TV Week: Legendary D.C. Broadcaster Petey Greene

Lurma Rackley
Wednesday, February 4, 2009 11:00 AM

"I'll tell it to the hot, I'll tell it to the cold

I'll tell it to the young, I'll tell it to the old

I don't want no laughin', I don't want no cryin'

and most of all, no signifyin' ... "

That was the signature sign-off of legendary D.C. broadcaster Petey Greene, profiled in a PBS documentary that was broadcast Tuesday night on PBS.

Lurma Rackley, who wrote a story about the documentary ("Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene") featured in Sunday's TV Week, also wrote a book about the local icon ("Laugh If You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny"), based on hours of taped sessions with him in 1982-83, just before his death from cancer in January 1984.

Rackley will be online on Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 11 a.m. ET to talk about Petey Greene and his life as an ex-con, community activist and broadcaster.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


Lurma Rackley: Thank you for joining me to talk about the legendary Petey Greene. Hope you had a chance to catch the documentary last night so we can share thoughts about the way it brought Petey to life for those of us who knew him and people who were meeting him for the first time. Or just to share your memories of Petey.


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Rackley: What did you think of the Adjust Your Color documentary? And how do you compare it to the movie Talk to Me? Did you have anything to do with either one? Thank you.

Lurma Rackley: I think the documentary does a good job of showing Petey in his complexity; and the footage from his shows makes it great. The movie fictionalized much of Petey's life, and evidently was never intended to tell the real story. No, I was not involved in either. But some of the information in both is also in my book, which is based on a year's worth of tape recorded sessions with Petey. For example, the story of Petey talking the convict down from the tower is in my book -- told in Petey's own words.


Hyattsville, Md.: I am upset with myself for missing the airing of this special. Do you know if it will air again and if so when?


Lurma Rackley: Yes, I am pretty sure it will air again. You can check with your local PBS station or go to the "Adjust Your Color" web site to see listings of stations and times. You may even be able to order a copy on line from that site.


Columbia, Md.: Ms. Rackley, Your first book about Petey Greene was so entertaining and informative! When will you write another -- whatever the subject -- as long as it has a picture of you! I quickly reviewed my download of yesterday's PBS program this morning, but saw no interview with you, as opposed to that with other "personalities". Did I miss something? Signed: An Admiring Columiba Doctor

Lurma Rackley: Thank you for the comment about the book. I take it as a compliment to Petey, too, because he's the one who makes it so entertaining, humorous, and informative about DC and its history. No, I was not involved in the making of the documentary, but I am happy to see the documentary out. It goes a long way toward revealing Petey in all his facets.


Washington, D.C.: Did the producers of the movie "Talk to Me" use your book as the basis for the film, because I read your book and there was a huge disconnect between facts of the book and the movie?

Lurma Rackley: No, they did not. Dewey Hughes told me that his intent behind "Talk to Me" was to tell a story about WOL radio and the friendship between two men, Dewey Hughes and Petey Greene. He said the movie was not intended to tell Petey's real life story, and that the documentary serves that purpose instead. My book is based on recordings of Petey's memories, and the stories are told the way he revealed episodes of his life.


Arlington, Va.: Hi. Exactly what did Petey mean by "no signifyin'" Was that something he coined or was it a popular term?

Lurma Rackley: Actually, Petey learned to "signify" from older men he watched in his neighborhood and in the bootleg joint his mother and father operated out of their home at a point during his childhood. There was even a running joke/rhyme in the popular culture about a "signifying monkey" who would start trouble in the jungle but escape consequences by deftly putting the blame on others. To "signify" is, in essence, to start some mess, usually by talking "bad" about somebody.


Philadelphia, Pa.: What did you think of the movie about Petey Greene? How much of the movie was fiction?

Lurma Rackley: Much of the movie was fiction. Of course I admire Don Cheadle, and I think he did a great acting job. I hope people will turn to my book, and now this documentary, to understand the real Petey Greene, and that they will take the movie as a Hollywood story that spurs them to want to know more about the real Petey Greene. I think the people who put the documentary together -- especially their use of footage from Petey's shows -- did a good job.


