Donald Trump's Inaugural Blues: Producers Behind Bush, Obama Presidential Celebrations Offer Analysis

Lee Greenwood, Jackie Evancho & Sam Moore
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Lee Greenwood, Jackie Evancho & Sam Moore

It's the worst-kept secret in a town that loves a good one: president-elect Donald Trump's inauguration is visibly lacking superstar wattage. The blustery New York real estate mogul can continue claiming that he's not interested in big-name acts and A-list guests for Thursday (Jan. 19) and Friday's (Jan. 20) inauguration festivities (even as he boasts that "the biggest celebrities in the world" are on the list), but the relentless headlines about artists refusing, resisting and reneging on what is arguably one of the biggest quadrennial bookings tell a different story.

Why has it been such a hard slog to get commitments for an event that is supposed to unite the country in celebrating the peaceful transition of power? Could it have something to do with the instant, often unforgiving pace that news travels with in 2017, which might be shining a brighter light on a booking process that has never been so public? Billboard spoke to the producers of all-star events for the past two presidents to find out.

"There's never been an inauguration like this one, [and there's] nothing I did or anyone else has done that can compare to it," Emmy-winning veteran event producer George Schlatter states unequivocally to Billboard.

The man behind the 2001 and 2005 inaugural opening ceremonies for Republican president George W. Bush -- which featured appearances from Ricky Martin, Jessica Simpson, 98 DegreesPatti LaBelle, Muhammad Ali, Ryan Seacrest and Susan Graham --  says the Trump coronation is the first in his memory that has featured "hand-to-hand" combat in assembling a roster of performers. (A spokesperson for Trump's inaugural planning team did not return Billboard's requests for comment on this story.)

"It's a very strange situation," Schlatter says, noting that when he was working on the second Bush celebration he explained to the acts he sought out that "it's not going to be about the president, it's about the country and not an explanation or alibi for the man." After that, the producer explains, "It got much easier and we got everyone we were after."

Now, however, he says, due to Trump's often combative nature -- not to mention his recent Twitter-slamming of beloved actress Meryl Streep and civil rights icon John Lewis -- it appears to have gotten personal, and that's really "too bad."

Presidential inaugurations have traditionally been a time when the country can come together after a bruising White House race that almost always leaves bitter feelings on both sides, especially in the last five contests. That, however, doesn't appear to be the case in 2017. According to reports and statements from the artists themselves, artists as far-ranging as Elton John, Charlotte Church, KISS, Moby, Rebecca Ferguson, David Foster, Andrea Bocelli, Garth Brooks, Céline Dion, Idina Menzel, Marie Osmond, Paul Anka and the Bruce Springsteen cover act the B-Street Band have all either pre-emptively turned down an invite or made themselves unavailable for the former Celebrity Apprentice host's big day.

It's a bit confounding for another legendary event producer: Don Mischer, who put together the galaxy of superstars for the 2009 "We Are One" event celebrating President Obama's first inauguration. While Mischer tells Billboard that he hasn't really been following the reported Trump difficulties, he says the logistics of putting together a glittery inaugural party are a nightmare -- but in his experience, "It's not hard to put those shows together in terms of booking." 

On almost no budget and a meager guarantee of two modest hotel rooms (with none of the traditional cash for travel, glam squads, personal sound technicians, etc.) Mischer managed to get performances at "We Are One" from a double-digit tally of huge names, which ran the gamut from Beyoncé and Bon Jovi to Garth Brooks, Renée Fleming, John Legend, U2, James Taylor, Usher, Stevie Wonder, Pete Seeger and Josh Groban, and even included readings by Jamie Foxx, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington and many other marquee actors. He also got them to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a bitterly cold January day in 2009, waiving their typical contractual requirements for the privilege.

"We had no problem finding artists who wanted to take part in it even though we were outside in the winter, over a three-day period where the temperatures were between 22 and 25 degrees, with bitter wind blowing," said Mischer, pointing out the unseasonably balmy temperatures predicted for the Inauguration this upcoming Friday. Back in 2009, it was so cold, Mischer's team had grates installed on the stages to blow warm air on the performers just to keep them from freezing up. "We got full cooperation from everybody," he recalls. Of course, that galaxy of stars turned out for the historic day celebrating the nation's first black president, while Trump will take office after losing the popular vote by nearly three million, and with historically low approval ratings for an incoming commander in chief.

And, contrary to the stereotype of a major event producer as a phone-slamming heavy who calls in favors and strong-arms managers/agents to get their acts to show up for the president-elect, Mischer said that is not how it works for inaugurals. "You can't arm-twist people and get them to do something they don't want to do," he says. "If they don't want to do something there's nobody who can convince them to do it... When it comes to an inaugural gala, I don't care if you are a manager, relative or business partner, the artist has to want to do it to go through with it." 

