The Legacy of B.B. King

by Charles Sawyer

Lee Atwater was not the sort of man to be content with one album of music, any more than he would have been content with a one-term presidency for his boss in the Oval Office, but fate had a harsh surprise in store for him. Just when all his ambitions had become realities and he was in his prime, he collapsed at the podium during a speaking engagement and was rushed to a hospital. Eventually he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He accepted the challenge of his illness with the same fierce, fighting spirit he brought to every political campaign he ever waged.

As the tumor grew he opted for the most hazardous radiation treatment available, in which pellets of radium were thrust into the affected part of his brain, making his brain tissue radioactive. But it wasn't enough to stop the growth. Finally, after a hard-fought battle he succumbed on March 29, 1991. He was 40 years old. B.B. spoke of his own loss in these strong terms: "I felt as if I lost a son when Stevie Ray Vaughan passed unexpectedly and I feel similarly on the passing of my friend, Lee Atwater." (Jet, March 15, 1991)

There is a darker side to the story of Lee Atwater, the hottest Republican hotshot, political hatchet man for the President, which is bound to raise conflicting feelings for anyone who loves B.B. King and who is also politically aware, and that is the role Atwater played in the presidential election campaign of 1988, when he was at his height.

The 1988 campaign was particularly venomous, especially on the topic of race. Throughout most of this century the Republican Party has had little constituency among black Americans. Republican candidates have rarely had to worry that their positions on issues of social policy might lose them black votes. Given the racism that has survived in white America long after the death of Jim Crow (the mythical character who symbolized racial bigotry in America), Republican strategists have often been tempted to play the "race card." The only risk in playing that card lies in alienating white voters who might object to the implied intolerance. Any politician who could find a way to appeal to racist sentiments, without offending liberal-minded voters, would gain support from bigoted white voters who would gladly turn the clock back to a time when Walter Doris, B.B.'s school chum, now deputy sheriff of Montgomery County, Mississippi, would be wearing bib overalls, instead of a badge and gun. American pundits call this the "Bubba vote," after the Southern nickname which is a corruption of the word "brother." It conjures up the image of a red-faced, middle-aged Southern white man driving a pickup truck with a gun-rack across the rear window, a hunting dog in the passenger seat, and a Confederate flag in place of the front license plate.

In the 1988 campaign for President the Republicans found a way to woo the Bubba vote, at little cost in support among more tolerant white voters. It was accomplished under the guise of a tough-on-crime issue. The Democratic candidate for President was Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, one of the New England states. During Dukakis' term as governor, Massachusetts had a prison furlough program that allowed prisoners, some of them serving long sentences for violent crimes, to leave prison for a few days at a time without supervision, based only on their promise to return. One such prisoner was a man named William Horton, who had been convicted of armed robbery and murder, and sentenced to life without parole in 1974. Horton had been allowed nine previous furloughs and had always returned, but on June 6, 1986, he left prison on his tenth furlough and disappeared. Soon the FBI put him on its "Ten Most Wanted List." Ten months after he "escaped" from prison in Massachusetts, police in Maryland caught William Horton driving a stolen car owned by Clifford Barnes, who, with his fiancee, Angela Miller, had been kidnapped from his home. Barnes had been bound and assaulted. Miller had been assaulted and raped. Horton was tried and convicted for these new crimes, and was returned to prison, this time at the State Penitentiary in Maryland.

"Willie" Horton, as he came to be called, offered Republican strategists the chance to charge that Dukakis was so soft on crime that he had released a violent offender into the community, with a result of assault, kidnapping, and rape. Television advertisements, paid for by the Bush campaign and aired across the country, featured a menacing Willie Horton, hands cuffed behind his back, being led away by the police after his capture. For any viewer with the slightest trace of racial bigotry, Horton was their worst nightmare -- the crazed, criminal black man who invades your home, ties you up and rapes your loved one. Another campaign ad showed a line of mostly black prisoners walking near a guard tower, passing outside the prison walls through a turnstile, suggesting that leaving prison was as easy as entering the subway. To some voters the message was simple: Dukakis turned this beast loose, rather than keep him in chains where he rightly belonged, and if you elect him he will turn all their black asses loose.

The issue of crime in its various guises -- "law and order," "safe streets," "tough on crime,"-- has been a factor in national elections for decades, and often it has been recognized as a thinly veiled appeal to the racism which persists in spite of the great progress since the 1960's. But never before had the association of crime and race been so conspicuous, so blatant, so inflammatory as it was in 1988.