Connecticut: Hi Lurma. Your book is great! Everyone should read it. Do you think Petey would be happy with today's "shock radio/TV"? What was such fun and new seems so coarsened now. And I wonder what he might think of President Obama.

Lurma Rackley: Thank you for the compliment. I absolutely had to finish Petey's book or risk having him "signify" on me in the afterlife. (smile) He chose the title and by repeating them more than once, he guided me on which stories to tell out of the mountain of material I amassed for his memoir. I believe Petey would be deliriously happy about Obama's success, and he would have been right up in Ben's Chili Bowl to coach the president on ordering a half-smoke. That was one of Petey's favorite places to eat and hang out.


Alexandria, Va. : During his stint on TV Petey Green was a raw and inspiring voice for the urban community. His political views were bold conveying that it is righteous to challenge the status quo when things are not right and to do it in high intellectual street jive mackin' was ingenious. I miss this dude! Nap.

Lurma Rackley: You are right! Petey was the real deal, an authentic voice from the community. I think many people underestimated his genius. Because he butchered the King's English routinely, some people did not know how smart he was. In fact, he talked that way on purpose -- often to get a rise out of "college" people and at the same time, to stay "street" like he wanted to be. As part of his routine toward the end of his life, Petey read several newspapers each morning before leaving for his job at UPO at 8 a.m.


Santa Barbara, Calif.: Thanks for the heads-up on the documentary about "Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene." It's wonderful taking deeper look into the truth of a character such as Petey Greene. I watched it last night, a riveting documentary to say the least. I can't wait to add it to my collection. Your book "Laugh if You Like Ain't a Damn Thing Funny" gave me yet another perspective on the likes of Petey. I'm curious though, you didn't say much about the movie "Talk to Me" which is excellent, and one of the best movie compliments to a documentary I've ever seen. Can you tell us more about who and how Hollywood stumbled upon this story, and how your friendship with Petey caused you to write the book?

Lurma Rackley: That's a lot to answer, and I probably can't do it in this format. But, short answer: the movie fictionalizes much of Petey's life; and while it is a very good movie, I felt that it left the impression that Petey failed and was out of broadcasting at the end of his life. That is not true. Petey was going stronger at the end than ever before. The documentary makes that clear, and I am grateful that so many people -- people who might not get the book -- will see this successful side of him. Hollywood got the story from Dewey Hughes, who once managed Petey. Dewey and I at one time were going to work together on bringing Petey's story to light -- because Petey entrusted me with his memoir -- but that arrangement fell apart. As it is, I wish Dewey all the success with his endeavors.


Washingtgon, D.C.: I saw the show last night, and I really apprecaited the way it connected with the District's history over the past 40 years.

What do you think Greene would have thought of the District today?

Lurma Rackley: I think Petey would have been pleased to see U Street coming back to life but would have in his typical fashion held officials and community organizers' feet to the fire to be sure lower income people were not run over and forgotten in the rush to develop the city. He loved DC deeply and wanted nothing more than to see the folk he called "the little people" get a fair shake.


Washington, D.C.: When you were interviewing Petey, was he sick? Did both of you know he had cancer? And how did you get to know him in the first place?

Lurma Rackley: No, I did not know he had cancer, and I don't think he knew when we first started recording his memories. Of course he knew at some point, but he didn't tell me. He just told me he was having "stomach problems," and at one point he asked me about my sister's holistic contacts -- but he was too far gone at that point to really investigate a natural course. I saw that he looked sick but I was in denial, and he never revealed the fatal nature of the illness. I got to know him because we were both in media and traveled in the same circles. Also, I knew him through Dewey Hughes, who was managing him and introduced him to me when I went to WOL radio station to interview Dewey for a profile I was working on for The Washington Star in my early days as a reporter.


Laurel, Md.: Hi Lurma,

I watched the documentary and really enjoyed it. However, there was not much talk about Petey's nuclear family in the documentary or the movie Talk to Me. Were they consulted at all? Was Petey very private with his personal life? I was too little to enjoy his radio or television show. Thanks.

