Film celebrates DJ who brought humor, humanity to civil rights

Disc Jockey James “Alley Pat” Patrick broadcasted big, loud rhythm & blues radio shows out of Auburn Avenue's Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in the epicenter of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.

Like an ever-present "Zelig" figure, he calls himself a "background person" but is connected to civil rights breakthroughs, whether using his show as an activist's bullhorn or springing demonstrators in later years when he became a bail bondsman. Yet he'll be the last guy to romanticize the movement's leaders. His career is celebrated in a new documentary, "Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded," screening at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Patrick remembers the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “as a plain, old ordinary Joe” who would ask Patrick to mix up a scotch and Coke dark enough to pass the drink off as virgin. And speaking at Hosea Williams’ funeral, Alley Pat brought a somber audience to tears of uproarious laughter with stories of the “Hosea after midnight” that few people knew like he did.

Although both men were serious about racial equality, they sparred with a Martin and Lewis-type schtick in the 1990s on Patrick’s public access talk show.

“I became a man on Auburn Avenue,” Patrick, who turned 90 last December, said. “I learned a whole lot of things and how to be a lot of people. But the one thing that was taught to me there is that nobody’s important. Nobody’s better than anybody else.”

Patrick first went on the air in 1951 on WERD, America’s first black-owned radio station. Transmitting at 1,000 watts, this was raw, community radio where DJs could play, and say, just about anything.

“The fact that his bosses prohibited from him from pre-recording [ads] meant that he had to read them live day-in and day-out,” said director and local filmmaker Tom Roche. “In the tedium, the rascal in him would sneak in and he started to have fun with it. He would insult the sponsors. It was so over the top and hilarious that he got away with it every time.” Roche calls Alley Pat the "architect of R&B radio."

Radio historian and author Marsha Washington George, whose uncle, WERD program director Ken Knight, discovered Patrick while he was calling a bingo game at a country club, recalls the significance of Alley Pat’s treatment of the sponsors who buttered his bread.

“He would be talking about a florist and often the vendor would be on the air with him. Alley Pat would say, ‘you don’t want to buy no flowers from them. We know not to buy your flowers because you’re too cheap to buy me flowers if I needed them.’ He was basically harmless. But you can’t do that on the radio today.”

On his show, Patrick needled callers and blithely skewered racial, religious and social sacred cows. Though he was ad-libbing, some say he knew exactly what he was doing.

“Pat would play a simpleton on the air for comedic effect,” Roche said. “But when you got to know him, you’d realize he’s quite a citizen of the world. He’d jet up to New York to see plays, he’s been to Africa and he’d go out to L.A. to hang out with John Lee Hooker.”

White listeners could tune in anonymously for exposure to a culture and music that up until then had remained a mystery. The jazz, blues and R&B Pat played on his shows included the likes of Count Basie, Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson and Ruth Brown.

“In the ’50s, you had white teenagers who were being told that this race was useless,” Roche said. “But they could tune into the radio in private and hear a Pat Boone song on the white station, and then hear Fats Domino doing the same thing and they could hear for themselves that it was far superior.”

While the film may introduce audiences to someone who by most accounts looks like a trailblazer and a tastemaker, Pat, who said he still looks forward to getting back on the radio and possibly television, bristles at the accolades.

“Don’t praise me,” he said. “That makes me sick in the stomach. I used to like to drink whiskey. I don’t drink it anymore, but I like people to think I do because I like people to think the worst of me. I like that. I like that because it goes against the grain.”