The architect of the Bush campaign was Lee Atwater. When political commentators called the television campaign racist Atwater dismissed the charges. He wore his combative stand, his win-at-any-cost approach to waging politics, as a badge of pride. Indeed, he made Lee Atwater the issue, a brilliant tactical move, since he, not the candidate, took all the heat. In private he boasted that he had made Willie Horton into Dukakis' Vice Presidential running mate. When the campaign was over and Bush was President-elect, the country was more racially divided than it had been since the days of the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. It seemed unlikely that we would have the "kinder, gentler nation" that Bush had promised as the fruit of his presidency.

Black Americans were quick to express their feelings about Atwater and his effect on American politics. Soon after Bush took office, Atwater joined the Board of Trustees of Howard University, the country's leading black university in Washington, D.C. Atwater was genuinely enthusiastic about the appointment and was eager to use his fund-raising talents on behalf of the university, but his appointment was short-lived. The students were so angered by his selection to the Board that 200 of them occupied Howard's administration building in protest. Atwater resigned.

There is an odd coincidence in all this which seems to symbolize how race continues to plague American politics and how out-of-the-way places provide the political scene with its most influential characters. South Carolina's old segregationist warrior, Strom Thurmond, discovers South Carolina's new master of negative campaigning, Lee Atwater, who discovers the escaped murderer, Willie Horton, born in Chesterfield, South Carolina, just six months after his own birth, and converts him into the ideal instrument to appeal to racist sentiments in the quest for the highest office. Thurmond was among the political celebrities attending Atwater's gala inaugural celebration that featured his favorite soul singers. Thurmond's skin is like parchment, his dyed-red hairline is the obvious result of a transplant and his face is a mask. The sight of this octogenarian war-horse of the Old South applauding the National Chairman, who was doing splits on stage and singing "Diddy-wah-diddy," sitting among a throng of young politicos, most of whom were not yet born when he first took a seat in the U.S. Senate, was a testament to how very strange are the juxtapositions of American politics.

The public friendship between Lee Atwater and B.B. King is another strange juxtaposition that may cause discomfort to some of B.B.'s admirers. B.B.'s great achievement is a triumph over racism and his contribution to American culture is the preservation of the blues form and its elevation to a plateau of high respect alongside jazz as a unique American art form. But questions are bound to come up. Was it a compromise of his art and accomplishment to lend his prestige to a political figure known for his toxic effect on race relations? Did B.B. King, knowingly or not, seem to acquit his powerful admirer by inviting him on-stage to trade licks? Did Lee Atwater use B.B. King to distract attention from his role as the man who made race an issue in a presidential campaign?

These are troubling questions and very unpleasant at best, but they must be addressed in fairness to B.B. King. To dismiss them or never to raise them would be to taint any summary of his life achievements. A look back at how he has handled celebrity may shed some light on the subject. From the beginning when celebrity in the white world rushed upon him in the late 1960's he has carefully and skillfully avoided politics. For example, on his first real exposure to the white press in New York around 1968 he was asked "What do you think of Ronald Reagan and what do you think of the Black Panthers?", in one breath, no less. "Well, I hear the Panthers feed breakfast to poor children and anyone who does that can't be as bad as they are made out to be," he answered, "and I think that Reagan was a pretty good movie actor." So much for any attempt to push him into politics.

To B.B. King the idea that he might reject the friendship of anyone who is so obviously and sincerely devoted to R&B;, soul and blues music because his political career is "seen by some to be antithetical to minority interests," as described in the L.A. Times (op. cit.), would be absurd. He is not one to let politics -- or race --dictate his choice of friends. It would run contrary to his most basic values on friendship and music. Isaac Hayes, who co-produced six of the songs on the Atwater/King CD, "Red, Hot and Blue," was asked if he thought it was appropriate for Atwater to join the recording scene. He laughed at the notion that there was anything wrong.

"First of all, music should be for all people," Hayes told the L.A. Times (op cit). "It should be free: No one should put a tag on music and say who's to like what. If it suits your fancy, you embrace it, and that's what that little boy from South Carolina did. I don't see it having anything to do with party affiliation."

And what would be the result if B.B. King had rejected Atwater's friendship? Blues would not have gone to lunch at the White House. Blues would not have been honored at the Kennedy Center. Blues would not have been featured at the President's inauguration. Blues would not have been featured at the 1992 Republican nominating convention when B.B. King played a concert in honor of Atwater's memory. In short, he would have lost a chance to bring the unique respect and recognition bestowed by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the music he has campaigned for, for forty years, not to mention the friendship he would not have enjoyed had he chosen to spurn his young admirer because of his politics.

