Alley Pat sits on the edge of his bed in a pair of house shoes, nylon jogging pants, a Puma T-shirt, and a dark suit jacket while contemplating whether or not he deserves to be called an Atlanta icon.
"I don't know how to accept that. I really don't. Me? I'm just another spook," he says, pausing to laugh, "trying to make it through this unfriendly world, you might say."
Nevertheless, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame thought enough of the last surviving disc jockey from the first black-owned radio station in the country (Atlanta's WERD-AM) to induct James "Alley Pat" Patrick last week. And next week, the documentary Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded will get a theatrical screening in Atlanta for the first time since it won the Audience Award at the 2010 Atlanta Film Festival. The film's subtitle was Pat's oft-repeated on-air catchphrase, leftover from an era when the FCC still required broadcasters to distinguish between live and recorded music. But as the documentary proves, the gutbucket blues and swinging jazz he often ad-libbed over during his show played second fiddle to the man himself.
Now in his 90s, he was a shock jock before the term existed. With off-color humor and the gift of gab, Pat skewered politicians and preachers, roasted white and black callers religiously, and talked more jive than a deep-fried turkey. But it was provocation with a purpose in the midst of the civil rights era. If Martin Luther King Jr. was the crown prince of the movement, Alley Pat was the clown prince.
For the past year, he's lived off-and-on in his one-room apartment at a senior retirement community. On his bed, he's laid out a black suit and white shirt. "I thought I was going to a funeral tonight," he says, before realizing that he had his days mixed up. A caretaker pops in while we're talking to make sure he's taken his medication for the day. Though he's lost some weight, the only ailments he suffers from, he says, are swelling feet and "swimming head." What do the doctors know, anyway? They're just "practicing," he says.
In a career that began in 1951 and spanned nearly five decades, Pat also found time to become one of Atlanta's first black bail bondsmen known for quietly bailing out civil rights activists during the heat of the movement, a concert promoter at clubs like the famous Royal Peacock on Sweet Auburn, a record label guy who toured with the likes of Ike & Tina, Sam Cooke, and Ray Charles, and, in the '90s, a public access cable show host on "Alley Pat's Place," where he regularly argued with his good friend Hosea Williams.
His radio career started when the owner of WERD discovered Pat calling a bingo game one night and thought he'd be perfect for the radio. But the Morehouse med student and former Tuskegee Airman almost didn't make it on the air because of stage fright. "Any entertainer, when he first goes on the stage, he's nervous as a bastard at a family reunion," he divulges.
His show quickly became a staple for his mostly black audience and a window into the city's African-American culture for curious white listeners. When Tom Roche, the director of the Alley pat documentary, moved to Atlanta in the '80s, he fell in love with Pat's show. A former disc jockey himself, Roche began recording the shows on his off-days and wound up archiving more than 40 hours of Alley Pat that he stored in a shoebox for decades before making the film.
"As a former disc jockey, I could appreciate how he was joyously breaking all the rules: records at the wrong speed, air conditioner hum, carts that jammed. There was entertainment in the anarchy."
Roche and a friend eventually worked up the nerve to visit Pat at the station. "He said, 'You white boys ain't got nothing better to do than to come down here and fuck with me?' Then he laughed and welcomed us in."
When Roche approached Pat about making a documentary more than a decade later, Pat says he "thought [Roche] just wanted to pick my brain and get information for free and then charge somebody for looking at it." But the seven-years-in-the-making film was purely a labor of love for Roche. Besides scoring an interview with Andrew Young, it features tons of blues, jazz, and R&B classics from the likes John Lee Hooker, Count Basie, and Little Richard that he'd have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to license in order to distribute.
All he ever wanted to do was expose more people to the legend of Alley Pat, anyway. "When I started [making] this film, I discovered that everybody on the south side knew who Pat was and nobody on the north side knew who Pat was," he says. "The film really captures the pulse of Atlanta. ... The way that blacks and whites kind of get along and go out and have a good laugh; we kind of have a nod and a wink to the civil rights struggle."
It also cements Alley Pat's status as a cultural force in this town. In February 2012, he received unsung hero honors from President Barack Obama at the White House along with four other senior African-Americans. As for his own thoughts on his enduring legacy, "It may not last through yesterday," he says. "But at least [I] left some kind of memory around, good, bad, or otherwise."
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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