AN OFFICIAL-SOUNDING VOICE OPENS the show, riffing on the Superman theme: “Faster than Emmitt Smith, more powerful than a DART train, able to leap the Longhorn Ballroom in a single bound!” A stream of guttural shouts, screams, and whoops follows, then comes a flood of jive talk. “Yes, indeedy, sweetie, we walkin’ on dirt, and the dirt ain’t walkin’ on us!” says the deejay. “If you can’t dig this, you got a hole in your soul!”
At most radio stations the patter serves as filler between the advertising and the music—in this case, soul oldies such as “Back Stabbers,” a hit for the O’Jays in the seventies. But on this show the music is merely a breather from the high-octane chatter. That’s what keeps the audience tuned in. The nanosecond the song begins to fade, the rhyming rap returns. “Oh, yeah, I’m trying to tickle your funny bone while you got me on,” he says. “If you just got out of jail, and you ain’t got but a nickel and a nail, turn me on and I’ll turn you on!” Bobby Patterson, my favorite deejay in the state, is on the air.
As the fifth-largest media market in the nation, Dallas-Fort Worth boasts an exceptional number of interesting personalities worth tuning in, among them Ron Chapman, Glenn Mitchell, Russ Parr, the Hardliners, Norm Hitzges, Hal Jay, Katie Pruett, Marla Crockett, and Kidd Kraddick. But if it’s between nine and noon on a weekday, my car radio is locked onto Patterson’s Soul 73, KKDA-AM, an unheralded station from Grand Prairie that mainly targets older black listeners and features rhythm and blues, soul, and gospel oldies.
Patterson is hardly the latest flavor in radio deejays. It would be more accurate to call the 58-year-old a throwback, a last echo of honest-to-James-Brown soul broadcasting recalling an era when the deejay was as much of a star as the music. He doesn’t just rhyme, which he happens to do better than anyone on the radio. He evokes radio at its best. Patterson is always upbeat, engaging, and brimming with shtick, delivering his repertoire with the timing of a seasoned entertainer who knows how to work a crowd. He sounds sincere, an uncommon quality in his line of work. He’s personable and personal, constantly working the phones and sending shout-outs to nursing homes, barbershops, kinfolk, and Shady Grove Baptist, the church where he was baptized as a baby.
The frenetic pace keeps everyone on his toes, and that includes the buttoned-down traffic reporter. As Patterson slides into that segment, he’s extolling the virtues of soul food. “I love chitlins. I got to have it! I ain’t gonna lose it!” he says. All morning he has been encouraging listeners to phone in their “recipes,” and Patterson repeats some to the traffic reporter. “You ever had chitlins in a blanket? Moo Goo Gai chitlins?” It’s obvious the reporter just wants to update road conditions, and as he finishes, Patterson promises to spend the next traffic segment teaching him the Ebonics Word of the Day. His parting shot is, “Thanks for giving us the lowdown on the slowdown!”
It’s rare for a talent like Patterson to count in modern broadcasting, in which cookie-cutter formats, voice streaming from distant locations, and syndication define programming trends, reflecting radio’s slide from a public trust to a bottom-line business. Personalities like his were once the meat and potatoes of the medium. I grew up listening to radio in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, raised on voices as distinctive as their air names: the Mad Lad, the Weird Beard, the Big R, the Rabbit, Mark E. Baby, Granny Emma. Every one was a character as cool as the music. As radio shifted to more-targeted demographics and narrowcasting, an unstated policy went into effect decreeing morning drive—the six-to-nine time slot—as the only time when entertainment (such as it is) is allowed. During the rest of the day, the duties of most jocks consist largely of punching the right buttons, playing commercials at a certain time, giving a voice to the essential information, and otherwise keeping everything flowing.
KKDA-AM does it differently. It’s music-heavy, of course, but it also emphasizes news and information of particular interest to the black community during the morning-drive shift with hosts Willis Johnson, Roger B., and Iola Johnson, who was one of the first black television news anchors in Texas. All of the deejays have the freedom to run their shows as they see fit, and their personalities shine through. Millie Jackson, the bawdy, acid-tongued soul singer with her own string of hits, phones in the afternoon shift from her home in Atlanta. Reverend R. L. Griffin, a blues singer and the proprietor of RL’s Blues Palace in South Dallas, holds down the evening slot with a sincere, thoughtful tone. Before his death, in 2000, Johnny Taylor, the Dallas vocalist whose hit “Disco Lady” reached the top of the pop charts in 1976, was a KKDA deejay.
Still, even with that lineup, Bobby does it better than the rest. If he sounds fresh, it’s because it’s only his third year in broadcasting. If he sounds slick, it’s because he has been honing his delivery since the late fifties, when he started singing and playing guitar professionally. He rode the storied chitlin circuit, where black entertainers performed for black audiences in a revue format not unlike vaudeville, and compiled an impressive discography of recordings for regional labels, such as Abnak, Jewel/Paula, Malaco, and Ichiban. He has also produced, promoted, and composed (the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “How Do You Spell Love?”).
The concept of stage performers working radio is old hat in black communities across the South. Until he died late last year, Rufus Thomas, the creator of the dance the funky chicken, worked at WDIA-AM in Memphis, a soul-oldies station similar to KKDA. But that experience is a large part of what makes Patterson’s show one of the last echoes of authentic Southern soul on the airwaves. Like he says on one of his patented raps, “I’m just a ghetto man doing the best I can. If I’m lying, I’ll kiss a crippled cricket. Listen to me and your hair will be so nappy even Wilson can’t Pickett. You’re listening to the poet and you know it. You can take the blues out of the truth, but you can’t take the truth out of the blues. Ah ha!”
Dressed in olive-green Army fatigues and python cowboy boots, he works standing up in a small studio in an anonymous office building, directly facing his producer, Alecia Thompson, who works the control board and prompts Patterson with all the necessary cues. Whenever the music is playing, he might pause for a beat to savor Tommy Tucker’s whine on “Hi Heeled Sneakers” or move his hips to “Brick House” by the Commodores, but he’s mostly staying busy, consulting the worn notebook in front of him where some of his more memorable lines are scribbled. He takes phone calls, recording some of them to put on the air and telling other callers to hold because he’s going to go live with them. Some folks he simply thanks for calling. Even though his mike isn’t on, he’s laughing, jiving, and carrying on like he’s on the air. Evidently, this is no act.
He also loves to talk about his rich musical past, including falling under the influence of soul singer Joe Tex (“the greatest showman I’ve ever seen”) and being tight with Bobby Bland, one of Soul 73’s most requested artists. Patterson remembers performing with a Chicano kid named Sam Samudio who could barely speak English. Samudio, of course, went on to don a turban and rock the world as Sam the Sham of “Wooly Bully” fame. He also tells stories about playing with two young kids in Dallas named Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan.
It’s comforting to know there’s still room for someone like Patterson on the airwaves, especially in light of how dull and predictable broadcasting is up and down the rest of the dial. If nothing else, he’s a reminder that radio’s theater-of-the-mind potential can be utilized to the fullest, without going over the edge. When the voice crackling over the AM declares, “I’m gonna chase lightning and capture thunder, walk through the graveyard and make the dead folk wonder,” I know at least one listener who doesn’t doubt for a minute that he can.