Lee Atwater: Chairman of the Blues

Twenty years ago, a young down-home Southern white boy fell in love with black music and became a hot R&B guitarist, backing the likes of Marvin Gaye and Percy Sledge. Today, he’s chairman of the Republican National Committee, with a record album debut. Meet Lee Atwater.

IT’S A SIGN of the times that both Public Enemy’s former Minister of Information and the Chairman of the Republican National Committee have released debut albums in recent months — Professor Griff’s Pawns In The Game and Lee Atwater’s Red Hot & Blue, respectively. Both got record contracts not because of their musical abilities — though both possess talent — but because of their fame. While neither album is particularly bad, both are fairly useless — freakish and functioning without context, more media events than musical events. And both show how wrong-headed is the assumption that the natural voice of popular music is enlightened and left-leaning. So a black nationalist nutter makes a hip hop record and a right wing nutter makes a soul record.

Lee Atwater’s record is quality nostalgia, appealing to the sort of sensibility that only appreciates black music at a suitable historical distance (nostalgia is one of the ways that the political implications of past black culture is neutralized for the present). Call it the Paul Shaffer syndrome. Collect a bunch of neglected R&B/blues/soul legends for an all-star jam and watch baby boom America wet it’s collective knickers. So on Red Hot & Blue, such artists as Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Billy Preston, Carla Thomas, Chuck Jackson and BB King make guest appearances.

But let’s not be loo harsh on Atwater the man. He’s no Johnny-come-lately to this music, having been a devotee since he was a boy growing up in South Carolina. You have to give Atwater some respect for having the nerve to cross the color boundaries he was born to respect.

Spin: Tell me how you first got into black music.

Lee Atwater: I was riding in a car with my parents one night about 10 o’clock, and somehow the dial got on a radio station, and I heard a guy singing “Please, Please, Please.” As it turned out, it was James Brown, and the radio station was WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. It beamed all over the South.

You couldn’t get it at night until 10 or 11 o’clock. I was in 5th or 6th grade, so from that time on, almost every night of my life I’d listen to that station. And I just got totally captivated and captured by the music, and it was all blues, rhythm and blues and soul — the three idioms which I try to present on this album. But I must say, most of the kids my age at one point or another got with the Beatles invasion or the British Invasion, some got with the Beach Boys and so forth. But from the time I first heard this kind of music, I was a purist. I always have been. It just does something to me. It does something to my soul.

How was the musical interaction between black and white when you were growing up?

Well, it was always very good for me. From the times I first remember, I was interacting with black musicians. By junior high, I started going down every day to the black radio station after school. The DJ is still a good friend of mine. The music was such a big part of my life that it really blurred any kind of racial divisions that may have been there.

Do you ever get resentment from whites because of your association with black musicians?

One time in 1969, in Bennellsville, South Carolina, we had done a job with Lee Dorsey and we all went to dinner afterwards at a place in Darlington, South Carolina. It was Lee Dorsey, myself, and three or four other white guys. The people that ran the restaurant wouldn’t let us in, used racist language, and I had a gun pulled on me for the first and only time in my life. That was the only incident I can remember of a racial nature.

Was it common for people of your generation growing up in the South to cross that racial line between black and white music?

Ithink in my generation by and large in the South, to one degree or another, all crossed over at one point: on music. And I think that is one of the reasons that integration in effect went as well as it did in the mid-60s. Nothing brings people together like music. It erases all barriers. And the fact of the matter is I remember very vividly in the early 60s going to black shows to see Otis Redding and Little Richard and literally being one of two or three whites in the audience. By the late 60s, a third of the audience would be while. By then, we were coming out of any racial problems we had in the South, and I think music was a big reason. In other words, I think James Brown was a transcending figure. He had as much appeal among whites as among blacks. The Temptations were transcending, too. The Four Tops and other groups like that… and I think that was probably the case more in the South than it was in other portions of the country. I can’t say that for a fact, but I do think music was going forward to bring the races together in the South more than it was in other parts of the country.

Given all the good that James Brown has done, don’t you think he should be freed?

Well, all I can say about James Brown is that he is my friend. He’s also one of my musical idols, and I love the man to death. I think he’s got a lot of good left in him, and there’s a few more good James Brown shows left in him. And I personally can’t wait to see one.

Tell me about the make-up of the band.

The band is a bunch of people I’ve been playing with for a couple years. We call ourselves the Red Hot and Blue Band. They’re all mainly from Memphis. And they’re all great studio musicians who started out back in the Stax days. There’s Errol Thomas (bass), Larry Addison (keyboards), Michael Toles (guitar), James Robertson (drums) and then the Memphis Horns who worked with Booker T. and the MG’s. I think Booker T. and the MG’s was the best group in the history of rock’n’roll. I think that the Red Hot and Blue Band with the Memphis horns just do an excellent job of emulating the whole Memphis sound. I think the Memphis sound was the tightest grooviest sound that was ever in rock’n’roll or rhythm and blues music, and that’s what we aspired to do in this album.

