BY MELISSA RUGGIERI and SHANE HARRISON
A piece of Atlanta music history has gone silent.
Alex Cooley, whose national legacy began with the Atlanta International Pop Festival in 1969 and continues in the shows at Eddie’s Attic, died in Florida Tuesday. He was 75 years old.
Cooley was born and raised in town, graduated from Grady High School, and got into music production in his 20s.
The Atlanta International Pop Festival, which Cooley helped produce, brought ’60s icons Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, the Staple Singers and others to the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton in July 1969. Cooley also presented the Grateful Dead at a free concert in Piedmont Park at about the same time.
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“We did it for the love of the music, we honestly did,” Cooley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997 of the pop festival. “We made $6,000, and, believe it or not, we felt kind of guilty about making money on it.”
Cooley was one of a long list of promoters on the first festival, but by the time the second Atlanta International Pop Festival arrived in 1970, Cooley was the primary organizer. The second fest took place in Byron, with the Allman Brothers, one of many Southern rock bands whom Cooley befriended, leading the bill.
“You couldn’t talk about any of the Southern rockers without Alex’s name being mentioned,” said Kaedy Kiely, morning show host of classic rock station The River, who knew Cooley for 30 years. “There wasn’t a more sincerely nice, giving, loving person than Alex. He transcended the business.”
The second Atlanta International Pop Festival lineup included Jimi Hendrix, who played to the largest American audience of his career — estimated by some at more than 300,000 — a little more than two months before his death on Sept. 18, 1970.
“When (Alex) started, acts weren’t playing in the South - they thought of us as a bunch of redneck racists,” said Peter Conlon Tuesday afternoon as he emotionally recalled his longtime business relationship and friendship with Cooley. “He convinced these agents to bring artists like Janis (Joplin) and (Jimi) Hendrix to a major pop festival in south Georgia with a black headliner…I think you’d get the Nobel Prize for that.”
In the mid-1970s, Cooley established the Electric Ballroom, which hosted Fleetwood Mac, Rush, Kiss, Bruce Springsteen and many more. Later, he was the primary talent booker at the Great Southeast Music Hall. In 1978, he brought the Sex Pistols to that venue. It was an ill-fated tour that drew protests, gawkers and press from around the world.
But Cooley was probably best known for his years as a partner with Conlon in Concert/Southern Promotions. Conlon estimates the pair promoted 300-400 concerts per year during their partnership, which began in 1981.
“We didn’t even have a contract for years until the lawyers told us we had to. We were working on handshakes,” Conlon said. “We used to laugh and say our relationship was more of a marriage than a business partnership.”
In addition to bringing some of the biggest names to town and running venues such as the Roxy and the Cotton Club, the pair produced Music Midtown, which debuted in 1994.
“Alex came up with the idea of Music Midtown. He wanted to do a festival before festivals were festivals – there was no Bonnaroo then. It was very small that first year – K.C. and the Sunshine Band was a headliner – but by the second year we had 60,000 people,” Conlon said.
Two years ago, Cooley joined Conlon at Piedmont Park during Music Midtown. The pair rode around the premises in a golf cart all day – “like we used to always do,” Conlon said.
They had sold their joint company in 1997, years after being established as the largest concert promoters in the southeast.
Concert/Southern was eventually gobbled up by larger corporate entities, landing at Clear Channel Communications, which spun off its events promotion arm as Live Nation. Conlon is now president of Live Nation Atlanta.
Cooley was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1987.
“Alex loves concerts,” Conlon said. “He would spend more time worrying about the fan experience than the artist. He was so focused on the fan experience, like all of the great promoters, like Bill Graham.”
In recent years, Cooley had been a partner at Eddie’s Attic, which he purchased with co-owner Dave Mattingly in 2011. Long one of the country’s premier acoustic venues, the club has diversified its bookings, though singer-songwriters are still a big part of the mix.
“I’ve learned an incredible lesson late in life,” Cooley told the AJC in a 2013 interview. “This talent that is out there … I didn’t know it was out there. It’s a whole new world (to me). I used to think that I developed talent with the Electric Ballroom and the Roxy, but those were still in the vein of what I was already working on — the artists might have already had a couple of hits. This is totally different.”
Cooley’s influence on the Atlanta music scene continues with his tutelage of Andrew Hingley, the talent buyer for Eddie’s Attic who has helped expand the venue’s reach and also, with Cooley’s guidance, established Atlanta’s Parklife music festival.
“He put a stamp on my life that will last forever,” Hingley said.