“The blues has lost its king, and America has lost a legend,” President Obama said in a statement on Friday regarding the death of blues legend B.B. King. “There’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight.”
In 2012, Obama even had the privilege of performing, however briefly, with King (and Mick Jagger, and Buddy Guy, and other notables) at the White House. Here’s footage of them doing the blues standard “Sweet Home Chicago”:
“If the president invites you to the White House, you go, no matter whether you like him or not,” King once said. In 2001, Bill Clinton, playing the sax, joined King onstage at a function in Beverly Hills. In 2006, George W. Bush presented the guitarist with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But of the political characters with whom King has performed and met, he was probably tightest with the late, notorious Republican super-strategist Lee Atwater.
King was about as close to apolitical as a famous artist can get, but he became chummy with Atwater—a master mudslinger, right-wing party boy, and a noted boogeyman for liberals—in the late 1980s. Atwater was famous for his ruthless campaign tactics, including the 1988 Willie Horton attack ad, which many still decry as racist. He worked for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and became chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But he also had a deep love for blues and R&B music, and played guitar and sang himself. So when it came time to plan President H. W. Bush’s inauguration balls, Atwater invited King to perform. Then in June 1989, the two performed together at the Medgar Evers Mississippi Homecoming. “It’ll be the battle of the guitars with B.B. and Lee,” said Fayette, Miss., mayor Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar.
And the following year, the RNC chairman and the blues icon had a blast jamming together on-stage at a Republican Party gala thrown at the Kennedy Center.
The two weren’t just friends, but musical collaborators. In 1990, Atwater released a boogie/R&B album titled Red Hot & Blue. (The album ended up snagging a Grammy nomination.) The record featured Sam Moore, Isaac hayes, Carla Thomas, and—naturally—B.B. King. Atwater and King play on track 10, “Buzz Me.”
“Some people like to play tennis and some like to jog,” King said. “[Lee] enjoys playing the blues. And he’s very good.”
Atwater wouldn’t make it to his next presidential campaign, or to his next R&B or blues album. In 1991, the Republican star died from an inoperable brain tumor. “I felt as if I lost a son when Stevie Ray Vaughn passed unexpectedly and I feel similarly on the passing of my friend, Lee Atwater,” King said in a statement.
So when the time came for the 1992 Republican National Convention, it was no surprise when it was announced that King would give a musical tribute to Atwater on opening day of the convention in Houston, Texas.