Lurma Rackley: Petey very often talked about his children during his monologues, and he clearly loved them deeply. By the time I started working with him to write a memoir, the children and their mother had moved away, which was a source of pain for Petey. He was cautious in talking about his relationship with their mother, but never hesitant to talk about the children. I do not think they were involved in either the movie or the documentary; but one of Petey's nephews was involved in the documentary.


Nashville, Tenn.: Hi,

Just wanted to tell you that your book was a righteous read and that the real Petey Greene as I knew him is found only between the covers of that volume. I think you should tell your audience how to purchase the book. Medical people say that laughter is a potent cure for what ails you. If that's true, then everybody interested in his/her own good health should read the book.

Lurma Rackley: Thanks for the prompt! People can order "Laugh If You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny, the Life Story of Ralph 'Petey' Greene as told to Lurma Rackley" from any dot com or from the publisher, Xlibris. In DC, the bookstore Busboys and Poets often carries it. I launched the book in 2004 then updated it with corrections and the addition of a photo of Petey's father -- provided by his half-sister Constance who lives in Philadelphia. Petey's humor shines through even when he's talking about something that made him sad. He looked at life in such a refreshing manner!


Birmingham, Ala.: Is is true that the same people involved in the documentary are some of the same people who did the movie? It's fasinating to see such an interest in a story that they have taken it a step further.

Lurma Rackley: Yes, indeed. And I am pleased that they produced the documentary. If you saw the movie, you know that it offers a story of Dewey Hughes and Petey Greene. Dewey encouraged the documentary so people could get a look at the real Petey Greene who is deeply loved in Washington, DC and deserves a prominent place in black history. When I was working with Petey on his story, it was clear to me that his life could be illuminating to so many people who face daunting odds in their march toward a fulfilling life.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Lurma!

Congratulations on the book and finally getting some recognition for all the long hard work. The best to you. Darryl Cowherd

Lurma Rackley: Thanks. It's all for Petey. His story, his real story, deserves to be told, not just because he was a fascinating man who was devoted to uplifting people in the nation's capital but because he wanted his life to be instructive to other people. He especially wanted young black people to know they could make it in spite of any odds. The documentary and the book both tell Petey's story in his own words -- the documentary, through footage; the book, through quotes and hilarious recollections.


Kensington, Md.: My favorite Petey Greene story. Time: May, 1968, just a few weeks after the riots. Place: Sunday evening at the Howard Theatre, where for two bucks you could see five or six great R&B acts.

That evening, Petey Greene was the MC, and was introducing the usual all-star cast, including the Dells, the Royalettes, etc. Then all of a sudden he puts on this dead serious air and starts lecturing the crowd, about how he didn't want "no more SHOOTIN, no more LOOTIN, and no more gettin in the man's face. Y'all UNDERSTAND?" The whole crowd went dead silent.

And then a 10-year-old boy in the balcony, obviously a plant, stands up and chirps in a high-pitched squeak, "DON'T KNOW ABOUT THAT!"

They were still cracking up ten minutes later, and I'd give a pretty penny to be able to see a tape of that sublime moment.

Lurma Rackley: I would, too. A lot of people don't know that Petey was a stand-up comic, in addition to being a broadcaster and a community organizer in Washington, DC. In fact, even when he was battling alcoholism as a young man just back from the Korean War, he got jobs as the opening act for some of the great entertainers of his day. He said Sam Cooke once bailed him out of jail for being drunk -- in the days when guys got arrested for being drunk and disorderly. And he said Sam told him he could not understand how a man of Petey's genius was letting alcohol get in the way.


Nashville, Tenn.: Ms. Rackley, movie and media people tend to focus almost exclusively on Petey's career as a master of two broadcast platforms. That's all good to know. But I sense that Petey had something in common with President Obama: he was, I believe, a well-known community organizer. Can you offer more information about the types of things Petey did as an employee of the United Planning Organization in the District of Columbia; what impact his activities there may have had on public policy and, most especially, on the ordinary people he often championed when he was on-air?

