Remembering the time Aretha Franklin’s stunning performance brought Barack Obama to tears

Her performance of '(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman' brought the room to a standstill in 2015

Aretha Franklin has died at the age of 76. She was an icon for feminism, the civil rights movement and the greatest soul singer of her generation – and the latter point lives on in the her timeless renditions of soul classic such as ‘Respect’, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman’. The power of that final track is evident in the video below, which illustrates what a powerful, moving performer Franklin remained in later life.

On December 6, 2015, the Queen of Soul made an appearance at the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors, an America awards ceremony that recognises achievements in performing arts. Carole King, who co-wrote ‘(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman’ for Franklin in 1967 and later included her own version on her 1971 smash-hit album ‘Tapestry’, was up for an award. The Obamas were in attendance, but it was Aretha who stole the store, taking to the stage to deliver a spellbinding performance of ‘Natural Woman’.

It brought both Barack Obama and Carole King – who can barely contain her astonishment at what was happening – to tears. If you can get through the performance without shedding a tear, you’re a tough cookie indeed. Obama said: ““American history wells up when Aretha sings. Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.” 

It’s a fine way to remember a singular talent. Her soaring vocal during the song’s final, jubilant flourish is so astonishing that it brought the entire audience to their feet. Yet the performance is jaw-dropping from the get-to. In fact, the camera cuts to Obama wiping away a tear before she’s even finished the first verse, by which time King looks like she’s about explode. Another moment of joy: when she holds a note, allowing it to undulate, and Obama does a fist pump. RIP the Queen.