Petey Greene is an ex-convict, an ex-junkie, an ex-alcoholic and the winner of two local Emmys for his television show, "Petey Greene's Washington."
Petey Greene does two things very well: talk and look mean. At the moment he is doing both, as he leans forward across the cafeteria table and repeats, syllable by syllable, the question he has just been asked -- "What is a 'Bama?" His eyes narrow behind the big square frames of his glasses. "A 'Bama," he informs his white interviewer, "is the worst thing you can call a black man in this town."
Petey Greene's friend Jerry Washington has taken that "worst thing" and turned it into what may be Washington's best radio show, "The 'Bama Hour." The show is a kind of real-life soap opera, an ongoing oral history of one man, the 'Bama Man, who is the storyteller Jerry Washington becomes when he goes on the air.
Jerry Washington was born in the Deep South in 1929, came north after World War II and has not been back since then. His has been a hard life, but not unusually so. While there are uncommon aspects to it -- an acquaintance with Martin Luther King Jr., a career that took him to Asia and Alaska, and success at age 51 as a radio personality -- what is most striking about Jerry Washington's history is its similarity to that of so many thousands of other Washingtonians. Indeed, his life is unremarkable but for one thing: his exceptional ability to talk about it on the radio and to illustrate that talk with rhythm and blues records. If future historians, or contemporary white Americans, want to know what it was like to be black in America during the 20th century, they would do well to start by listening to "The 'Bama Hour."
The name of the show points to a crucial part of the 20th-century black experience. The word "'Bama" is black slang for a Southern-born black. It was coined as a result of one of history's great migrations, this century's mass movement of Americans, many of them black, from the rural South to the urban North. This exodus transformed the cities of the North, including Washington, D.C. At the turn of the century, only one out of 20 black residents in the District had migrated from the South; by midcentury, the proportion was one in three. Today, about half the blacks living in the District were born elsewhere, mainly in the southern seaboard states: Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. The District's proportion of southern-born blacks is now declining, however, because the exodus has ended.
But at 10:59 on this cloudy Saturday morning, Jerry Washington -- unshaven, overweight and old at 51, with a mustache and a frown on his face and a big cast on his right foot -- looks more like Richard Pryor's father than he does a cultural historian. He is sitting in a small, hot, windowless broadcasting studio in the renovated building in Washington's Chinatown that houses WPFW-FM, the local outlet of the nonprofit Pacifica radio network. Strewn around Washington's feet on the dirty carpet is the paraphernalia of radio -- cassettes and cables, boxes and microphones. Behind him, but within easy reach, are his own possessions: a cloth sack containing a selection of records from his home collection of 2,000 or so, his Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap and his crutches.
As the second hand sweeps up to 11 a.m., Washington switches on one of the two turntables. One of his theme songs, Joe Hinton's bluesy version of "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away," starts to play. His next selection is "Nothing Takes the Place of You," by Toussaint McCall. He follows it with Al Green's more modern version of the same song. Washington believes that through such repetition he teaches his listeners to appreciate the stylistic idiosyncrasies of individual singers and to recognize the dominate characteristics of musical eras. But he is careful to entertain as well as educate, so when the song ends, he sighs into the microphone, "I've got friends. I've got money. but it ain't the same. Nothing takes the place of you." He then plays Al Green's languid rendition of "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?"
Regular listeners know what that song signifies, for Washington plays it when he feels morose; he plays it often. A few days later, after playing the same song one more time, he explains why he feels so bad: "I just happened to be counting them, and that's the third lady that's tossed me. Let's see: Barbara Jean, Sharon, Denise. Three-time loser." He stops, letting all 50,000 watts of WPFW broadcast what radio people call "dead air" -- that dreaded empty hiss the professionals say should never be transmitted. Washington gives a verbal shrug -- "I guess I'm just a loser, a born loser, and I, you know, I don't know what to say. No wonder this show's lousy" -- and puts on a record on which B. B. King sings "I'm not your first love, woman, and I know I won't be your last."
Soon his mood seems to change. "I ain't gonna give up. Lanita!" he says, as if suddenly inspired. "Over there in Northeast. Nice young lady, I remember very well. Call me, see if we can't start over, Lanita." But after a few more songs, he is growling again. "I thought I had it whupped, but I believe I got the blues." He plays Otis Redding's mournful version of "A change Is Gonna Come" ("I was born by the river, in a little tent. Just like this river, I've been running ever since").
But now change comes over Washington. "I'm in bad shape," he announces. "When I feel like this, I go and buy me some liquor." He considers that for a moment. "I don't drink liquor. I quit. I haven't had a drink since Thanksgiving. But the first wino I meet, I'm gonna give him a fifth of liquor, and see if I can make somebody happy today."
So goes a typical edition of "The 'Bama Hour" -- blues music and blues talking, with Jerry Washington playing his old favorites, imploring his old girlfriends and chatting with his neighbors.