Lurma Rackley: You are right, Petey was first and foremost a community organizer. When he was about to be released from prison and had to get a job first, he managed to get an interview with executives of the United Planning Organization, the anti-poverty agency under President Johnson's war against poverty. The interviewers asked him what did he know about anti-poverty work, and he answered: "What do I know about poverty? I got a PhD in it!" Community organizing came naturally to Petey because he knew the streets of DC like the back of his hand. He grew up in Georgetown/Foggy Bottom and played football in little league all over the city as a kid, and appeared in nightclubs around the city as an opening act. Everyone knew Petey even before he devoted himself to serious anti-poverty work at UPO. Once there, he encouraged people to vote, helped them find jobs, and made sure no one on his watch went hungry. He also organized programs specifically targeted to the elderly and to young people throughout the city.


Silver Spring, Md.: Since you knew Petey both before and during his illness, did his take on life and death change, from his "wild and crazy" days, after he became so ill?

Lurma Rackley: Actually, Petey's approach to life had changed before I started meeting with him regularly to record his life memories. In fact, he had stopped drinking by the time we began our project. If he had not been sober, he said, we probably could not have finished the recordings. He also had gotten baptised, had gone "back" to the church, something his beloved grandmother had always prayed he would do. He talked a lot about this in recording his memories, so all of this is in the book.


Washington, D.C.: I enjoyed both the movie and last night's documentary, but I thought one problem with the movie was that it didn't make any effort to recreate D.C. It was clearly filmed on a generic urban soundstage, and with the exception of the national landmarks, there were no recognizable places.

The documentary was great because of all the in different parts of the city, the archival footage and the images of many of D.C.'s biggest personalities in their heyday, Marion Barry, Frank Smith, a young Donna Brazile. Great work!

Lurma Rackley: I liked that about the documentary, too, second only to loving seeing Petey on the set doing his thing. Petey loved DC so much, it was good to see streets he traveled. For his memoir, he used his phenomenal gift of recall to talk about the city and its history including U Street in its heydey.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Petey's voice is one that is sorely needed today. I loved the fact that Petey knew so much about what was going on in his community. What made him want to be of such great service to Washington D.C., and who helped Petey get on the map?

Lurma Rackley: I think the lessons he learned at his grandmother's knee instilled in him a desire to help people. Also, once he got a chance to better his circumstances, he wanted to see other people get that same chance. He constantly gave advice to young people about advancing but remembering where they came from. He put himself on the map with his outrageous, compelling, and truthful commentary. Petey was on the speaking circuit in the anti-poverty movement when Dewey Hughes recognized how much people paid attention to Petey Greene -- and how funny Petey was -- and gave him a start on radio.


Dallas, Tex.: Lurma. I enjoyed your book very much. Are you planning to write another book, and if so will it be part II of Petey Greene?

Lurma Rackley: I'd love to write about Petey again, because I have a mountain of transcript and tapes that I didn't have room to include in "Laugh If You Like ..." But I also want to write about my mother and her role in the Orangeburg, SC, civil rights movement. So, fingers crossed. Thanks for asking.


Detroit, Mich.: Hi Lurma,

Love the title to your book, "Laugh if You Like Aint a Damn Thing Funny." What can you say you learned from knowing someone such as Petey? What did knowing him contribute to your life personally?

Thanks for your answer.

Lurma Rackley: I grew to love Petey deeply during the sessions, because I understood how brilliant and sensitive he actually was and how much he overcame to get where he got. I think he taught me to lighten up, to laugh a lot more at stuff that I might have found uncomfortable before ... like when he was on the set doing a segment on soul food, licking his fingers from a pot of chit'lins'.... I felt and still feel that he entrusted me with his story, and it's my responsibility to protect it and tell it like he wanted it told. Thanks for the compliment.


Laurel, Md.: Just curious if Petey Green and the infamous D.C. queenpin Odessa Madre ever crossed paths? That would've been interesting to see.

Lurma Rackley: I think yes, but I'd have to go plowing through my tapes of his memories to know anything specific about their interaction. Because Petey had already died by the time I was completing the book, I chose to include episodes he told me more than once -- otherwise, I would have had a book too big to lift!


Lurma Rackley: Thanks for all your comments and questions. Be sure to check your local tv guide for additional airings of the documentary; and if you haven't read "Laugh If You Like ..." please get a copy. I work at CARE in Atlanta. If you want to reach me, feel free to call 404-979-9450. Bye.



Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive