Soul brother No. 1
Thank you for tuning in this morning to the B.P. radio show! Soul 73 KKDA! You turn me on, and I'll turn you on. I got my mojo working this morning. In other words, there's some fever in the funkhouse. There's a skunk in the skillet. Thank you for joining my band this morning! Lord have mercy, I'll tell you what, if I'm lying I'll kiss a crippled cricket. I'ma do it like Ali this morning: Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. I'ma do one for you and one for me! In other words, I'm gon' boogie down!
Bobby Patterson probably never imagined that this is where he'd end up--spinning old soul and R&B and blues classics on an AM radio station in Grand Prairie, a DJ blowing the dust off yesterday's memories. This was someone else's job, and if the years had been as kind to Patterson's career as they have been to his appearance--he will turn 55 on Friday, but could pass for at least 15 years younger than that--maybe it would be. Patterson is, after all, perhaps the best soul singer Dallas ever produced, as well as a fine guitar player and songwriter. He could have--should have--been as famous as the names on his playlist: The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, James Brown, The O'Jays, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack. He should have been a star.
And maybe it's not too late for that to happen. Maybe KKDA-AM's cramped studio isn't the last stop on a soul train that pulled out of South Dallas more than 30 years ago yet never got too far down the tracks, never quite made it to its destination. Maybe now--in his mid-50s and three years into a comeback that began with 1996's Second Coming, after almost two decades in retirement--Patterson will find the fame that never found him, the hit records that always stayed just out of his reach. Anything could happen.
For now though, he's a DJ every Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. till noon on Soul 73 KKDA (730 AM), playing songs and taking calls from listeners and bantering with the whitest traffic reporter ever to appear on a soul station. As he does all this, he's surrounded by the music of his better-known peers, and you'd think the whole thing--spending six mornings a week wallowing in what could have been, listening to all of the groups who got what he always wanted--would leave a bitter taste in his mouth. He'd have every right to be resentful, to carry a chip on his small shoulders.
But sitting next to Patterson this morning, it's clear he's having the time of his life, as he insists. When he's in the studio, he's not just a DJ: He's onstage, playing along with his friends. As the show wears on, he switches on his mike so he can become one of Gladys Knight's Pips, singing along like it's a Bobby Patterson original, eyes wide shut behind his ever-present sunglasses. Later, he grabs his guitar and starts picking along with Little Milton, trading licks as he bounces up and down on his stool, trying to coax just a little feedback out his battered 1965 Gibson--the same guitar he bought off a man headed to the penitentiary more than 30 years ago. Watching him, it's obvious he doesn't need a record company or a wall brimming with gold records to tell him he's a star. He already is one.
"I love this," Patterson says. "I wanted to try my hand at it and see what happened, and I found out I like it. It might burn off like everything else, but right now I'm having a ball doing this. I like the contact with the fans, the closeness of it. And then I like the music, and that makes a difference--if you like what you're doing, if you like what you're playing. I love this music. This is something I always wanted to do, man. It's the only thing in show business I ain't ever did. I've done everything else you can do. You know, I've wrote, produced, played, sang, danced, cleaned the studio floor. This is the only thing left."
This is Soul 73 KKDA, the station that can take a licking and keep on ticking. You got the little piece of leather well put together this morning. How're all my ladies out there? You know I like the ladies, from 8 to 80, crippled, blind, or crazy. You can be 10 pounds or 10 tons of fun. Oh, Lord have mercy! I try my best to give you all you can take. I don't wanna make no mistake. Hit me!
Patterson began working for KKDA-AM last November, shortly after the station's owner, Hyman Childs, made the controversial decision to cancel several of its talk shows (as recounted in the Dallas Observer story "Dead air" on October 29, 1998), knocking popular personalities such as Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Cousin Linnie off the air. Patterson replaced psychologist Brenda Wall's morning advice show, Call Dr. Wall, at first taking over the 10 a.m. to noon time slot, until the station received enough requests to add an extra hour to the show. It was a move a long time in coming: Patterson says KKDA's general manager, Chuck Smith, had been asking him to do something with the station for about 10 years.
He'd played the DJ part before, sitting in with local jocks in whatever city he happened to be in. But it wasn't until recently that Patterson had enough time to do his own radio show. After releasing 1976's The Storyteller, he gave up recording and performing and began working as an independent record promoter in the South, picking up paychecks from labels such as Malaco and Profile. He was on the road for most of that time, pimping records to radio and retail, until he decided to start making music himself again a few years ago. The job had kept him so busy, he had not played guitar in almost 20 years, and he'd only sung occasionally, making rare guest appearances on the shrinking chitlin circuit. But even though he'd gotten out of music, he couldn't get the music out of him.
So he began performing again, grabbed his guitar out of the closet, and cut Second Coming, his first new record in 20 years. Second Coming sounded like Patterson had been retired for 20 minutes, his voice as young as it ever was. He was hopeful then, thinking he might finally get his shot at the big time after so many years hustling in the minors. In an interview in the Dallas Observer just before Second Coming was released, Patterson said he wanted to come back "somewhere in the middle. I don't want to come back too small, playin' those little hole-in-the-walls." But even for all of his optimism, Patterson's second coming has gone almost as unheralded as his first.
