Atlanta celebrates Alex Cooley

Musicians pay tribute to longtime concert promoter

The Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Madonna — name any legendary act who has passed through Atlanta since the 1970s and Alex Cooley probably booked them. The longtime concert promoter died Dec. 1. He was 74 years old.

Musicians whose paths to stardom began here owe even more gratitude to Cooley. Several of those artists joined his peers, family, and former employees to celebrate the man's life and legacy Jan. 9 at the Tabernacle. The event was hosted by Atlanta radio personality Kaedy Kiely and featured guest speakers, a tribute video, and musical performances by the Indigo Girls, Kristian Bush, Blackberry Smoke, and Drivin' N Cryin'.

The most impassioned speech came from Peter Conlon, Cooley's former business partner and co-architect of Music Midtown.

Cooley began his career organizing 1969's Atlanta International Pop Festival in Hampton, Ga. "He did 150,000 people the same year as Woodstock, he made money, and had no logistical problems," Conlon said. "Woodstock was hailed as this great event when it fell apart and lost millions."

A second Atlanta International Pop Festival brought Jimi Hendrix to tiny Byron, Ga. "You had a segregationist governor, Lester Maddox; you had a right wing president, Richard Nixon; and you had the war going on," Conlon said. "So Alex goes to South Georgia with a black headliner. I felt he probably deserved the Nobel Prize for that."

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Cooley shifted his focus to promoting local venues beginning in 1974 with his own Electric Ballroom. "People looked down on what he did because he was undermining the American youth," Conlon said. "He was bringing in all these terrible bands that we now have in car commercials."

Cooley also had a hand in Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential victory, arranging four benefit concerts at the Fox Theatre. "In the primary process, the reason people drop out is the money dries up," said Conlon, a former intern and national fundraising director for Carter. "With Alex's benefits, that didn't happen ... Carter — we are still good friends — mentioned to me how important Alex was in that effort. A lot of people ask to be an ambassador, but Alex just did it because he liked Jimmy Carter and went on."

A jam session capped off the night. Members of Drivin' N Cryin' and Blackberry Smoke joined forces with Americana fixture Michelle Malone, guitarist Peter Stroud (Sheryl Crow, Don Henley), and the Georgia Satellites' Rick Richards to cover Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

The most poignant moment came when all of Cooley's former employees in attendance were asked to come to the floor for a photograph. The massive sea of people forming in front of the stage gave a face to the entertainment and jobs that Cooley provided for a city he helped transform into an internationally known music hub.