It is anything but slick. "The 'Bama Hour" is punctuated by odd pauses, false starts and flubbed cues. Sometimes Washington will unintentionally broadcast a private telephone conversation; sometimes he will mistakenly play two records at one. He also consciously violates the "rules" of radio. He will, for example, stop a record before it is finished. "No, no, no, we ain't going down that road," he says, lifting the needle from "The Sky Is Crying," By Elmore James. "I'm sorry, but Elmore reminded me of something I don't want to talk about, I don't even want to think about."
Washington makes no excuses for this on-air bumbling. Indeed, his explanation makes it all seem part of the act, as if a country boy should be ill at ease with all this fancy radio equipment: "I make mistakes. You make mistakes. This is a human show for humans."
Morita Rivero, the manager of WPFW, sees the blundering and taboo-breaking as the secret of Washington's success: "His is not a traditional radio voice. It is unfiltered. You don't hear people like that anywhere -- except in real life." What Washington does best, says Rivero, is dramatize everyday life: "'The 'Bama Hour' has a cast of invisible characters: his wife, his girlfriend, his foot -- will it be amputated? Yes? No? -- his dog, his drinking."
The effect is that "The 'Bama Hour" sometimes sounds like a Washington neighborhood wired with microphones and broadcasted for all to hear. After one B. B. King tune, for example, Washington's audience is let in on this avuncular monologue: "Okay. A good brother is, uh, having a little problem with Peggy Jackson. He wants her to know that whatever he did, it might have hurt her, but what she did hurt him . So let's start all over again. Try to back up, with a little better understanding... Peggy, if you miss him like he miss you, give 'em a call. He mean well. Love him, girl." Washington follows this up with a song too appropriate to be coincidental, a slow blues in which Elmore James sings:
You say you hurt, you almost lost your mind.
Now the man you love, he hurt you all the time,
But when things go wrong, wrong with you,
It hurts me too.
Alone in the studio, as he prefers to be, Washington finds it easy to drift into the rambling, semi-autobiographical anecdotes that give "The 'Bama Hour" its unique flavor. "Sounds like a dirty record," he comments after playing one particularly scratchy disc. "Well," he says, making the best of it, "a dirty record for a dirty fellow -- Sylvia's husband, Big Pat Joe." That leads without explanation to talk about a policeman who called in to complain that "the captain got us walking around here in the rain trying to prevent crime," and that in turn brings up the shadowier part of Washington's past: "Hey, maybe the criminals go out in the rain. I know when I was boosting [shoplifting], I put on my raincoat and went out there. I used to have a cape." Then, as the next record begins, he casually dismisses the subject: "Well, I don't have to keep boosting."
With these snippets of conversation about his family, friends and past, Washington has created the 'Bama Man. The character is never introduced as such: it is simply what Jerry Washington does between songs, with a bit more of a Southern drawl than is usually in his voice.
Like a novelist, Washington uses (and embellishes on) his own past to create his main character. The 'Bama Man is a type: the easygoing, semiliterate, Southern-born black. But Jerry Washington's own story is more complex. Born in Albany, Ga., Washington was a "love child," the product of an affair. "My parents gave me away at the age of two weeks," he says with a trace of bitterness. Adopted by a railroad laborer and his wife, Washington heard nothing from his natural father, a black accountant, until he was a 16-year-old high school graduate preparing to attend Atlanta's Morehouse College. When the man offered to help pay tuition bills, Washington recalls, "I said, 'You didn't help me when I needed you; I don't need your help now.'"
Having refused that aid, "Washington had to work his way through college. He waited on tables at the Atlanta Biltmore and sang the blues with a six-piece combo at an Atlanta nightclub called Henry's Cabaret. At the end of each school year, he caught a bus to Connecticut and spent the summer picking tobacco for 50 cents an hour.
One of Washington's Morehouse classmates was a young man named Martin Luther King Jr., whose future greatness was hardly evident, at least to Washington: "If he had a dream then, he didn't talk about it."
Washington left Morehouse in May 1949, without receiving a diploma, and joined the Air Force. His 22 years in the Air Force took him from Detroit to Tokyo to the Philippines, back to Tokyo (where he met and married his wife, Noriko, in 1958), on to Sacramento, then to Alaska, Massachusetts, and finally to Washington, D.C., where he retired in 1971. He then went to work as a job-placement officer for the United Planning Organization, a private Washington charity. He left UPO a few years ago, and now has little to say about it, except that certain of his colleagues were 'making $16,000 or $18,000 a year, and placing eight or 10 people in jobs a year."
Washington's luck began to change in 1973, when he met Ron Sutton, until recently sports news director at WHUR-FM. Residents of the same neighborhood off 16th Street in Upper Northwest, the two men soon discovered they were jazz and blues fans.
At that time Sutton had shows on two local FM stations, WPFW and WHUR. Impressed by Washington's knowledge of music, Sutton decided Washington should be on the air. So he gave Washington a chance: One evening a few years ago, Sutton invited Washington to join him in WPFW's studio, and then simply stayed home. An hour before the show was scheduled to begin, Sutton called in sick. Washington was there, ready to replace him. Cheikh Soumare, a native of Senegal who is now WPFW's program director, remembers that when Washington did that first show, "The phones went bang!"
