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Five presidents and their musical moments

One hosted Elvis at the White House. Another channeled Al Green. And guess who had the best stereo in town?

President Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson at Nelson concert fundraiser for Carter’s re-election campaign in 1980.
President Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson at Nelson concert fundraiser for Carter’s re-election campaign in 1980.Carter Presidential Library

Here’s one for your virtual trivia night: Quick, name one thing the 21st president of the United States was known for.

If you said “Chester A. Arthur played the banjo,” you would be correct. (If you know that, or anything else, about Chester A. Arthur, you might want to get out in the fresh air a little more.)

It’s safe to assume old Chet wasn’t tearing it up, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”-style. But his devotion to the instrument does put him on the short list of musical presidents. In the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, that list would include Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln, both of whom played the violin, and Calvin Coolidge, who blew a little harmonica.

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Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Silent Cal with “Whammer Jammer.”

You may have missed it — there’s been some other stuff in the news lately — but over the weekend the Biden-Harris team released its “America United” playlist to coincide with this week’s inauguration. Given its wry celebratory flavor, ranging from Vampire Weekend’s “Unbelievers” to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” we’re going to go ahead and guess that the list is a smidge more Oakland than Scranton.

Still, like a few presidents before him, Biden surely knows that sometimes you just have to turn up the volume to drown out the noise. Here are five Commanders in Chief who commanded a stereo or two in their day.

JOHN F. KENNEDY Born in 1917, the 35th president was more of a musical theater guy than a child of rock ‘n’ roll. But his short life and tragic death were seared into the consciousness of the baby boom generation, and beyond. “My mother cried when President Kennedy died,” Sting sang on the Police’s “Born in the ’50s.” (“We lost our faith and prayed to the TV,” he adds, ominously.)

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President Barack Obama sings a line from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" during a 2012 campaign event at Harlem's Apollo Theater.
President Barack Obama sings a line from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" during a 2012 campaign event at Harlem's Apollo Theater.AP/Associated Press

BARACK OBAMA Plenty of folks remain wistful about the time he crooned “Let’s Stay Together.” But before and during his two terms, the 44th president often entertained crowds with other favorites, from a few bars of “Sweet Home Chicago” during a White House tribute to the blues to Aretha’s “Chain of Fools,” which is not about his predecessors.

BILL CLINTON Yes, yes, he dusted off his old band-practice saxophone to play “Heartbreak Hotel” on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” In a Variety review of “Bill Clinton: Rock & Roll President” (1997), the magazine noted that the 42nd president had musical tastes that dug much deeper than his mother’s beloved Elvis, including jazz, gospel, and blues: “Only things left out are the waltz and the gavotte.”

President Richard Nixon hosts Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970.
President Richard Nixon hosts Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970.

RICHARD NIXON A classically trained pianist, the eventual 37th president once played his own Piano Concerto #1 on Jack Paar’s short-lived primetime TV show. In the Oval Office he welcomed Elvis, who was hoping to get an honorary badge as a narcotics agent; he brought along his Colt .45 for Show and Tell. But it’s Tricky Dick’s proficiency on accordion that has broken into our imagination. Given his downfall, we could see him making a whiskey-soaked guest appearance with the Pogues.

JIMMY CARTER In the new documentary “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” Gregg Allman recalls his band’s first meeting with the upstart candidate. Carter was shirtless, tugging on a bottle of J&B. That’s a much louder image than the ones we typically call up when we’re thinking of the mild-mannered diplomat from the peanut farm. But Carter aligned himself with many of Southern rock’s big names — Charlie Daniels, the Marshall Tucker Band — and he invited Willie Nelson to the White House. The president’s son, Chip, says his father’s favorite instrument was “the stereo. When we had no money at all, Dad spent $600 on the best stereo in Plains, Georgia. Huge speakers — I mean, it would blow you out.”

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Carter, who is 96, has said he won’t make it to Washington for Wednesday’s inauguration. Maybe he can send those speakers to repel some of the outgoing noise.

Email James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.