Perhaps only Paul McCartney could call a performance at the White House a little club gig.
In June, McCartney was awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, an honor bestowed by the Library of Congress. Accepting it, McCartney performed in the East Room of the White House for President Barack Obama and the first family, who sat front row center.
Guests including Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, the Jonas Brothers, Jack White and others taking turns playing Beatles classics. Jerry Seinfeld summarized the choice of McCartney for the Gershwin simply as “duh.” PBS will broadcast the concert as part of its “In Performance at the White House” series on Wednesday (8 p.m. EDT).
For the 68-year-old rock ‘n’ roller, the evening was clearly meaningful. He sang “Michelle” to Michelle Obama, adding that he hoped the president wouldn’t punch him out. For the first time, he performed “Ebony and Ivory” live with Stevie Wonder. And he performed one of the more star-studded singalongs of “Hey Jude,” complete with the Obamas joining onstage.
McCartney was so fond of the concert – which he called “a little club gig” – that he has already rewatched it, and plans to again. Sir Paul took a moment out of his North American tour to reflect on his trip to the White House.
Why was this particular gig a “biggie,” as you called it?
Paul McCartney: I’m a fan of the president. I believe that he’s been dealt a bad hand. He came into that job with a lot of difficulties on his plate that weren’t of his creation. So I was eager to meet him, being a fan of his and his wife. I had never actually been to the White House, so that was great. And the idea of playing in the White House was very interesting. We wondered what the acoustics would be like, but they turned out to be great. So we had a great time, just the event of it all. We were all very excited. From me, myself, to the lowliest crew member, we were all buzzing.
You joked that you were worried the president might punch you after you sang “Michelle.”
It was such a nice, friendly atmosphere. It was almost like a little family gathering. So I felt free to say anything I wanted to, just like he was a cousin, like a family wedding or something – just goofy stuff. We found his whole family very relaxing to be with, and I think he found us, hopefully, the same way. So it was nice on that level. And he didn’t punch me out, thank goodness.
Was playing “Ebony and Ivory” for the first black president a moment that resonated?
One of the highs was singing “Ebony and Ivory” with Stevie because we’d never done it live together, so that was great. To sing it live together for the very first time with the first black president there, it suddenly gave a great significance to the song. Sometimes you write a song in a certain era and it’s got a certain kind of significance. I don’t think I would have imagined then that it would be quite so soon that America would elect a black president. It wasn’t that soon, but it was a relatively short period of time. To sing it with Stevie in front of President Obama was very emotional. The lyrics to the song suddenly seemed to have more significance to me in that setting.
What else was memorable from your first trip to the White House?
Getting through the security of the White House. For the rehearsal, we got through fine. But for the actual gig, we were sort of not let in. At the gate we said, “We’re the entertainment.” He said, “No, you’ll have to walk around the other block.” It was heavy traffic, so we’re going, “Oh geesh. Wouldn’t you just know it.”
What was your impression of the president?
At the very end, President Obama leaves the stage and he shook hands with my longtime associate, my guitar roadie John Hammel. John was quite taken aback. The president said, “That was fun, wasn’t it? Thank you.” But then the thing that I thought was amazing was he then reached over to our keyboard technician who was a little out of the way, and he didn’t need to do that. He reached over to this guy D.J. – who is a big admirer of Obama’s – and he took his hand and he said, “Thank you, thank you.” I was blown away. For me, the fact that he reached out to my crew was very heartwarming. It takes a great man to do that. In this business, some people are just jerks.
A night like that, with fellow musicians and dignitaries, are you able to quite fathom the impact of the Beatles and yourself on music and culture?
That’s what’s so amazing: It isn’t quite possible. It’s nearly possible. I think as time goes by I kind of understand a little bit more, just the reflective lens lends a bit of clarity to it. I meet so many people that just sort of say, “I want to thank you for your music. It really helped me” or “It changed my life.” I think back and I think, well, the interesting thing about the Beatles was: The music was one thing, but we kind of symbolized a certain kind of freedom at a time when people of our generation were just growing up and just becoming adults. This idea that you could maybe do anything with your life instead of just going down the road that was laid out for you. And it affected a lot of people. It’s hard to take it in, but it’s very gratifying.
The namesake of the honor is George Gershwin, and you grew up a devoted fan of Tin Pan Alley songwriting. What do you think is the most important thing that makes a song work?
The most important ingredient to making a song work is the magic. You’ve got a melody, you’ve got words, but on the more successful songs, there’s a sort of magic glow that just happens and you can feel it happening. It just makes the songs sort of roll out. So something like “Yesterday,” which I dreamed, that was the magic – the mere fact that I had the whole thing in a dream. And in other songs like “Let it Be,” that actually came from a dream where I saw my mother in the dream. “Hey Jude” just rolls out – “The Long & Winding Road.” But the ones that have become the most successful – “Eleanor Rigby” – something about them just felt kind of magical. So I suppose I’d say the one ingredient that was special to all of them was the magic in them. Does that make sense?