The worst thing you can do, in fact, says Mischer, is cajole an act into participating and push them out onto a stage they don't feel comfortable on, whether it's because they're not prepared, not feeling it, or worried about the potential backlash and impact on their brand. Both he and Schlatter speculate that the latter might be the most crucial impediment the Trump team has faced in trying to land big names in an era when instant pushback on social media (not to mention alleged death threats faced by on-then-off-the-bill Broadway star Jennifer Holliday) can scare artists who fear offending potential ticket/album buyers.

"The artistic community has always shown up for every charity event, every cause... but this has been difficult because [Trump's team has] done everything to drive a wedge in the artistic community, and I don't know how you repair that," says Schlatter, who has executive produced all-star tributes to Muhammad Ali and Sammy Davis Jr., and produced the 1984 Salute to Lady Liberty special. "What's in it for them [the artists]? A lot of criticism from the industry."

Mischer agreed, saying that a number of the acts who have either reportedly been approached and turned down the invite or who've accepted it and then dropped out due to the heat likely had people around them warning that they might be doing lasting damage to their brand. Associating with a president-elect who has bragged that his event will draw the world's biggest stars -- even as he takes pains to mock and Twitter troll some of them on a weekly, sometimes daily basis -- might not be good for business. "They're telling them, 'you have to play it safe, go down the middle,'" Mischer says.

"You can't be too opinionated, you can't take a chance offending people, and in the world we live in, it's all heightened by the fact that you can communicate anywhere in the world in seconds," Mischer adds. "Anything said is immediately seen around the world, and the impression I've gotten is that there are just so many people who don't feel comfortable being party of a Trump celebration."

Though the Trump team has kept the line-up close to the vest up until the last moment, there will, of course, be some recognizable talent in the mix -- along with a healthy dose of cover bands and relatively unknown musical acts -- on Thursday and Friday. Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down, The Piano Guys, Lee Greenwood, DJ RaviDrum, The Frontmen of Country, Chrisette Michele and actor Jon Voight are expected at Thursday afternoon's  "Make America Great Again!" welcome celebration. Tonight's Inaugural Gala is slated to feature country acts Big & Rich and rapper Cowboy Troy, with appearances by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and tough-talking conservative sheriff David Clarke.

America's Got Talent runner-up Jackie Evancho is slated to sing the National Anthem at Friday's inauguration, which will also feature the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Friday night's scaled-down (from Obama's 10) series of balls will reportedly feature sets from "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" star Tony Orlando, standards cover act Tim Rushlow & His Big Band, Sam & Dave's Sam Moore, and the Rockettes, as well as a number of lesser-known groups, such as The Silhouettes, Circus 1903, Cache Olson, Pelican 212, Lexi Walker and Erin Boheme at the Liberty and Freedom Balls.

No doubt due to the notoriously thin-skinned future tweeter-in-chief, the failure to secure A-listers for this week's events has become a running gag on late night TV, with Golden Globes host Jimmy Fallon joking during his monologue last week that even the legendarily off-key wannabe-opera singing star of Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep, natch) "wouldn't [even] perform at Trump's inauguration."

The Late Late Show host James Corden piled on as well, noting this week that the B-Street Band had dropped out due to their respect for Springsteen's opposition to Trump. "You know it’s bad when even a cover band is like, 'We don’t want to compromise our artistic integrity like that,'" he quipped. "The celebrities attending are so non-famous, they’d probably get cast on Celebrity Apprentice."

Does it even matter? After all, Trump advisor Boris Epshteyn pooh-poohed the reports about the talent drain, telling CNN last month, "This is not Woodstock. It's not Summer Jam. It's not a concert. It's not about celebrities." While his boss seems to think otherwise -- and protest events on Saturday (Jan. 21) have drawn commitments for attendance (and some performances) from such arguably higher-profile names as Maxwell, Janelle Monae, Katy Perry, Cher, Chelsea Handler, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Moore and support from Beyoncé --  Mischer says the whole thing kind of just bums him out.

"It's disturbing for those of us who've lived a long time, and who remember the days when no matter who won the election, it was a celebration of the most powerful nation on the earth going from leader-to-leader," says the 15-time Emmy winning producer of everything from Super Bowl halftime shows by Prince and the Rolling Stones to the Kennedy Center Honors and Olympic Games opening ceremonies. "Nobody gets paid anything and it's not like a job. You do it for some other reason... maybe because you have an album coming out, but generally because you want to be part of that moment."

It's too late now, but what if someone had come to Schlatter last week, or the week before, asking for help in turning up the wattage? "Nobody has reached out and I'd be the wrong guy anyway," he laughs. "They won't go to the people who know how to do it because they'd tell them 'Shape up you schmuck!' And they don't want to hear that."

President Donald Trump Inauguration