When retired Sgt. Major Tony Cardenas answered his brown rotary phone one day in late 1988, Barbara Bush was on the line.
The incoming first lady of the United States wanted to ask Cardenas, who handled operations for The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” a favor: she wanted then Staff Sgt. Alvy Powell to sing the national anthem and “God Bless America” at her husband’s inauguration.
“I answered, she identified herself as Mrs. Bush, and I was floored,” said Cardenas. “I thought it might be a prank at first. But she was always a sweet lady, (it was) like talking to an aunt. When she found out during the conversation that I was from Texas, she talked to me like a neighbor.”
It was assumed that a member of The United States Marine Band would perform the national anthem at a presidential inauguration. They were after all, “The President’s Own.”
But the U.S. Army Chorus had performed for official functions at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., many times during George H.W. Bush’s term as vice president. Barbara Bush was familiar with the group and was moved by Powell’s rendition of “Old Man River.”
“We had been invited to sing before, but this time, I performed ‘Old Man River’ and did what I do,” said Powell, who would later become internationally famous for his interpretation of the song. “I looked up, and she was teary eyed. She took out her handkerchief and dried her eyes.”
After that night, the U.S. Army Chorus performed for the Bush’s dozens of times over the next four years. When Bush won the 1988 presidential election, Barbara Bush wanted the best for the ceremony. She knew Powell could perform the national anthem live, without singing along to a prerecorded version. To make sure there was no miscommunication, she decided to make the call herself.
“I walked into the band hall in January of 1989 after Christmas leave and the person on staff duty just said, ‘Have you heard?’ Have I heard what?” Powell recalled. “When I found out it was true and Mrs. Bush called here herself and requested my voice, I pinched myself.”
Over the years, the U.S. Army Chorus kept in touch with the Bush family and performed for some of their major milestones including the dedication of George Bush’s Presidential Library, and the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary in the East Room of The White House.
In late February of this year, Powell was personally invited by Barbara to visit their home in Texas.
“I thanked them for supporting the Army Band all these years,” Powell said. “I wanted them to know that phone call changed the trajectory of my career and my life forever.”