Beyoncé’s Performance at Obama’s Inaugural Ball Sparked a Controversy With Etta James

What happens when two queens of music get into a public spat? The world found out when Beyoncé performed at the 2009 inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

During her performance, Beyoncé did a cover of “At Last,” one of the most well-known songs by the late musician Etta James. And when James was asked what she thought about Beyoncé using her song, the gospel singer had a few choice words for the former Destiny’s Child star that raised eyebrows and sparked a global celebrity feud.

Beyoncé covered Etta James’ famous song ‘At Last’ at Obama’s inaugural ball

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Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States on January 20, 2009. That evening, Obama and his wife Michelle Obama attended ten different inaugural balls, reports the Los Angeles Times

The Neighborhood Inaugural Ball was the Obamas’ very first stop, where they did their first dance as president and first lady. “The Obamas were serenaded by Beyoncé,” reports CNN. “Beyoncé sang Etta James’ ‘At Last,’ from her role in the movie ‘Cadillac Records’ as the couple laughed and took their first spin around the dance floor.”

Observers say it was a stunning performance, and that Beyoncé got emotional as she sang. According to NME, Beyonce was so moved by the experience that she had “tears in her eyes” while she sang James’ hit track.

It wouldn’t be Beyoncé’s last time performing for the Obamas. According to The Guardian, they also invited her to sing at his second inauguration. But her performance at the 2009 inauguration caught the media’s attention in part due to the reaction from Etta James. 

Etta James had a few choice words about Beyoncé covering her song

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James is a “gospel prodigy,” reports Biography.com. According to the site, she’s been nominated for numerous Grammy awards, and was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the early 1990s. So it only made sense that the media wanted to know what the queen of gospel thought about the performance by Queen B.

And James did not mince words.

During one of her performances at Seattle‘s Paramount Theatre, the Guardian reports that James made fun of Obama’s “big ears” and said that he wasn’t her president. “He might be yours, he ain’t my president,” she reportedly said.

But James didn’t just criticize Obama. She also critiqued Beyoncé singing her song at the inauguration. 

“I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song — she’s going to get her ass whupped,” said James in the Guardian story. And she wasn’t done. The publication said she continued, saying: “”The great Beyoncé. I can’t stand Beyoncé. She has no business up there, singing up there on a big ol’ president day, gonna be singing my song that I’ve been singing forever.”

Etta James later said she wasn’t being serious when she sparked the controversy

US singer/songwriter Beyoncé
US singer/songwriter Beyoncé | ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

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There was immediate coverage around the world about the feud between James and Beyoncé. But the Guardian also points out that James’ son said his mother was actually a fan of the inauguration performance, and was simply upset that she wasn’t able to attend it in person because she was recovering from surgery. 

“She was [just] a little down that she wasn’t well enough to be there,” he said in the Guardian.

In a report published by Today, James herself said people took her quote out of context and she was merely joking.

“I didn’t really mean anything,” said James, pointing out that she’s always been a jokester since she was a young kid. “Nobody was getting mad at me in Seattle,” she explained. “They were all laughing, and it was funny.”