Ralph Waldo Greene—better known as Petey Greene—was a pioneer in African-American radio as the host of a popular call-in show in Washington, DC, in the 1960s and 1970s. Greene's frank, on-air opinions spurred listeners to contribute their own thoughts and gripes, and he sought to admit his own shortcomings—which included a stint in prison for armed robbery—as a way to inspire others. He was one of the first personalities created by talk radio, which would become an enduring staple of urban radio well into the twenty-first century, and he remained such a compelling figure after his untimely death in 1984 that a 2007 film was made loosely based on his life story. Talk to Me starred actor Don Cheadle as the ebullient, sometimes combative personality, along with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Dewey Hughes, the straitlaced boss who hired the former convict at the DC radio station.
Greene was born in 1931, and according to a 1971 interview he gave to National Public Radio (NPR) journalist Gwen Hudley, his father was incarcerated in the federal prison at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay at the time. His mother had several other children to care for and feed, so Greene was raised by his grandmother, Maggie Floyd, known as "A'nt Pig." He grew up in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC, which was then a run-down, predominantly African-American neighborhood. In the interview with Hudley, Greene described Floyd as an excellent role model who tried to set him down the right path in life, "but I had to be one of the fellas, you know. And being one of the fellas can get you in the penitentiary so quick, or get you to have confrontations with the law so fast that you won't even know what happened to you."
Before he reached his teens, Greene had spent time in a juvenile home, and as a young man he developed a problematic and multifaceted substance abuse habit. He quit school at the age of sixteen and eventually wound up in the U.S. Army at the height of the Korean War in the early 1950s but was discharged for drug use. He returned to Washington, DC and in 1960 was convicted on an armed robbery charge for holding up a grocery store. Sentenced to ten years at the Lorton Reformatory in Virginia, he finally found his calling as a popular disc jockey on the prison radio station, thanks in part to the hit records his grandmother would send him. He even managed to reduce his sentence through good behavior. Before his release, he was introduced to Dewey Hughes, the program director for a Washington, DC, radio station, in the visitors' room. Hughes's brother, a Lorton inmate, spoke enthusiastically about Greene's talents and recommended him for a job.
Lit up Phone Lines
Few people were willing to hire a recently discharged convict, but once he was released from Lorton, Greene visited WOL 1450-AM, the leading black-music radio station in DC. He convinced Hughes and station owner E. G. Sonderling to give him a tryout, and the caller lines lit up in response. Soon, his Sunday-evening show, Rapping with Petey Greene, was one of the most talked-about programs in the city. Greene's emer- gence as a media personality in the late 1960s dovetailed with an important shift in African-American political consciousness, when the promises of the civil rights movement gave way to a new militancy coalescing under the banner "Black Power." Just ten years earlier, in some parts of the country not far from the nation's capital, speaking one's mind and calling attention to racial injustice was a dangerous act, one that might even result in death by mob violence. Times had changed, however, and Greene urged his listeners to voice their concerns about the pace and tenor of those changes. He added his own voice to protesting against the deep institutional bias many still experienced in schools and on the job. His well-known catchphrase was "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."
Greene was active in his community, working with the United Planning Organization (UPO) and founding Efforts for Ex-Convicts, both of which provided jobs and training for those recently released from prison. The 1971 NPR interview focused on these efforts by Greene. Speaking with Hudley for All Things Considered, he recounted the story of what his parole officer told him when he was first released from Lorton. The officer said that he did not need to worry too much about Greene, because ex-cons like him were habitual offenders and Greene would soon be locked away again. Greene recalled the words as hurtful and potentially ruinous to any hope of a fresh start he might have felt, but he privately vowed to prove the man wrong. Later, after Greene became famous, the same officer came up to him at a social event, greeting him warmly and saying he knew all along he would succeed in life. Greene said that he wanted to give the man a piece of his mind but instead just thanked him. "You can fight better when you can smile, because people don't know when they got your back to the wall," he explained to Hudley about how he had learned to battle others' diminished expectations. "Once you let people hold you back, then you're defeating your own self. You have got to be able to say, ‘Can't nobody help me but me.’"
In April of 1968 Greene took to the air and pleaded with his listeners to remain calm in the wake of rioting prompted by news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. He emerged as one of the best-known media figures in the city, and reportedly Hubert H. Humphrey, vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson from 1965 to 1969, was among Greene's listening audience. His popularity led to the television show Where It's A, followed in 1976 by the debut of Petey Greene's Washington, which aired on WDCA-TV 20. His famous opening catchphrase this time was "Adjust the color of your television!" and the show was picked up for national broadcast in 1980 by a fledgling Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable network. He was even invited to the White House during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, for a March of 1978 state dinner in honor of visiting Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito.
Booked on the Tonight Show
Greene and Hughes became close friends at WOL 1450-AM, despite their dissimilar backgrounds and personalities, with Hughes serving as his manager and pushing him into a stand-up comic career at the same time that another frank-speaking black comedian, Richard Pryor, was becoming famous. The record remains unclear whether Greene's appearance on the hugely popular Tonight Show with Johnny Carson ever actually happened: Reportedly, Greene was leery about how well his jokes would go over with a largely white studio audience made up mainly of tourists and done for national television, and he told his biographer that he never showed up for the booking; other sources report that he bombed, badly, and may have been under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or both.
At a Glance …
Born Ralph Waldo Greene on January 23, 1931, in Washington, DC; died of cancer on January 10, 1984, in Washington, DC; children: Ralph, Petra, Renee; stepdaughter Melanie.
Career: Radio announcer and host of Rapping with Petey Greene, WOL 1450-AM, after 1967; cohost of the Washington, DC, public-affairs television show Where It's At; host of Petey Greene's Washington, 1976-84.
Awards: Won two local Emmy awards in the Washington, DC, television market.
Greene died of cancer on January 10, 1984, at age fifty-two. Thousands came to pay their respects at Union Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Washington, DC, but his achievements faded from memory over the next two decades until Hughes's son wrote a screenplay about the friendship between his father and Greene. The script attracted serious interest in Hollywood, with names such as Martin Lawrence reportedly interested in taking on the role, but the job eventually went to Don Cheadle. Talk to Me earned mixed reviews from critics, but one reviewer, Gail Mitchell in Billboard, called it impressive as a "historical snapshot of black radio and its potent, engaging mix of community service and entertainment." Mitchell continued, "It was a pre-syndication, pre-satellite world back then, inhabited by individually styled personalities who were just as popular as the artists whose music they played because of their innate ability to relate to their audiences."
Rackley, Lurma, Laugh If You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny: The Life Story of Ralph "Petey" Greene as Told to Lurma Rackley, Xlibris Corporation, 2003.
Billboard, July 21, 2007.
Entertainment Weekly, July 20, 2007.
Essence, February 2007.
Jet, July 23, 2007.
Washington Times, January 27, 2004; July 13, 2007.
Mondello, Bob, "‘Talk to Me’: The Mouth That Roared in '60s DC," All Things Considered,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11957643 (accessed December 26, 2007).
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