A better class of ambassador

LONDON — If John Bolton’s controversial nomination for the U.N. ambassadorship goes south, I’ve got several alternative candidates for the gig.

All are seasoned, respected (even beloved) men with decades of experience as ambassadors of American goodwill. Every one of them has clocked at least 50 years on the international road, one night at a time. And unlike most of America’s political ambassadors these days, each has been consistently delivering precisely what Euros seem to want: American pop culture.

Little Richard, 72; Bo Diddley, 76; Jerry Lee Lewis, 69; James Brown, 71; B.B. King, 79; and Chuck Berry, 78, have probably done more for Euro-American relations during their careers than any political summit in recent memory. Each — at an age when most men are gently rolling on their sofas safe at home — continues to shuttle across the Pond to play gigs all over Europe.

The obvious question is: “Why?” The paydays aren’t astronomical, and the crowds generally fill small-to-medium venues.

According to one of rock’s original greats, paychecks aren’t what draws him regularly to European tours.

“The Europeans are even more fascinated by the real music today than the audiences in America,” Little Richard says.

Spokesperson Gloria Boyce tells me Richard’s Euro roadwork includes “more than 40 years of coming to Europe approximately every 18 months, with the only exception being the time just after 9/11” — which certainly qualifies him to speak knowledgeably about the attitudes of both of Donald Rumsfeld’s Europes, old and new.

“(The Euros) went crazy for this music when I first went over there, and it’s endured,” Richard says. “It’s really the same all across Europe.”

Why has American roots music planted such deep and lasting roots in Europe?

According to Richard Weize, chief of the German-based American roots music label Bear Family, “Kids in Europe had to find this stuff, where in America you just had it and took it for granted. So we always treasured the early rock and country and blues records in a way that was special. And we still do.”

Given the advancing ages of rock’s eldest statesmen, it’s clear this long and winding road can’t go on forever.

As Berry said recently, reflecting upon the death of his keyboard man, Johnnie Johnson, “At 78, I’m glad to be anywhere, anytime.”

And European auds are glad they’re where Berry and his fellow American music ambassadors continue to be.

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