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GOP Reckons With R&B; : Bush Campaign Manager Books Big Blues and Soul Lineup for Inaugural Fling

Jimmy Carter had the Allman Brothers Band help kick off his Peanut Presidency.

Ronald Reagan had Frank Sinatra swing open the gates of the Silver Screen White House.

And now George Bush will enter his presidency to the sounds of . . . Bo Diddley.

Bo Diddley?

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Bush’s nationally televised pre-inaugural festivities tonight will feature Sinatra, as well as mainstreamers like Randy Travis and Julio Iglesias (See story, Page 8). But perhaps the most intriguing of the 11 parties slated for this weekend as part of the inaugural celebration will be Saturday night’s rhythm and blues extravaganza at the Washington Convention Center featuring the likes of Diddley and fellow blues and soul notables Etta James, Albert Collins, Delbert McClinton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Cocker and Willie Dixon. (The show will be taped for possible future broadcast and/or audio release with proceeds to benefit an as-yet-undetermined charity.)

Let’s face it: The name George Herbert Walker Bush does not bring to mind rhythm and blues. But this part of the festivities is not Bush’s doing. The person behind it is Lee Atwater, Bush’s presidential campaign manager and the new chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“It’s always been my real love,” said the 37-year-old Columbia, S.C., native from his busy Washington office. “We ran a very tough campaign, and every day I tried to jog. And while I was jogging, to keep my mind on something, I would dream about the ultimate concert. So after the Vice President got elected, I went to the inaugural people, and they said, ‘If you want to do that, we’ll use it for the youth gala.’ ”

(One of two parties on Saturday night, tickets to the R&B; show were sold out the quickest of all the inaugural galas. A total of 8,500 people are expected to attend.)

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There’s no doubt about Atwater’s sincerity--he’s not only a fan, but a musician too. He played guitar with a number of different Southern soulsters in the ‘60s, including Percy (“When a Man Loves a Woman”) Sledge, who will perform Saturday.

But might there be any political intent in having a youth-oriented inaugural ball that, in Atwater’s words, is a “tribute to the black musical experience and roots?”

After all, Atwater is generally credited with the hardball tack of the Bush campaign, including the frequent references to furloughed Massachusetts murderer Willie Horton, an issue that alienated many in the black community.

“I hope there is (political gain from the show)--I’m a politician,” Atwater said. “But if there isn’t, so what? I think it’s a good thing to do, and it’ll be fun and that’s what counts.”

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Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave fame, thinks the show is a smart move for the incoming Administration. “It’s going to help close the gap as far as white and black,” said Moore, who will be performing Saturday. “The Republicans are going to throw their tongues out and say, ‘See, you Democrats, we’re not as closed-minded as you think!’ ”

Bo Diddley concurred. “This concert is going to get a lot of people shaking hands who never thought they’d be shaking hands before,” the Florida-based Diddley said, though he acknowledged that some of Bush’s policies may be at odds with his own views, if not the black culture of the United States.

“He hasn’t impressed me, but he might trick us all and do a good job,” Diddley opined. “Let’s give the man a chance. If he messes up, he blows it.”

The musicians, however, are stopping far short of hailing this event as signaling a new era of understanding between Republicans and blacks.

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“If it hadn’t been for Lee saying, ‘This is the kind of music I want coming through this channel,’ I don’t think it would have gotten through,” said Moore.

But there is praise aplenty for Atwater.

“I was playing Columbia, S.C.,” recalled white Texas R&B; singer Delbert McClinton, one of the several participants who will be representing Bush’s adopted home state, “and Lee came backstage and introduced himself and started talking blues. It freaked me out. We talked for about 30 minutes, and he knows as much or more than I do about R&B.; You figure it. I don’t know.”

On the whole, the participating performers want politics to take a back seat Saturday. To hear them talk, you’d think their music--as well as a new President--was being inaugurated.

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“Maybe it’s just out-and-out the right time for music to change in high places,” said McClinton. “I would never have thought 25 years ago that some of these people, much less myself, would be playing at an inauguration for the President.

“If any truths can be reached through this music and its involvement with the government, so be it,” McClinton continued. “Yeah for truth! Let’s have more of it. But that’s as political as I get. There’s no boundaries with R&B;, or music. . . . This music has been around for a long time, and for some reason at the Inauguration we are celebrating it widely.”

According to Billy Preston, the show’s musical director, there are no plans for speeches or the use of particularly pointed songs to try to get a message across to the new President.

“I’m a musician--I don’t dwell in politics,” Preston said. “The music will sell its message itself.”

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But Preston said that he is considering writing a song especially for the event. And he did have a couple of suggestions for soul numbers that could serve as the evening’s themes.

“ ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’ ” he said. “Or ‘Respect'--yeah, let’s use ‘Respect!’ ”

And finally, it had to be asked: Will this be a kinder, gentler R&B; show?

“It’ll have kind and gentle moments,” Preston said. “And some rough and tough ones too.”

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