And finally, as for Lee Atwater, his devotion to the music rings true in every respect. Whatever political gain he might have realized from associating with B.B. King, it doesn't diminish his good deed in elevating soul, blues, and B.B. King to new heights of respectability, nor does it dilute his sincerity. And let it be said that in promoting soul, blues and B.B. King, in particular, Atwater, paradoxically, did something positive for race relations in America. Doubtless the friendly association of Atwater and many of the best black artists is strong testimony to the power of music to transcend all differences however great they may be.

In the end, long after history has forgotten Lee Atwater, B.B. King will be remembered as the greatest blues artist of his generation and blues will be celebrated along with jazz as an American original, and a great contribution to world culture.

A complete account of B.B. King's step-by-step ascent to the highest level of American idols would be incomplete without mentioning several lesser honors he accumulated during the decade and a half of the 1980's and 1990's.

Besides an Oscar, Hollywood has one other tangible award that is universally recognized as a credential for stardom, and that is a star on the Walk Of Fame. The political intrigues and pressure groups that come into play during selection for a star on the Walk rival those of the Oscars. The five-member selection committee is comprised of one representative each from the film, radio, recording, performing, and television industries, and whose identities are, in principal, secret. The chairman of this secret committee, Johnny Grant, also ceremonial mayor of Hollywood, represents the Walk of Fame Committee at awards ceremonies.

In September, 1990, when B.B. King was immortalized with his own star, two other musical artists, jazz singer Nancy Wilson, and Marvin Gaye, were enshrined on the Walk in separate ceremonies. ( It is worth noting that King and Gaye were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in the same year, 1987.) The entertainment press found the combination notable in that all three endured an unnecessarily long wait for this honor, especially in light of the committee's choice of Janet Jackson, youngest of the eight siblings of Michael Jackson, for the same honor five months before. Ms. Jackson is no show business lightweight with four #1 hits to her credit, and a $32 million contract with Virgin Records [signed a year after her star was laid in the Walk], but she was born 27 years after the first B.B. King record was cut and seven years after Marvin Gaye made his first record.

The dedication of Gaye's star followed an intense 18-month campaign mounted by Motown Records and the Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation. The first time his name was proposed Gaye's nomination was passed over (for "insufficient public support," his backers were told). His supporters collected 100,000 signatures, making it difficult for the committee to further defer the honor. As if by way of apology Chairman Grant told the press "The Walk of Fame is such a big tourist attraction... [and] we like to honor some of the younger stars who show all the signs of having longevity in the business.... The committee goes through 200 to 300 applications per year." [Billboard, Oct. 20, 1990, page 24.] B.B. King's name had been proposed three times over a three-year period. The exact timing of the award ceremony was chosen to coincide with the release of his album "Live At San Quentin," which won a Grammy that year.

When I read the schedule of a B.B. King tour invariably I imagine a map on which are marked the actual locations of each stage where he performs. Each stage, like the deck of an aircraft carrier, waits for him to touch down at the exact time specified by the contract. Like a carrier pilot, condemned to fly from flat-top to flat-top, he touches down, sings and plays for the throng gathered on the deck, refuels and is airborne again. That is his life, that is his choice. Can such a life hold anything else beyond the next landing? With such a schedule how can there be time for anything else?

In the 1980's he returned to radio as a disk jockey with his own weekly show, "B.B. King Blues Hour," syndicated on 112 stations -- most, but not all black-oriented -- around the U.S., as well as the Armed Forces Radio Network abroad. B.B. always carries enough music, even backstage in his briefcase, to make an excellent hour of listening, so recording programs was simply a matter of arranging periodic appointments in studios at participating radio stations in the cities where he played. This endeavor is B.B.'s answer to the young black audience's apparent indifference to their heritage. "More than anything else it is important to study history, to know history," he says. "To be a Black person and sing the blues, you are Black twice," he told Ebony Magazine in February of 1992. (Ebony V 47 P45) "Long after I'm gone, when [blues artist] Robert Cray is my age, I hope kids will know what this music is all about...." (Ebony, V 47, P48). To this end he played and talked about vintage blues, contemporary blues, and blues rock on the "B.B. King Blues Hour" which was broadcast every Sunday morning at 10:00 AM. for X years -- one of the few radio blues programs not aired in the middle of the night. In April of 1990, the syndicator canceled the program rather abruptly, to the dismay of the audience. Angry listeners embarked on a letter-writing campaign to "Bring Back B.B.," to no avail. But there will be, and are, other pulpits for B.B.

For Part 4, click here.

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