This profile is part of a yearlong series titled The Root's Salute to Unsung Heroes, which will put a weekly spotlight on African Americans who have been recognized by the Corporation for National and Community Service as Drum Majors for Service. The inspiration for the honor is the spirit of community service that Martin Luther King Jr. described in his 1968 sermon "The Drum Major Instinct."
Let it never be said that James "Alley Pat" Patrick was one of your run-of-the-mill do-gooders. At least, don't say it in the legendary disc jockey's presence. Patrick, who has been tabbed by the White House as one of more than 1,000 recipients of the Martin Luther King Drum Majors for Service Awards, cultivates an image of disreputability the way some politicians cling to sanctimony and jingoism.
"People probably put the Alley in my name because I was a low-down character," says Patrick, who turned 92 in December.
Think of him, he says, as one of the guys sharing a pint in an alley, while more-virtuous souls are sharing high-minded thoughts in church.
Yet Patrick, who has long since given up drinking, has been an undeniable force for good in his long, eventful life. A groundbreaking radio personality on Atlanta's WERD, the first black-owned station in the country, Patrick was one of the DJs who gave black radio of the 1950s and '60s its wide-open, energetic style, mixing hot music with outrageous humor and appeals for justice in the segregated Deep South.
He was also known, during another phase of his career, as the black bail bondsman who would show up in small-town bastions of Jim Crow to bail out civil rights protesters. Among his many clients was Martin Luther King Jr., a well-known frequenter of Southern jails in those days of unrest.
But don't call Patrick a hero or a radio icon. "I'm not one of those people who likes to be out front," he says. "I like being in the background. I don't want any glory."
Old-time radio buffs probably remember Patrick best as a kind of down-home Don Rickles, an infallible detector of the foibles and weaknesses of callers or in-studio guests or even sponsors. Every politician or preacher or upright citizen of Atlanta was fair game for the sharp-tongued DJ, who uproariously depicted them as bootleggers, skirt chasers, grammatical dolts or secret carousers, sometimes even accurately. He can't remember all the names of his targets now, but he remembers the soft spots that he aimed for.
"There was one guy — what was his name? — a baseball announcer. He used to say, 'So-and-so slud into second base.' " Patrick laughs heartily, still pleased with the rough beauty of a long-ago remark.
Funny thing, people loved it, even those who were being skewered. "People liked for you to talk about them selling corn whiskey," Patrick recalls. "They liked you to talk about them, put their name out in public, give them some notoriety. Nobody ever got angry about it."
When he was done with one of his targets, Alley Pat would move to the turntable and spin a record by Ray Charles or Ruth Brown, sometimes hollering over the beat in his raspy baritone: "Looky here, this is what makes the preacher lay down his Bible. This is what makes the old man feel good. Stretch it, gramps!"
Born in Montezuma, Ga., Patrick was the son of Baptist preacher K.D. Patrick and his wife, Mariah, a nurse. His parents kept him on an upwardly mobile track, heading him toward college and an eventual career as a doctor or lawyer. They also kept him off the football team ("I very badly wanted to play football"), for which, he says now, he is "indeed grateful, because I don't have those ills that you catch from having played football."
He ended up at Morehouse College, leaving with a science degree and a future, he thought, in medicine. He did a stint in the Army, joining the 332nd Fighter Group in Alabama, hoping to become one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, celebrated in the current movie Red Tails.
But officers sized up Patrick's lanky 6-foot-2 frame and decided that he was too big to fit comfortably in the cockpit of one of the group's P-40 Warhawks. Instead he became the "young, good-looking Pfc" who ran the PX at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
Back in Atlanta, he readied himself for medical school. But his plans changed one evening in 1951 when he was hired by a club to call a bingo game, using his talent for impromptu comedic patter to keep the match interesting. The program director for WERD, a 1,000-watt Atlanta newcomer, happened to be present, and he promptly recruited Patrick as an on-air personality.
Patrick learned his craft on the job. "I did the news, I did the records, I did the controversial stuff," he says. "I did everything. I was very assiduous in promoting the cause of civil rights."
In 1954 he moved on to WAOK, the nation's first station to use 24-hour black programming. He also became a radio impresario, producing radio shows with live entertainment in the Prince Hall Masonic Temple on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue. Think of almost any African-American entertainer from that era — Count Basie, Muddy Waters, Ruth Brown, James Brown — and Patrick not only worked with them but often lodged them at his home.
Sam Cooke? "Yeah, I was with him on the chitlin' circuit for about a month," Patrick says. Ray Charles? "I'm the one that brought him to Atlanta. He stayed at my house for a couple of weeks while he was trying to get the money to go down to Jacksonville."
Patrick eventually moved from radio to television with Alley Pat's Place on WVEU Channel 69, interviewing local sports, political and church figures and still using his talent for benign ridicule with his adoring subjects. Then he moved his show to a public-access channel. He's philosophical about the evolution of black radio in the 1970s to the cooler urban-contemporary format. "Music changes every 15 or 20 years," he says.
In the 1960s his career took a radical turn when he became Atlanta's first black bail bondsman. While he is celebrated as the man who bailed out civil rights activists, he takes pride in having run a colorblind business, sometimes bailing out whites from some of the same towns where he had been threatened for freeing King from a county lockup.
One of Patrick's two daughters, Kelley Wilson (his son, James Jr., died of cancer 12 years ago), says that growing up around her father was usually lots of laughs. "He's always been that way, on or off the stage," she says. "Always a jokester. I used to see how no one ever got angry about what he was saying. It was how he said it. He had an amazing talent. I don't think he ever met a stranger."
Patrick, who now lives in an assisted living facility and has limited mobility (he says he won't use a cane but sometimes a walker), still likes to talk about the old days and his own role on the edges of the action.
"People used to say to my dad, 'You were a part of the civil rights movement, but I never saw you marching,' " says Wilson. "He'd say that, first of all, he didn't like the heat, with the walking up and down streets. He said he'd rather watch it on television. Then he'd say, 'If I was out there marching, who was going to get them out of jail?' "
Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.