In America, politics and music have been tied together since the very beginning. Benjamin Franklin played multiple instruments, including the violin, harp and guitar, and he even invented one: the glass harmonica. Thomas Jefferson, who played the violin, used music to woo his wife, Martha, who played the piano. To honor this long and varied tradition, we've compiled a list of Americans who have blended music and politics, organized by entertainment value (not necessarily talent level).
18. As the first woman to ever serve as U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno deserves our respect. However, her rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Respect" at a fundraiser in 2006 was terrible. Here's arguably history's least enthusiastic performance of the hit song:
17. Before his political career, a young John Kerry was a student at the prestigious St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, where he rocked out on the bass guitar with his prep school peers in their band, The Electras. In 1961, the band recorded an album in their school's basement and made 500 copies of it (one of the copies sold on eBay for $2,551 around the time of the 2004 election). Because of the magic of the Internet, you can hear the entire eponymous album on Pandora. Unfortunately there are no videos of the band performing, but here's the audio for their track "You Can't Sit Down":
16. Tennessee has a very rich musical history, so it's unsurprising that their former governor, Lamar Alexander, has some musical talent himself. The current U.S. Senator began taking piano lessons when he was a young child and went on to win multiple competitions. Here he is for NPR performing "Tennessee Waltz," which is one of the several official songs of the state, in 2008:
15. President Harry S. Truman was a pianist. As a child, Truman practiced two hours a day until he was fifteen years old. In fact, Truman once said that, if he had the talent, he would've become a pianist over a politician.
14. On top of being the first female National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice was the first female African-American Secretary of State. And on top of that, she's an excellent pianist. At age 15, she performed Mozart with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. In fact, until she concluded that she didn't have the talent to play professionally, her original college major at the University of Denver was piano. Ultimately she switched her major to political science, which I'd say, given her successful career, was probably for the best. She still plays quite often and in 2002 she performed with National Medal of the Arts-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Constitution Hall. Here she is in December of 2008 playing Brahms for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace:
13. In his 79 years of life, Orrin Hatch has learned to play the piano, violin and organ, managed bands, promoted concerts and written poems. On top of that, he's composed many songs, from spirituals to love songs to patriotic melodies like his "Heal Our Land," which was performed at George W. Bush's second inauguration, to "Souls Along the Way," which he wrote for Ted Kennedy and his wife (the song was also featured in the movie Ocean's Twelve). The Mormon even wrote "Eight Days of Hanukkah" (seen below), because, as he told The New York Times, "Anything I can do for the Jewish people, I will do."12.
Former Governor of UtahJon Huntsman
was once a high school dropout playing the keyboard for a rock band called Wizard. He eventually went back and finished his education and went on to find success in business and politics, but he didn't give up music altogether. In August of 2011, then-candidate Huntsman performed "Hit the Road Jack" at a town hall meeting in South Carolina. Then Representative and now Senator Tim Scott, who sang along with Huntsman, dedicated the song to Obama. (There are a lot of cheesy songs on the list, but this has to be one of the cheesiest. "Hit the Road Jack"? Really?)
11. Successful in both music and politics, John Hall served two terms as a U.S. Representative. But back in 1972, Hall co-founded the soft rock band Orleans. In 1975, Orleans' single "Dance with Me," which Hall co-wrote, found mainstream success, even reaching #6 on Billboard's Hot 100. Here he is with the rest of Orleans in 2010 playing "Dance with Me":
10. Mike Huckabee: Governor of Arkansas, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, best-selling author, Southern Baptist minister and, yes, bass guitarist. When Huckabee was 11 years old, he got his first guitar for Christmas. Soon after, he began getting lessons from a Pentecostal pastor in his hometown. By age 12, the future politician and his first band were playing dances and talent shows. While serving as Governor, he formed Capitol Offense, as his band is known. They've played charity events, both of W.'s presidential inaugurations, and opened for acts like Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick and Grand Funk Railroad. On his own show, he performed the hit song "Pour Some Sugar on Me" with Phil Collen of Def Leppard. How many Baptists ministers have done that?
