The CCM pioneer used to talk faith with George H. W. Bush and Billy Graham. This year, he performed at both of their memorial services.
Michael W. Smith’s hit song “Friends” has been sung thousands of times over the decades, but never quite like today’s performance at the funeral service for President George H. W. Bush at the National Cathedral in Washington.
Not only was Smith backed by a full orchestra and a 150-person choir, but he also sung it as a personal farewell to the leader who, to his surprise, became his longtime friend and fan. Bush died on Friday at age 94.
“First and foremost, I hope the song is very honoring of the president because he loved the song,” Smith said in an interview with CT. “The last time I saw him, when we said goodbye, he gave me a hug, pointed his finger in the air, and with a twinkle in his eye, said, ‘Friends are friends forever.’”
The contemporary Christian music (CCM) chart-topper first played for President Bush in the White House after a Christmas special in 1989. They struck up a friendship that led to regular visits to the late president’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine; relationships with the rest of the Bush family; and even travel together.
“He’s just been an inspiration to me,” the three-time Grammy winner said. “We didn’t talk about politics much. But we did have a lot of conversations about God and faith.”
“One thing that tied us together was his relationship with Billy Graham. There were times we would get Billy Graham on the phone and talk,” Smith said, remembering them standing on the deck conversing with the late evangelist, whose memorial service and funeral the singer performed atearlier this year.
Bush requested “Friends,” his favorite song of Smith’s, for his funeral. Smith sang an arrangement with the Armed Forces Chorus, the National Cathedral Choir, and the United States Marine Orchestra.
Smith described the 41st president—a lifelong Episcopalian—as a humble leader and a man of deep faith: “He was so kind. He was gentle. He was for the underdog. If he did something great, he never bragged about it.”
The singer-songwriter also became close with Bush’s sons George W. and Jeb, before either had set their sights on running for governor or president. The first time Smith met George W. Bush, Smith beat him and the senior Bush in a doubles tennis match. “I thought, ‘I’ll never be back,’” he said.
But Smith went on to sing during a White House prayer service for George W. Bush’s presidential inauguration in 2001—the first time he ever performed “Above All”—and for Jeb’s inauguration as governor of Florida. (The younger President Bush calls him “the real dubya.”)