“The music is recorded… I’m ‘bout the only thing live around here.” – Alley Pat Those words were uttered into a microphone, charged through the airwaves and came alive on radios across Atlanta some time in the mid-eighties, signaling the start of three to four hours of conversation, joking, jiving, trash talk and, if you’re lucky, some good music from the 50s and 60s.
It was time for James Patrick, known to radio audiences as “Alley Pat.” Georgia born and bred, Patrick arrived in Atlanta in the late 30s, attending high school and doing odd jobs before studying pre-med at Morehouse College. It was there that Ken Knight, programming director of the first black owned radio station WERD, approached him with a DJ job. Many trials and errors later, Patrick found his groove as a smack talkin’, straight-from-the-hip talk radio style DJ on indie black radio stations, until the changing face of radio ended his gig in 1990. In between, he was a concert emcee, bail bondsman, civil rights activist and public access talk show host.
Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded documents Patrick’s brilliant career on radio. Producer/director/editor Pat Roche was turned on to Patrick’s radio shows when he arrived in Atlanta in 1983. “A friend of mine said ‘You really ought to check out this guy Alley Pat’,” Roche recalls, “’He’s got an afternoon show and it’s just insane.’” Roche, a former DJ and fan of jazz and R&B, listened and was floored, not by the technical sloppiness of the program, but the fun vibe of the show. Wanting to save Patrick’s shows from vanishing into the ethers, Roche began recording them, amassing about 20 hours of the “found art-weirdness.” Years later, Roche recalled his collection and decided to make a documentary. His research lead to a discovery of a man who was more than a wise-crackin’ DJ. What was to be a short documentary became an eighty-minute tribute to one of Atlanta’s greatest folk figures.
Alley Pat highlights Patrick’s career, as well as gives insight into the man and the era in which he lived and worked. With the screen filled with images of 50s and the soundtrack with music of the day, radio historians, DJs, civil rights icon Andrew Young and Patrick himself tell the story of Atlanta’s greatest DJ. And there are Roche’s recordings: The no holds barred observations, the commercials (where he’d sometimes insult the sponsor and the product!), the friendly insults, the razzing of preachers (who’d try to convert him on the air!), conversations with callers and general jive talk. What emerges is a man who plays a fool on the air, but is actually an intelligent and modest man. “He is very smart,” is Roche’s assessment of Patrick from their meetings, “He’s just a very smart guy, but he knows the way to communicate with the people of the city is to get down on their level.” H. Johnson, WABE on-air personality agrees with this view. “I [began] to see through all the clowning around,” he says in the film, “I said this guy is deep.”
As seen in the film, Patrick’s appeal knows no boundaries. Alley Pat’s intended audience was African-American, but he seems to have connected with white audiences as well. Blacks and whites were treated to an eclectic blend of R&B, jazz, white boogie-woogie and novelty records. Pat’s jokes targeted both races, and his on-air phone conversations crossed color lines also. His manic style has crossed barriers of time and region. According to Roche, audiences at the Macon Film Festival began laughing in the third minute of the film and continued throughout the screening. Alley Pat was also selected for a film festival in Wales.
Despite the film and its subject teeming with universal appeal, Roche made Alley Pat for an Atlanta audience. “This is my gift to the city,” he says. It is a perfect gift: A document of the city’s radio culture and history, a presentation of rare recordings, and a living portrait of one of her greatest historical figures.
Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded has its Atlanta premiere on Saturday, April 17 at 7 pm. Filmmaker Tom Roche and James “Alley Pat” Patrick will be in attendance.
A second screening is Tuesday, April 20 at 2:45 pm.
Stephen Hart is a Clayton County Georgia librarian by day, and a screenwriter and filmmaker night and weekends. He is a staff writer for CinemATL.