Richard Nixon's Impromptu Piano Recital

National Archives // Oliver F. Atkins
National Archives // Oliver F. Atkins / National Archives // Oliver F. Atkins

Richard Nixon isn't considered America's most charming president. He certainly wasn't even in the running for that honor at the height of his Watergate controversy, which is where he was on this day in 1974. Seven of his former administration officials had been indicted less than a week earlier, and the grand jury had named Nixon as a co-conspirator.

But on this day, 42 years ago, he still had a job to do, and that involved hosting White House dinners for various groups and supporters. On March 7, Nixon welcomed the National Governors’ Association, including then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan. Singer and Nixon supporter Pearl Bailey—whom Nixon had dubbed the official “Ambassador of Love”—provided the entertainment for the night.

During the festivities, Bailey pulled the president up on stage—and he was more prepared to participate than most would have been. Unbeknownst to many, Nixon was an accomplished musician who could play the piano, accordion, violin, saxophone, and clarinet. He even wrote his own concerto titled “Richard Nixon Piano Concerto #1.” Nixon showed off his skills on the Jack Paar Program in 1961:

So when Bailey asked him to perform with her that night, he obliged.

“You don’t play as well as I sing,” the singer told him. “But I don’t sing as well as you govern.” Undaunted, Nixon banged out a couple of somewhat basic tunes, starting with “Home on the Range.”

“Mr. President, I wanted to sing a song, not ride a horse,” she told him. Obligingly, he moved on to “Wild Irish Rose” and “God Bless America” and participated in some playful banter as they worked through the tunes.

Reagan pronounced the performance "absolutely tops," while the Washington Post called it “The Dick and Pearl Show,” acknowledging that the president had managed to draw attention away from “Watergate, the energy crisis, troubles in the Middle East and the economy.” And, he was rather charming—at least for one night.