President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle paid tribute to soul music pioneer, Ray Charles, on Wednesday night (Feb. 24) at the White House for the taping of Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House. Airing Friday, an eclectic string of artists came out to honor the fallen musician with special performances from Usher, Demi Lovato, Jussie Smollett and more.
The POTUS opened the night with a moving speech about Charles' rough upbringing in the segregated and poverty-stricken South, the influence of having a strong mother figure in his life, as well as, the impact he had on the music industry.
He went on to describe the "Georgia on My Mind" as an artist who encompassed nearly every genre by integrating gospel, jazz, country, R&B, rock 'n' roll, soul, and pop into his songs. Despite promising the audience that he would not be singing, President Obama just couldn't help himself. He led the crowd in a sing-a-long to kickoff the special.
"Whatever genre of music he was playing, there was no mistaking his singular sound: that virtuoso piano playing that matched that one-of-a-kind voice," Obama said. "Ray Charles had the rare ability to collapse our weightiest emotions into a single note. He couldn't see us, but we couldn't take our eyes off of him"
He wasn't the only one to lend his singing talents for the crowd. The show also included performances from contemporary artists like Yolanda Adams, Anthony Hamilton, Leon Bridges, Andra Day, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, The Band Perry, Sam Moore, with Rickey Minor as executive music director. Some of Charles' children witnessed the tribute in the audience, along with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
This will be the last "In Performance" event the Obamas will host during his administration. They have hosted dozens of musical events during his term. The crowd playfully booed him when they realized this was his final round in office.
"Over the past seven years, Michelle and I have set aside nights like this to celebrate the music that shaped America," Obama said, adding that it had become one of their most-cherished traditions. "I will not sing. But for our last one, it is fitting that we pay tribute to one of our favorites."
Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House is scheduled to air on Friday (Feb. 26). To catch the hour-long nationwide tribute, tune in at 9 p.m. ET.