearts Were Full of Spring,” an a cappella number that showcased their still-unparalleled harmonizing abilities and honored the enduring love between the president and his wife.
Chuck Berry and Friends (1993)
For all the musical heavyweights that took part in Bill Clinton‘s festivities, including Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and a reunited Fleetwood Mac, the standout performance came when Chuck Berry zipped through a medley of hits at the inaugural gala alongside a group that included fellow rock pioneer Little Richard and Stephen Stills. Unlike other all-star assemblages that can produce stilted and awkward results, this one caught fire, with the audience clapping and laughing along to altered lyrics like “We wanted change and we got much more – Bill Clinton, Hillary and big Al Gore!”
Maya Angelou (1993)
On the flip side, there was no laughter to be heard when Maya Angelou followed Clinton’s inaugural address a few days later with her original poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.” The first poet to read at an inauguration since Frost in 1961, Angelou sounded similar notes of optimism while somehow wrapping the entire history of life on earth, through the forgotten songs of nature and the ills of humankind, into the essence of a new day’s greeting. Unaware of the poem’s content until he heard it with the rest of the audience, Clinton was bowled over by the result, later calling it “an eternal gift to America.”
Ricky Martin (2001)
Not far removed from the peak of Rickymania, Ricky Martin went all out at a Lincoln Memorial rally for George W. Bush with “The Cup of Life,” the erstwhile song of the 1998 World Cup that had been co-opted by the Bush campaign. His appearance was not without controversy – “The Cup of Life” co-writer Draco Rosa accused Bush of using Latinos as “pawns” – but Martin did his best to make the performance a joyful one with his megawatt smile and flamboyant moves, and even managed to coax a hip thrust out of the incoming president.
Aretha Franklin (2009)
A veteran of inaugural events for Carter and Clinton, Aretha Franklin saved her defining presidential performance for Barack Obama‘s arrival when she belted out “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at the 2009 inauguration. Franklin later bemoaned her vocal struggles in the frigid weather, telling Larry King that “Mother Nature was not very kind to me,” but the Queen of Soul still managed to slay the crowd on a self-proclaimed off-day, her showing rendered iconic with a little help from her felt hat and its giant, rhinestone-lined bow.
Finally, there’s no forgetting the time a beaming Beyoncé sang the Etta James standard “At Last” as Barack and Michelle Obama eased their way through a slow dance at the 2009 Neighborhood Ball. While the political honeymoon would soon come to an end, the dance marked the culmination of a centuries-long struggle, a Black man celebrating his historic rise to the American presidency with his beloved partner in life. “I’m so proud of my country,” Beyoncé said afterward, fighting back tears. “At last he’s here, and it was all worth it.”