Gershwin Prize event at White House:
A really big night for Sir Paul McCartney
By Chris Richards
June 3, 2010
Hope may have gotten him elected, but in President Obama's White
House on Wednesday evening, it was all love. The reverent,
paralyzing, smile-until-your-face-cramps kind of love -- all of it
aimed at Paul McCartney.
Arguably the most influential musician alive, the 67-year-old pop
architect was in the East Room to receive the Library of Congress
Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, celebrating an unparalleled career
that spans his years with the Beatles, Wings and on his own.
"In a few short years, they changed the way we heard music," Obama
said of the Beatles before presenting McCartney with the prize. He
added that he was "grateful that a young Englishman shared his dreams
The president also welcomed an array of artists to perform
McCartney's tunes and genuflect before the maestro. Stevie Wonder,
Dave Grohl, Faith Hill, the Jonas Brothers, Jack White, Elvis
Costello, Emmylou Harris, Herbie Hancock, Corinne Bailey Rae and
classical pianist Lang Lang each offered thoughtful reads on the
But McCartney was the first to perform, and despite feigning nerves
at a Tuesday news conference, he waltzed into the East Room as if it
were his living room. He dived into "Got to Get You Into My Life,"
plunking away on the same Hofner bass he played on "The Ed Sullivan
Show" in 1964 -- his once-boyish yelp now an older, coarser shout.
Wonder came next with "We Can Work It Out." His 1970 version is the
only Beatles cover ever to top the original. But the first take was a
wash -- someone had misplaced Wonder's harmonica. "I don't see it!"
he joked. With Take 2, Wonder tucked McCartney's melodies deep into
the pocket. The cover still wins.
Wonder and McCartney would duet later in the program with "Ebony and
Ivory," but first came Rae and Hancock for a poignant take on the
Beatles' "Blackbird." Recorded in 1968, it was McCartney's gracefully
melodic response to ugly racial discord then festering in the United
States. Rae sang it for its author and for America's first black
president with an elegance befitting the moment.
McCartney sang along as heartthrobs-in-his-image, the Jonas Brothers,
delivered a punchy "Drive My Car." (A few seats down from McCartney
in the front row, an even more enthusiastic response: glowing smiles
from Sasha and Malia Obama).
There was somber balladry, too. "I'm going to be playing the sad
song," Harris said before a delicate "For No One," while Jack White
of the White Stripes sang "Mother Nature's Son." His voice quivered
-- half affectation, half butterflies.
Costello took a crack at "Penny Lane," a song written about a place
not far from where the singer grew up. Costello said that when his
family first heard the song, "My dad, my mam and the cat all stood up
and took notice."
Grohl romped through the Wings-era hit "Band on the Run" -- but not
before shouting out his hometown Washington roots. He also called
McCartney his hero, and added, "Mr. President, you're my other hero."
By the time the song's third movement arrived, Grohl was roaring
through the most assured and raucous selection of the night.
Earlier in the day, performers emerged from the White House for
interviews on the front steps, with traces of Wonder's rehearsal
seeping out the front door.
Grohl arrived first and flashed back to countless childhood weekends
spent listening to the Beatles' greatest-hits albums (the blue one
and the red one). "It's how I fell in love with music," said the lead
Foo Fighter and Nirvana alum. "It's the foundation of my musical being."
Others cited intense and early bonds with McCartney's work. "We used
to sing his music in school like hymns," said Rae, a 31-year-old who
grew up in England. Harris reminisced with a soft smile about seeing
the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan." Hancock said his first exposure came
later, when he saw Beatles album jackets strewn across the floor of
Miles Davis's apartment.
McCartney, who will celebrate his 68th birthday in a few weeks, was
accepting a relatively young award. Named in honor of songwriting
giants George and Ira Gershwin, the prize was established in 2007 to
honor la-la-la's the same way the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
honors ha-ha-ha's. Paul Simon won a Gershwin in 2007 and Wonder was
honored in 2009. McCartney is the third recipient.
WETA filmed Wednesday's program, but it won't air on PBS until July
28. The 60-minute performance will also be intercut with archival
footage, puffing it up to 90 minutes.
They shouldn't cut a note from McCartney's closing suite. "I hope the
president will forgive me if I sing this song," he quipped after
Obama presented him with the Gershwin, and began crooning "Michelle."