"It's like starting all over," he says now, laughing. "I guess it's hard to be off 20 years and come back. You don't see a lot of people doing that. Maybe eight years or something like that. Twenty years is a long time. I was playing guitar with Lucky [Petersen], and Lucky said, 'Man, it seems like you haven't stopped.' That's 'cause everything has come back around. Now, it seems like it's brand-new, but it's the same thing you were doing back in 1971.
"But it ain't easy. I just started back playing since I came back, so I don't try to venture outside of what I know. I play the blues, and that's it. The blues don't change. To me, it's [more] about the feeling than just playing a bunch of notes. A lot of people run a bunch of notes together, but the feeling is what makes the song."
That's what made all of Patterson's early records for forgotten labels such as Dallas' Abnak Records and the once-mighty Jewel/Paula (based out of Shreveport, Louisiana) should-be classics: the feeling, whether it made you want to shake your ass or call your wife and tell her that you love her. "Quiet! Do Not Disturb (While I'm Making Love)" off 1972's It's Just a Matter of Time was the funkiest song James Brown never recorded. "She Don't Have to See You (to See Through You)" had the kind of heartbreaking lyrics that would have made it a smash on country radio stations if it didn't have so much soul. Those songs and others--such as "Right On Jody," "My Thing is Your Thing," and "T.C.B. or T.Y.A." (featured on Rhino Records' 1997 box Beg, Scream & Shout! alongside Marvin Gaye and the Supremes)--weren't about the notes Patterson was playing on his guitar or the words he was singing. Even if you didn't understand what he was saying, you knew what he was talking about.
Patterson's songs may not have been hits, but other musicians recognized his songwriting gift, the way he told a story and made you feel it. Albert King was one of the first, covering "That's What the Blues Is All About." The Fabulous Thunderbirds twice recorded his "How Do You Spell Love?" And just three years ago, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy sang "She Don't Have to See You" on Golden Smog's Down By the Old Mainstream, a recording that led to one of the best moments in the history of Austin's annual South by Southwest Music Festival and the high point of Patterson's three-year comeback.
It was the kind of chance encounter that SXSW always promises but rarely delivers, and even though a couple of years have passed, people still talk about Bobby Patterson taking the stage with Golden Smog at the Austin Music Hall in 1997. He didn't just take the stage--he took over, singing "She Don't Have to See You" with so much power, they might as well have shut down the festival right then. The performance drew so much attention that Patterson was even profiled by MTV News during its festival coverage. It looked like the break he had been looking for all those years.
"That was a thrill, right there," Patterson says, as if only two weeks had passed instead of two years. "I wish I could do that again, when they [Golden Smog] come back through. I just never have since then been in the same town where they've been where we could do something together. But I sure would like to do something with them. I wish we could. When we did it live, man, that was magic. People thought we'd been singing together for years. It was all spontaneous."
Tweedy still promises that someday he'd like to produce a Bobby Patterson album with Wilco or the Smog as his backing band, and Patterson would like nothing better. Patterson even has a couple of photos of Tweedy's 3-year-old son, Spencer, on the wall of his home. And maybe working with Tweedy is just the thing to help his comeback, stalled in neutral three years after it began. Patterson's latest album, I'd Rather Eat Soup, came out at the end of 1998 without a sound, but a reissue of The Storyteller--packaged with five unreleased cuts--has already garnered a handful of positive reviews. Unfortunately, since the album was re-released in England, it doesn't help Patterson here. Not that it matters much to Patterson. He just loves being involved with music, whether it's his own or someone else's.
This is the originator, not the imitator, Soul 73 KKDA! Ain't no up and down, we're all around. We're like a straight line. Take a licking and keep on ticking. I'm trying to get over this morning before I go under, and if I go under, I'll be trying to get over. I'm drinking from my own well this morning. This is the real thing, not the wannabe. I gotta mix these electronics up in here with these ebonics. I'll be right back! I'ma be doing some crying in the streets in a minute!
So here Bobby Patterson is--more than 30 years after his first gig, 20 years after he gave it up, sitting in KKDA-AM's unassuming studio nestled in a quiet neighborhood in Grand Prairie. Here he is--spinning records by musicians he used to share stages with, some still remembered, others long forgotten. This isn't the conclusion for him, just the beginning of another chapter in a story that never seems to end.
He hasn't given up on making music yet, and he probably never will. At the moment, he's trying to set up a few dates in Europe, do a little promotion for The Storyteller's reissue. And he's already beginning to work on a new album, a straight-ahead blues record featuring Patterson performing the songs he wrote for other musicians but never recorded himself. The working title is I Think I'll Sing My Own Songs. But if this does happen to be the last stop for Patterson, well, that suits him just fine.
"This keeps me in touch with the music and everything," Patterson says, lowering his voice into the low rumble he uses off the air, a tone that almost betrays his age. "It's something like a little advantage sometimes, when I know most of these people that I'm playing, like I told Hyman. He said, 'You know a lot of these artists.' I said, 'Man, I know just about all of 'em--the dead ones and the living ones.' It's nice to know the music that you're playing and be familiar with it. You got a lot of people playing this music that's not familiar with it. Me? I love this music."
Bobby Patterson performs on March 12 at the Longhorn Ballroom with Bobby Blue Bland as part of The Dirty Rat Blues Festival and Birthday Bash.
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