9. President Bill Clinton inspired rap lyrics and entire songs. But the former Governor of Arkansas is most famous, musically, for his prowess on the saxophone. Observe:
8. The late Sonny Bono is what this list is all about. On the political side, he served as the Mayor of Palm Springs and later as a U.S. Representative. On the musical side, he found a great deal of success alongside his wife Cher, with whom he recorded hit songs and hosted variety shows. Here's his hit "I Got You Babe" with Cher (unfortunately, he didn't wear outfits like this while in Congress):
7. Retired four-star general Colin Powell was the first African-American to serve as the Secretary of State. But he's also up to date on his pop music. Luckily, it seems clear that Powell has no misconceptions about his (lack of) talent, so we're laughing with him instead of at him. So before you check out him singing a remix of "YMCA" in a construction outfit, enjoy Powell belting out Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" with CBS This Morning co-host, Gayle King, in June 2012:6.
The longest serving senator in the history of our country, West Virginia's lateRobert Byrd
personified many of the stereotypes of the state. He even campaigned at times as "Fiddlin' Robert Byrd," and, givenhis history with the Ku Klux Klan
, it might not have been the worst thing he could have promoted about himself. In 1978, he recorded a bluegrass album titledMountain Fiddler
, and he's performed on prestigious stages like the Kennedy Center and the Grand Ole Opry. Here is his rocking an old television show with "Pop Goes the Country":
5. One of the many figures mentioned in Billy Joel's third-biggest career misstep Richard Nixon, recorded more than just secret conversations. Nixon started playing the piano and violin in first grade. The only President to ever resign from office appeared on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar on March 8th, 1963, where he performed his own composition:
4. Former Nebraska Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey doesn't have the world's most beautiful voice. But given his history, his acapella version of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" (see below) is actually quite moving. The song, written in 1971 by Scottish-born Australian Eric Bogle, is a somber account of a young solder who is injured during World War I. Kerrey served as a Navy Seal during the Vietnam War, where he earned a Medal of Honor, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Concerning some of his actions during the war, Kerrey told The New York Times, "It's far more than guilt. It's the shame. You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don't think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that's the memory that haunts." So it's hard to be unaffected when Kerrey sings, "The young people ask me, "What are they marching for?" / And I ask myself the same question."
3. Politicians have a rough history with rap music. But times are changing. President Obama has called and texted Jay-Z. Senator Marco Rubio isn't shy about his love for hip-hop either. (His favorite rap songs are N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton," Tupac's "Killuminati" and Eminem's "Lose Yourself.") But not all politicians are taking hip-hop's backseat. Trey Radel, freshman U.S. Representative from Florida's 19th district, has made his own beats. Unfortunately, the congressman, who admits that he's just "a rookie" and "not really good," doesn't have time to make beats any more (you know, because of that whole 'governing' thing). But he still follows hip-hop. The 37-year-old husband and father, who's also worked as a bartender and journalist, also recently reviewed Jay-Z's new album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail, on Twitter. Unfortunately, he sent his beats exclusively to Esquire, so we couldn't embed them. Here's the NowThis News interview with the DJ, who also plays acoustic guitar, where he discusses his love of hip-hop, especially Public Enemy and Tupac:
2. John Ashcroft has an accomplished political career; the U.S. Attorney General during George W. Bush's first term has also served as the Governor of Missouri and a U.S. Senator. The Republican also has an often-mocked career in music. He wrote (and has performed) "Let the Eagle Soar," which was performed by Guy Hovis at W.'s second inauguration. Not only mocked by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Michael Moore and David Letterman, the former Attorney General's song was even criticized by his employees; one Justice Department lawyer bluntly said that the song "really sucks." But before he went solo, he was a part of "The Singing Senators," along with (then) Senators Larry Craig, James Jeffords and Trent Lott. His group performances (complete with super hip and cool dance moves) have also been lampooned, but judge for yourself:
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
1. Before she was a reality-TV star, the first female Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, the Governor of Alaska or a mayor, Sarah Palin was Miss Wasilla in 1984. Sarah Heath, as she was then known, placed third in the Miss Alaska pageant and won the Miss Congeniality award. Luckily for us, during the talent part of the competition, she played the flute. And, yeah, it's as awesome as you'd expect:
What do you think of our list? Who's the best? Who's the worst? Who'd we leave off?