Promoter Alex Cooley believed rock-and-roll helped change the South

By Maria Saporta

Alex Cooley, who passed away on Dec. 1, was the heart and soul of Atlanta’s music scene for decades.

My earliest memories of Cooley date back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when he would put on free concerts at Piedmont Park on Sunday afternoons.

The bands – from the Allman Brothers to the Hampton Grease Band to even Jefferson Airplane – would play on the steps or in the bandshell across from the bathhouse

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people would gather every Sunday for a simple afternoon of tunes and comraderie. There was no commercialism. Just music and a feeling of fellowship.

Alex Cooley

Alex Cooley – Atlanta’s legendary concert promoter (Special: Kay Hinton-Emory University)

Those concerts came to an end when there was an organized effort by leaders and concerned residents to rid Midtown of its “hippie” culture. One Sunday, police lined up in full riot gear – pouncing on an incident of someone smoking a joint who was trying to resist arrest – to toss tear gas into the crowd.

But Cooley’s music played on.

There was Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom next to the Georgian Terrace – the place to go to catch amazing acts emerging on the national scene. By the mid 1970s, Cooley – and his partner Peter Conlon – had become the leading concert promoter in Atlanta , if not the South.

Cooley played a key role in saving the Fox Theatre. He helped elect Jimmy Carter by putting on concerts for his campaign. He brought the Sex Pistols to Atlanta in their first U.S. concert (at the Great Southeastern Music Hall). Nearly all the top rock-and-roll acts in town were booked by Cooley and Conlon.

And then, in 1994, the Cooley-Conlon duo founded Music Midtown – which originated on the property that is now the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. There were so many great artists – James Brown and Santana to name a couple.

Alex Cooley

Alex Cooley – promoting Music Midtown (Special: New Georgia Encyclopedia)

But what Cooley loved most was introducing new musical acts to Atlanta and Georgia audiences, and he once told me the magic of the original Music Midtowns was providing up-and-coming bands an opportunity to develop a following.

In recent years, despite several health issues, Cooley helped Charlie Loudermilk open the Buckhead Theatre; and then he acquired Eddie’s Attic, a venue where he was able to showcase lesser-known acts.

For Cooley, who was born in 1939, it was more than just a business. It was all about the music.

In 2013, Cooley called me to see if I would help him write his life story. UGA Press had approached him about the project, and he wanted someone to help him write his autobiography.

We met at his house in Ansley Park, and later had lunch, where we talked about his autobiography.

“I don’t want to write about the sensational, back-stage stories of the artists,” Cooley said. “I want to write about how rock-and-roll changed the South.”

He then provided several anecdotes about how people were able to find common ground in music – overcoming prejudices that had existed for generations.

Meeting with Cooley was always an adventure. His house was full of people – some who helped him with Eddie’s Attic and others who helped him care for his house and his various needs.

There was a feeling of orderly chaos – his broken cellphone, the misplaced keys, people coming and going, gardeners in the yard – yet despite the interruptions – Cooley sprinkled the conversation with stories. It was hard to have a linear conversation with Cooley, who much preferred to jump from thought to thought. And every moment spent with him was a moment to treasure.

Unfortunately, the autobiography project never materialized. Cooley and I chatted several times that year about the project, and he would tell me he was still trying to work out an arrangement with UGA Press.

I’m hoping someone recorded Cooley’s stories – chronicling the history of the Georgia’s music scene along with Atlanta’s evolution from a mid-sized Southern town to the metropolis it is today.

Thank you Alex – your life gave us a soundtrack to dance the years away.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

5 replies
  1. Atlanta Peach says:

    We heard Alex speak recently at the Plaza theatre’ showing of Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church. We have truly lost one of the best promoters of music in the ATL. His legacy dates from the Atlanta International Pop Festival to music midtown. RIP Alex CooleyReport

    Reply
  2. jamstan says:

    “It was hard to have a linear conversation with Cooley, who much preferred to jump from thought to thought. And every moment spent with him was a moment to treasure.” 

    Sounds like he had the heart and mind of a musician and that every day was a concert. Each moment was a song.  Unfortunately, they may have broken the mold.  Rest well Mr. Cooley, and thanks for bringing so much great music to Atlanta over the years.Report

    Reply
  3. junehodges says:

    The scene around Atlanta’s 14th St/Peachtree area was an eclectic mix of whimsy and envelope pushing as Cooley began to influence Atlanta’s sleepy music scene in the late 60s.   Joints like the Catacombs (where ‘black lights’ ruled) and other music clubs began to emerge,  even though we Atlanta youngn’s still got most of our music fix from AM radio (WQXI…..”Quixie in Dixie”), Peaches Record Stores, and other sources.   Of course the big blast came in the summer of ’69 when over 100,000 of us journeyed to the racetrack at Hampton to groove with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Chicago Transit Authority (aka: “Chicago”), and others assembled by Mr Cooley. He did it again the next year in a large soybean field at Byron Ga near Macon for another massive music gathering witnessed by over 200,000…..I had to miss that one as I spent that summer at comfy Ft Bragg, NC.   To say that Alex had an imprint on the Atlanta music scene would be a gross understatement.Report

    Reply
  4. GeorgiaBedford says:

    Such a great loss that the autobiography never developed.  Perhaps a bio of some sort may still be possible.  A great man for Atlanta and the South.Report

    Reply

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