Realizing they had a hit on their hands, the managers of WPFW soon moved Washington's show from Wednesday night to Saturday morning, an airtime slot second only to the morning "drive-time" in its number of potential listeners. It is a time particularly appropriate to the rhythm and blues music Washington features, says WPFW publicist Lenore Gardner: "Saturday is chore day. On Saturday morning, most black women are cleaning house, doing the laundry. Most black men are cutting the lawn, washing the car. And Jerry plays music you can do whatever you're doing with."
"The 'Bama Hour" was soon WPFW's most popular show, with an audience estimated by one specialist at 10,000 and by another at many times that. (As a nonprofit station, WPFW does not commission audience surveys.) Washington himself has no idea of the size of his audience, but from the telephone calls he so dislikes receiving while on the air ("Don't call in requests," he growls, "I don't come down on your job and grab your shovel"), he knows his listeners are both black and white and rich and poor, and spread across the District and parts of five states -- Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- where WPFW can be heard.
His listeners can be fiercely loyal. Clara Harrington, a native Washingtonian who is now education coordinator for the local Head Start program, says she tape-records the show almost every week. Andy Moursund, once a legman for journalist I. F. Stone and now book buyer for the Second Story Books chain, calls Jerry Washington "the greatest cultural institution in this city." Heidi Haeuser, who works for the Smithsonian's Wilson Quarterly, has a somewhat less sweeping reason for tuning in: She enjoys "listening to him complain about his girlfriends." Petey Greene claims to find faithful "'Bama Hour" fans everywhere. "Pier 7," he says, referring to one of the District's waterfront restaurants. "That's where all the Mayor Barrys and GS-40s and doctors and lawyers go. There's another corner, at Seventh and T, where all the hustlers hang out. I hang out at both places, with the PhD's and the dope fiends both. At Pier 7, you know what they talk about? Wash. I go to Seventh and T. They talk about Wash."
But, judging by the telephone calls and letters Washington receives, few younger blacks tune in to "The 'Bama Hour." One reason may be that because the exodus from the South has ended, there are increasingly fewer young 'Bamas in Washington. Another reason is that some young blacks find the show offensive. Washington's 28-year-old colleague Lenore Gardner, for example, argues that "Jerry does a blackface thing." She especially objects to the 'Bama image of blacks: "At a time when people are talking about diet, he's talking about pigfeet, about alcohol."
When told of the "bad image" accusation, older blacks familiar with "The 'Bama Hour" tend to react with some feeling. "The poor image of blacks," snorts Petey Greene, "is Charlie Diggs" [the former Michigan congressman convicted in a payroll kickback scheme in 1978]. Rich Adams, editorial director of WDVM-TV, contends that young blacks who object to or ignore Washington's show do so because he is "bringing up stuff they try to put behind them."
Jerry Washington knows who he is and who Garnett Mims is and who Nelson "Dirty Red" Wilborn is -- and he wants all the people of Washington, D.C., not just its 'Bamas or its blacks, to know who they are. Unlike Ron Sutton and other friends and fans, Washington says he is not concerned with race as an issue. "I'm an American who happens to be black, not a black American." The blues, he continues, "is just as American as apple pie or Chevrolet."
But when he explains why he wants the people of Washington to listen to the music he loves, the black experience begins to seem quite important. "At one time it was not permitted to say what you meant," he says, and recites the words of Billie Holiday's lament about lynching, "Strange Fruit":
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves, blood at the roots.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit have these poplar trees.
"You could get away with it, in a song. You get up on a soapbox and say it, they'd lynch you."
Since November of last year, Washington has been heard across the country on a 13-part National Public Radio series called "Jerry Washington's Urban Blues." (The show is not carried by the two Washington-area public radio stations.)
Now, in this small dirty studio, fame, stardom and wealth seem as distant as the satellite that catches Washington's National Public Radio show 22,300 miles above Earth and relays it across the country. It is Saturday morning, and Washington is doing a slow burn about the woman who has called to complain that B. B. King's songs are "sexist." Washington never seems to raise this voice, even when he is as angry as he appears to be now. Instead, he lets loose a torrent of Georgia cornpone: "As the lady put it, I am playing 'male chauvinist' records. You ain't gonna make me mad. I ain't gonna leave. I'm gonna stay right here and be more me than I have ever been. I left Georgia, went all the way to Maine. I picked potatoes, fooled around with cranberries, trying to make it. I worked tobacco in Connecticut. And I finally found a place I can settle in, don't have to work so hard, and be happy I'm gonna stay right here. You can always change the dial and get the Iranian news."
He pauses, and then delivers the punchline as the next tune begins: "If you don't speak Iranian, you won't have any idea of what they're talking about. Just like you don't have any idea of what I'm doing here."