The list of primary vocations reads like the improbable career track of the protagonist in an urban adventure novel or movie: Tuskegee Airman, Pullman porter, car salesman, pioneering radio disc jockey, concert stage emcee, TV host, silent knight (translation: bail bondsman) of the Civil Fights Movement. The other things—husband, father, entertainer, political activist, Presidential service award winner—render the character in a broader, more grounded context.
According to the name and date printed on his FCC Third Class Radio Telephone Operator license, James Antonio Patrick was born on Dec. 2, 1919, in Montezuma, Georgia. Nearly everyone who grew up listening to AM radio in the Atlanta area in the 1950s through the 1970s knows the man by his on-air moniker, and most of those people have a story to tell about their encounters with the broadcasting phenomenon known as Alley Pat.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was listening and had to pull off the road and either cry, scream, laugh or all three,” says Bruce Hampton, the veteran Atlanta musician who last year was one of a dozen inaugural recipients of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts and Humanities.
“I first remember hearing Alley Pat in 1964 when I was a teenager,” Hampton continues. “He would play Jimmy Reed and B.B. King, segue into Count Basie or Ray Charles, and then start screaming at preachers. Besides being one of the world’s greatest comedians, there was wisdom and philosophy in every second he was on the air.”
Patrick’s radio career started out one inauspicious evening in the late 1940s when Ken Knight, program director for WERD, heard him calling a bingo game and asked him to stop by the station and record a demo. Founded by Jesse B. Blayton, WERD was the first black-owned radio station in the U.S. Its studios were located upstairs in the same building as the offices of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council on Auburn Avenue.
By 1951, Patrick was working alongside movers and shakers such as Jack (“Jack the Rapper”) Gibson, Joe Howard and Zenas “Daddy” Sears (who was white). In 1954, when Sears left and founded WAOK, the first radio station in America broadcasting an all-black format 24/7, Patrick followed. During the ensuing decades, Alley Pat intoned into microphones at WYZE, WXAP and WIGO, before stepping in front of the TV cameras as host of the uproariously entertaining Alley Pat’s Place, which started on WVEU Channel 69 before moving to public access.
Patrick was a natural entertainer, preternaturally gifted with a drawling dulcet voice any bluesman would covet and the keenly intuitive communication skills of a jazz improviser. Cantankerously unpredictable and irresistibly charming, Alley Pat connected with audiences across social spectra even as he embodied stylistic elements that would define the increasingly lucrative “black appeal” segment of the American radio market. By the mid-1950s, this market was estimated at 15 million potential listeners representing a net worth of around $15 billion.
A pitchman during an era when announcers typically read from (usually local) customer-provided scripts, Alley Pat transformed the practice into a comedic art form. His improvised lampoons often playfully mocked the advertisers and the company’s products.
According to Patrick, he was born at home, the son of Mariah (maiden name Forehand), a light skinned woman who worked at the Montezuma bank, and a black Irish carpenter and freelance Baptist preacher who everyone called K. D. “My dad wasn’t trained, but he knew what he was doing,” says Patrick. “He built a lot of the fancy white houses around town and he was especially known for building spiral staircases.”
Patrick’s bony 6-foot-2-inch frame is lankily draped across the edge of the bed in his neat little studio at Wesley Towers, the senior living facility adjacent to the Emory University campus where he has resided for several years. At 92 and counting, his memory is at best slightly off-kilter. Almost everything sounds like an approximation of events with names, dates and occurrences haphazardly aligned depending on when and how a question is posed.
“We moved to Atlanta in the 1930s because my mother wanted us to have a college education, and you couldn’t get that in Montezuma,” he says. “When we got to Atlanta, I got sick with typhoid malaria fever, and came down with it every summer around August. My mother treated the illness with a purgative.”
The sickly young man eventually overcame his travails, working his way through Howard Junior and Booker T. Washington high schools and enrolling in Morehouse College as a pre-med student. During World War II, Patrick joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the inaugural all-black 99th Fighter Squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama. Records show Patrick ran the Post Exchange from 1942 to 1945 despite an initial desire to fly.
“I could get into the plane, but I couldn’t get out quickly enough,” Patrick says.
During the height of the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, Patrick played a vital behind-the-scenes role as the proprietor of the only black-owned bail bonding business in Atlanta. On more than a few occasions, he was summoned to bail out not only major figures, such as Martin Luther King, Andy Young, Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams, but countless “regular” protesters of every stripe and color.
“He liked to help people, and being out on the street brought him into contact with a lot of people who had a tough time getting bonded out of jail,” said Janice Williams, Patrick’s daughter who worked for a time as the bonding company’s office manager.
Williams is glad to see her father finally being recognized for his accomplishments, which at times put him in harm’s way. On Oct. 5, Patrick will be inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and in 2012, he was among the more than 1,000 recipients of the Martin Luther King Drum Majors for Service Awards, recognizing outstanding members of the community. During their one-day trip to Washington, Williams and her father personally met with President Obama, which she says was “a thrilling experience” for both of them. “I couldn’t have asked for a better father,” Williams says. “He was always there for us, and everybody loves him.”
In 1983, when Tom Roche, a former deejay and now film editor, moved to Atlanta from Tallahassee, he found himself sitting in Atlanta traffic every afternoon, crying with laughter, listening to the on-air antics of Alley Pat. “I would go into Turtle’s and Peaches record stores and buy cassettes out of the 99-cent bin because they were cheaper than blank cassettes, so I could record Pat’s show,” he says. Those cassettes eventually were stored in a shoe box for more than two decades until a few years ago when Roche decided that from such humble beginnings a film might be constructed. The result is the 2012 documentary, Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded, which has been shown to enthusiastic audiences at local film festivals. The climax of the film is the intentionally hilarious eulogy delivered by Patrick at the funeral services for his longtime cohort and friendly-nemesis-on-the-air, Hosea Williams. “The key to music is essence, and capturing the moment,” says Hampton when asked to sum up his thoughts about Alley Pat’s career. “Whether you’re John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Robert Duvall, your best work perfectly captures the moment. That’s what Alley Pat did.”