And it was a racially mixed sound also, wasn’t it?

Yeah, exactly, and that’s a very good point. I think that if there is one social point to make about the Memphis sound, it’s that it was the first bona fide racially mixed music. Which I was very conscious of back in the 60s, because that was the exact kind of band that I was playing with. And that’s always been my ideal in music. I don’t want to brag, but this album is as good a recreation as you’ll get of that kind of music. If it doesn’t sell, it means there’s not a market for this kind of music.

I often find that, in a sense, respect for American R&B or soul is often greater in Europe than it is here in America.

I’m hoping that will change, and one of my chief goals in life is to help that change. I have found that to be the case in England. I was over there a couple of years ago and looked at the pop charts and both Percy Sledge and BB King had hits. To the extent I have a goal in life other than my political career, it is a singular goal and that is to bring the respect and the historical perspective to this music that I think it deserves. That’s one of the main purposes of this album. And I hope that, when people hear this music again, they will realize how good it is. I just don’t think there’s ever been any better music. I really don’t.

Is this just about nostalgia then?

Nostalgia is a very small part of it. The fact is I think the music is timeless, ageless, and I just think it’s intrinsically good. But this is not a sheer attempt to cash in on some nostalgia boom. The music is the thing, as Shakespeare would say. The beat is good, the music is good, the musicians are superb, but we will see this as a kind of unique experiment, and when I had an opportunity to do it I was delighted to do it. I did it in a pure sense. I did it the way I wanted to. You’ll notice I didn’t try to put a rap song on it. I wouldn’t have done this unless I got to do it on the basis of what I really thought was pure. I wanted it to be comprehensive inside of the idiom — meaning to cover R&B, soul and blues — but nonetheless I wanted it to be pure.

Do you want to show the variety of the idiom as well?

I wanted it lo be comprehensive inside of the idiom. Comprehensive but pure. You’ve got a little bit of everything. You got some New Orleans, you got yah-yah in there, you’ve got the spiritual type with ‘People Get Ready’, you got Stax and Memphis with ‘Hold On I’m Coming’ and ‘Knock on Wood’, you got Chicago and Memphis blues with ‘Love is a Game’. But, we don’t compromise. It’s not a rock’n’roll album.

All the music you mentioned came at a time when American regional music was thriving. Do you think we’ve lost that?

To a certain extent, my kind of music as a kid was regional, I used to call it “piney woods music” from that area of the country, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama — the piney woods area. And that was the kind of music I really liked. But now there is less regional flair to music. In other words, if you get a hot video on MTV a kid can watch it in Memphis, Tennessee, or a kid can watch it in Alaska or New York City, and basically go out and buy it. America has become, across the board — whether it’s politics, music or anything else — more of a national market than we used to be.

A lot of contemporary black music is made from samples of other music. For instance, whether it’s hip hop, dance music or whatever, it might be made from old James Brown records. It’s a very different way of making music from how black music used to be made.

This is the first time that I’ve been involved with an album, but everybody involved told me we did it the old-fashioned way. And everybody involved said they were glad as hell we did. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not in the music industry, and I’m not going to ever try to make a living in the music industry. This to me is a love and a hobby.

Do you think pop music, soul, whatever, is too technological?

Well I don’t want to criticize. I mean, each to his own. But I will say this: if I ever make another album again, I will do it the old-fashioned way — the way I did this time. I like having the horns in the studio, I like having BB King and I playing guitar leads off of each other. I like watching Chuck Jackson and Carla Jackson sing ‘Knock on Wood’. I am a natural type of guy, and I like organic things, and I like the fact that we made this album in a natural, organic fashion.

How long have you been playing guitar?

About 30 years. But I totally quit playing for 15 years when I got really involved in politics. But then I was reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson and found out that he played the violin three hours a day. He felt that music was a way to find a sense of balance and harmony that you couldn’t find any other way. And that inspired me to play again. That was about six years ago, and I don’t think I’ve missed playing a day since then.

On television after your recent illness you talked about becoming calmer, becoming not as hectic. Do you find that music is what does it for you?

Yeah, as a matter of fact I think that music does bring out a sense of harmony and a sense of inner peace and strength that you don’t get any other way. And I’m just glad that I have found music as a love and as a hobby — as a meaningful part of my life — because I think I’m a better person for it.

Have you turned colleagues on to this music? Are you evangelical about it?

I do it all the time. I can’t think of anyone famous, but I’m doing it all the time, and I’ve gotten almost everybody who has ever worked for me at some point. They’d say, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t like this music when I first started working for you.’

Do you play it in the office?

Yeah, the first thing I did when I got this job was take the Muzak out and put rhythm and blues in.

Do people work better?

The people work better, they work longer and they work harder.

© Frank OwenSpin, June 1990

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