When R&B met the GOP at the 1988 White House Correspondents’ Dinner

May 4

After receiving “The Prez” guitar- a present- from Sam Moore, right, of the former Sam and Dave soul duo, President George Bush, left, plays the guitar as Sam Moore sings and National Republican Chairman Lee Atwater, center, accompanies in playing the guitar. (1/21/89. Washington Post- Rick Lipski.)

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article described singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton as a guitarist. He is primarily a singer-songwriter. Also, “Black and Blue,” the Broadway musical review that earned Ruth Brown a Tony, featured songs by Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington and others, not by Leiber and Stoller.

She wasn’t Fawn Hall, Paula Jones, Lindsay Lohan or any other notorious femme who from 1987 onward became prime “gets” for the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.   

She was “Miss Rhythm,” Ruth Brown, the R&B legend behind such chart-toppers as “Lucky Lips” and “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” So great was her success in the 1950s and ’60s that Atlantic Records was dubbed “The House That Ruth Built.”

But in 1986, her career in long decline, she told a Congressional panel how she and other big-name black performers were systematically bilked out of royalties for decades. I covered that hearing for the Orlando Sentinel:

Ticking off a hit parade of singers, many now dead, Brown said that Atlantic and other record companies cheated Clyde McPhatter, Joe Turner, Frankie Lymon, Dee Clark, Etta James, Brook Benton, Dinah Washington, the Clovers, the Platters, the Drifters, the Five Keys and the Moonglows.

”’Some of these people have given a great deal to make this music,’” and gotten little in return, she testified, noting that their survivors could not afford to go after the major labels.  The only way she could sue Atlantic would be under a racketeering law allowing individuals to seek civil damages from corporations without prior criminal convictions. Ditto for other aging, ailing, often penniless artists.

The industry dodged that bullet, ultimately making some amends to performers. Atlantic settled with the newly formed Rhythm & Blues Foundation, in part the brainchild of Washington attorney Howell Begle.

Howell Begle and Ruth Brown. (Courtesy of Howell Begle)
Howell Begle and Ruth Brown. (Courtesy of Howell Begle)

In 1988–having made a comeback as Motormouth Maybelle in the John Waters movie “Hairspray”—Ruth and Howell were my WHCA dinner guests.  For conspiracy theorists who fret that unseemly lobbying and deal-making go on at these swanky gatherings, I plead guilty, at least where Miss Rhythm was concerned. Moreover, strategic schmoozing continues to define seemingly endless partying before and after the big event, by old hands and WHCA virgins alike.

Back in ’88, my sole mission was introducing Ruth to Lee Atwater, the take-no-prisoners Republican campaign strategist known for using race baiting tactics during George Bush The Elder’s presidential campaign. Those of us who covered Bush 41′s drive to crush Democrat Michael Dukakis also knew Lee as a rabid R&B fan and guitarist.  I always viewed our late-night music-centric bull sessions on the campaign trail as part of a charm offensive with reporters who found his political tactics abhorrent.

Since he considered Ruth a vocal goddess, I knew I could score points with a valuable source by introducing them. Lee was thrilled, telling her at one point, “We really should try to organize something.” He and Begle stayed in touch, and by late summer, the Democratic D.C. lawyer with deep showbiz ties was planning an all-star concert for Atwater following the ’88 Republican Convention.

After Bush won, he happily let Atwater stage an elaborate concert for young Republicans, financed by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Think Bo Diddley, Sam Moore, Chuck Jackson, Willie Dixon and Eddie Floyd as well as Texas blues guitar greats Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimmie Vaughn, and singer Delbert McClinton.  The overwhelmingly white, youthful audience wasn’t much into the soul, blues, and R & B virtuosos, but Lee didn’t care. The concert, he told the crowd, was his “dream come true.”

One enduring image featured Bush and Atwater onstage together, each brandishing a guitar.  For the president it was a photo-op prop, for his political Machiavelli, a cherished means of playing out a fantasy for 20 rockin’ Walter Mitty minutes.

In a bitter twist of fate, Ruth suffered a heart attack 10 days before the show and was replaced by Carla Thomas.  Another casualty was two hours worth of sound and film, recorded and shot that night, and later thought to have vanished. Begle and others spent nearly a quarter century tracking it down, obtaining broadcast rights, creating a video for a wider audience.

Fifty-five minutes of the show aired in March on PBS. A two-hour version, “A  Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert” will be released commercially on Tuesday.

Atwater died of a brain tumor in 1991, at age 40, but not before apologizing to Dukakis and others for the “naked cruelty” of the campaign he created.  Ruth Brown passed in 2006 at age 78, from complications of her heart trouble, but not before parlaying her “Hairspray” triumph into the lead of the Broadway musical “Black and Blue,” based on mid-century songs by Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington and others, which won her a Tony.

Lee and I never discussed my calculated matchmaking that spawned this unlikely concert. But looking back, I believe he may have returned the favor a few months later by recommending me as a panelist for the first Bush-Dukakis presidential debate.  Though I wouldn’t exactly call my televised grilling of the candidates a “dream come true,”  it felt very much like a career-burnishing quid pro quo for a national political reporter.

For better or worse, source cultivation remains a staple of this once-simple dinner that mushroomed into what Washington Post writer Roxanne Roberts calls an “annual bacchanal…a four-day explosion of pre-parties, after-parties, tweets, photo-ops and corporate branding.”

Watching the endless exchange of cards and contact info, hearty handshakes and whispered gossip at Saturday’s dinner marking the 100th anniversary of the White House Correspondents Association, I wondered what my colleagues might be plotting with the official sources and celebrity guests of 2014, and wished them all success.

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer and columnist specializing in politics, culture and design. She has also written for the New York Times, Town & Country, Washingtonian and More, and is at work on a memoir. Follow her @AnnieGroer.
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