During the I-love-you-I-love-you-I-lovvvve-you, the president leaned
over to sing into the first lady's ear.
When it was over, McCartney joked under his breath, "I'm gonna be the
first guy to get punched out by a president."
Then, "Eleanor Rigby," "Let It Be" and "Hey Jude" -- followed by what
felt like endless applause.
A sweet moment, but McCartney topped it off with a bite. After
thanking the Library of Congress one last time, he let it rip: "After
the last eight years, it's good to have a president that knows what a
A review of Paul McCartney's performance at the White House.
Paul McCartney photos in Washington.
The long and winding road of Paul McCartney's career that led to his award.
Video of McCartney receiving his Gerswin award and acceptance speech.
Was John Lennon really superior to Paul McCartney?
Defending McCartney's White House Gershwin Award
By Jim Beviglia
June 2nd, 2010
I can hear the snickers now from the critics who have been sharpening
their knives for years. A songwriting award for Paul McCartney?
After all, it's always been fashionable to knock his supposedly
simplified lyrics or to have a go at his solo career, and there are
some folks who steadfastly contend that McCartney was the inferior
half of the Lennon/McCartney combo.
So when Sir Paul stepped up to accept the Library Of Congress'
Gershwin Award for Popular Song at the White House Wednesday evening
with President Obama looking on, those same critics suddenly found
more fodder for outrage. As a Beatlemaniac myself, I'm here to tell
those doubters they need to take another listen, because Paul
McCartney is as deserving as they come.
Let's take on some of the criticisms one by one. First of all,
there's the misconception that McCartney can't write lyrics. The same
people who make this criticism usually have a narrow view of
lyric-writing, feeling that the more complex the words, the better
the result. But while McCartney doesn't go for the lyrical depth of a
Dylan or a Costello, his attention to metrical flow is unrivaled in
rock or pop.
That's why, when coupled with his prodigious melodic talents, his
Beatles' classics roll off the tongue with such sing-along ease.
Maybe Paul could never write "Like A Rolling Stone", but I don't
think Dylan could write "All My Loving" either.
And Jerry Seinfeld the man who gave us "master of my domain"
agrees. "Sir Paul, you have written some of the most beautiful music
ever heard by humans in this world," Seinfeld said at the ceremony,
which included performances from the Jonas Brothers, Faith Hill,
Stevie Wonder and McCartney's own, "Got to Get You Into My Life."
Now about that solo career. Maybe the biggest drawback about
McCartney on his own is that he lacks a good editor. That has
resulted in a lot of so-so songs slipping onto disc throughout the
years, leading to some mediocre albums. I'll concede that. But you,
cynical ones, then have to concede in turn that his string of solo
singles in the '70s and '80s is pretty staggering, especially
considering that those songs more than hold their own with the
Beatles' classics in Paul's set lists.
Plus, Band On The Run, Tug Of War, and Flowers In The Dirt are all
consistently excellent albums from the solo oeuvre. Most amazing of
all is the fact that, deprived of any radio play for many years now,
McCartney has become quite the album artist, releasing a pair of
standouts, Chaos & Creation In The Back Yard and Memory Almost Full,
which have earned him some of the best reviews of his career. More
people need to hear these.
As for the eternal Team John and Team Paul camps that inevitably and
eternally square off in the Beatles fandom universe, that's a battle
that I choose not to fight. The Beatles success would have been
impossible had any of the quartet been removed from the equation.
It's de rigueur for critics to come down on Lennon's side of the
John-or-Paul debate, but is it really that cut-and-dried?
McCartney gave us "Hey Jude", "Eleanor Rigby", the bulk of the Abbey
Road closing suite, along with innumerable other Beatles' classics.
That's a pretty hefty legacy. I'm not denying John's fantastic
output, both with and without the band, but Paul's efforts shouldn't
take a backseat to anything.
It's human nature to dwell on what's gone. As a result, it's my
perception that, these days, John Lennon and even George Harrison are
often held in higher regard, as songwriters, than Paul McCartney.
That's an argument for the ages. But this moment at the White House
(which was taped to be broadcast on PBS July 28) is not about looking back.
It's about honoring a man who has given us a colossal amount of
unforgettable music. Anyone who wants to argue that point, well,
don't bother with 'em.
Save your breath to sing along to your favorite McCartney tune, if
you can possibly narrow it down.