BY JILL VEJNOSKA
He brought the music to Atlanta.
And on Saturday night, Atlanta said thanks — and goodbye — to Alex Cooley the best way it knew how:
By keeping the music going.
“This would have made Alex very happy,” Live Nation Atlanta president and close Cooley friend Peter Conlon told the crowd that packed the Tabernacle downtown to mark the legendary concert promoter’s passing at the age of 75 last month. “We would talk now and then about what he wanted and he said, ‘I don’t want a damn funeral. I don’t want people crying and organs playing.’”
He got his wish, and then some. “In Celebration of Alex Cooley” brought together several thousand Cooley friends and fans for two hours of live performances and a look back at a remarkable career that began when the 29-year-old music neophyte decided to stage the first Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969 in Hampton, of all places — and Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin and some 150,000 patrons all showed up.
Soon, everyone was coming to “play” Atlanta, thanks largely to Cooley. From Queen and the Queen of Soul (Aretha Franklin) to ZZ Top, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones — so many big names over the next four decades, in fact, that all the backstage photos and concert photos couldn’t fit into a single video montage Saturday night.
“Who’s been to a concert in Atlanta?” the evening’s host, 97.1 the River’s Kaedy Kiely asked the raucously cheering crowd, which appeared equally divided between graying beards and heavy metal hair. “Then you know you’ve got a ticket stub that has Alex Cooley’s name on it.”
Fittingly, then, this free celebration also featured a concert of sorts. Live music by four well-known local groups was interspersed throughout the evening, beginning with the Indigo Girls’s simple and hauntingly beautiful performance of “Closer to Fine.”
“We’re really happy to be here and to get to pay our respects to Alex Cooley,” said Emily Saliers. “He was a great man.”
They were followed onstage by Kristian Bush, Blackberry Smoke and Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’, whose loud, lush guitar riffs practically rattled off the Tabernacle’s stained glass windows and culminated in lead singer Kevn Kinney pointing upward and calling out, “Thank you, Alex!”
Interspersed between the musical sets were videos featuring interviews with Cooley, as well as heartfelt and sometimes funny remarks from those who knew him best.
"It was extremely special being Alex's niece," said Edie Sayeg, laughingly recalling how she unexpectedly got her "first French kiss" from the tight-pants-ed Welsh singer Tom Jones — and how she always suspected her uncle was behind it somehow. "I think Alex did that kind of for a laugh."
Even Willie Nelson felt the need to say something about — and to — his longtime partner-in-music Cooley.
"He's a friend of music and always will be," Nelson said in a videotaped message. "So Alex, wherever you are, we miss you."
Early in the evening, Conlon had appeared to choke up briefly while talking about his friend and former business partner. Two hours later, though, he knew the perfect way to close out this celebration of the man who'd brought music to Atlanta.
"I want everyone to stand up," Conlon announced. "And give Mr. Cooley a standing ovation."