Back in the '90s, when the "Alley Pat Show" used to come on the public access station on basic cable, I had no idea he was an Atlanta radio pioneer and a longtime backer of the civil rights movement on the low. I just liked watching he and his old friend, the "unbossed and unbought" rabblerouser Uncle Hosea Williams, sit around and talk local politics and shit. It was like eavesdropping on two drunk uncles at the family reunion picnic.
It wasn't until I watched Tom Roche's documentary Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded that I learned all about his history stretching back to the early 1950s. I wrote about the award-winning film - which screens Mon., Oct. 14 ($5, 7:30 p.m.) at the Plaza Theater - and my conversation with Alley Pat, who's 93 now, for last week's issue of Creative Loafing. Getting in touch with Pat was an experience. Roche gave me his number but said it was hard to reach him on the phone. After a few days of no answer, I decided to take a chance and pop up uninvited at his retirement complex. While signing in at the security desk, the guard asked who I was there to see and, unable to recall his real name (James Patrick), I clumsily said "uhm, Alley Pat?" The guard nodded and pointed toward the elevators. When I got off and walked to his door, I could hear that unmistakable voice on the other side. It sounded like he was on the phone.
I knocked, feeling a bit anxious, and he opened it. Without asking me to state my name or business, he simply said, "Come on in young man." He told me to take a chair while he sat on the edge of his bed and picked the phone back up. The apartment was one room, like a small hotel suite, with an early-model color TV, a closet full of clothes, and a kitchenette. The old stove looked rarely used. A walker with wheels looked new. After he hung up the phone, I explained that I'd been trying to track him down to interview him for my job.
"You found me," he said with a smile.
Sense of humor still intact, we talked for the next hour about how much Atlanta has changed since his heyday, his thoughts on whether Kasim Reed will be Atlanta's last black mayor, and his burning desire to work with Tyler Perry. He even gave me some biblical advice for a rocky relationship ("The Bible says if tongue and teeth don't get along, they fall out"). An edited portion of our convo runs below:
So what do you do with your days everyday?
Nothing now but stay in this room and do what I want to do.
Do you watch TV a lot?
It's just kind of on, huh?
It's on and I'm looking and I'm not looking.
No, I don't have anything that I listen to regularly. But it's some funny stuff going on.
There's some Negroes got some nice stuff. Now this guy that play this woman, what's his name?
Yeah, it seems like he's doing alright. He's got a big wad of money from somewhere. And I'm happy for him. As a matter of fact, I'd really be interested in getting with him and helping him or he helping me. I really would.
Like maybe being in one of his movies?
Yeah, that would be cool.
Cause he and I are in the same era. And we could make some funny stuff, cause he reminds me of the old folk and the talk that they did back then. And thy're still doing that same talk, but people don't listen as much as they used to.
On Atlanta's evolution since the mid-20th century
Blacks and whites get along alright. Not as good as they could, but you've got some do-gooders that don't want to see them do well. I think it's a lot more integrated than it has ever been and it'll keep on getting better and better I think. I am very proud of Atlanta to tell you the truth, and I wish I could stay around long enough to see it do a whole lot better.
Atlanta now is the heart of the South. As a matter of fact, it's going further than that. I think there's going to be paramutual betting in this town, like horse-racing. And we don't really have no place to stay - blacks nor whites. They're going to have to build some more buildings. They're going to have to make downtown larger. You can hardly rent a place downtown, 'cause they're all taken. So it's going to get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.
On Mayor Kasim Reed and whether he might be Atlanta's last black mayor as demographics continue to change
Well, they said that about Shirley Franklin, too, you know. And he came in and replaced her. And I think he's doing a nice job in terms of integrating people and giving people work as much as he can. I haven't had too much to do with him because I have been a little under the weather since he became mayor. So I don't know whether he's doing as good - well, I think he's doing a good job with them churches. Course I don't see the need in a new stadium, but that's just my idea. Other people have their own ideas.
On his good friend, deceased civil rights activist Hosea Williams, and how they originally met
I have never remembered. And I'm glad I haven't. and its too late - course Hosea's a hell of a man. You ain't gon' beat Hosea. Whatever he's doing. Feeding the hungry; this is about the biggest one in the country. And it has improved since [his death]. And he's done a whole lot for people. He's done a whole lot for ML King, whether people know it or not. Course, ML King did a whole lot for him too. But this Hosea is quite a character. And he is fear-less. He fears nothing. I think Hosea is one man who tries something; he has no fear about it. He just goes and does it. To me, Hosea is another ML King. Only difference between him and ML King, Hosea wasn't as known as well as ML was.
I imagine y'all had a lot of good times together.
Oh, we did. Course, I wasn't an imbiber as he was. But I'd have to go with him to try to keep him halfway straight. Cause he could drink a bottle of beer and get drunk. [laughs]. I remember they had a prize fight here, and he drank one bottle of beer and we had to nearly carry him out of there.
On the regulars who used to call into his radio show, like Carrie, a white woman who liked to pretend she was having an affair with Alley Pat
Carrie? She's dead too. All of my old cronies are about gone. They were nice people.
So did that start out as a joke?
I guess it did. I guess you could say that. She used to call me up and say, "Pat, uh, the baby needs some milk." I'd say, "You old witch." I didn't say that. My words were much stronger. And she just loved it. And I did too. I had a lot of fun. And they did a lot toward making me, if that is such a word. Yeah.
Anybody who came along I tried to help them, if I could. Without charging them. And I think I helped a few people. Gladys Knight and the Pips, I sent them to New York.
What did you recognize in them?
I don't know. It was just something about them that was fascinating. And they're still going fine. Of course, she got rid of all the Pips. I can't say she did. The proof is in the pudding.
On aging and what he attributes his long life to
I don't know, except I think I take everything in stride. I don't over drink. Do I drink? Yes. I think most people do, and some of them use drugs. Well, I've never inhaled marijuana in my life. I don't know what it tastes like or what the reactions are. I imagine they're different for different people.
Now I am rapidly closing in on that 100-year mark. I'm in my nineties. So when you get in your nineties, you're way up there man. I never thought I'd live around here this long.
At this point, the phone rings. The person on the other end asks him what's going on. "Nothing but the rent," Alley Pat says. It sounds like small talk between familiar friends. They discuss a funeral coming up later this week that they hope to attend. He hangs up.
You have no idea how many people call you, and you're scared to say too much cause you don't know what to say.
On how he'd like to be remembered in time
I don't know. I really, really don't know. How do I want people to remember me? As a person who tried to - hmph - tried to help a few people. If there is anybody you can help. Sometimes you can't even help yourself. But my time is about up anyway, that is for staying on this planet.
Atlanta Film Festival screening of Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded. $5. 7:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 14. Plaza, Theater, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-873-1939.
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