Sunday, September 13, 2015

Guardian of a radio pioneer's legacy

Joan Patterson, the daughter of A.C. "Moohah" Williams, peruses the pages of
her father's scrapbook and other artifacts in her possession and ponders how she
can preserve them for posterity. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
       The black, tattered scrapbook is filled with newspaper clippings, invitations, letters and proclamations from government officials, hand-written notes, and seldom-seen photos chronicling a bygone era that Joan Patterson knows so well.
The collection of artifacts is of cultural and historic significance to Patterson, the daughter of the late legendary Andrew Charles “Moohah” Williams Jr., a trailblazer who left behind an enduring legacy that coincided with WDIA-AM 1070 and a group of Memphis teenagers that he’d taken under his wings.
Known across the Mid-South in those days as “Moohah” – an Indian name meaning “the mighty” – A.C. Williams had indeed become a “mighty” radio announcer who used his influence to shape the careers of others and helped to set WDIA on a trajectory of historic proportions.
The scrapbook is a memoir of sorts and a treasure that Patterson keeps close to her heart. Williams’ contributions to WDIA and his founding of the Teen Town Singers is still the talk of the town among those who watched the announcer work his magic.     
Patterson was in 7th-grade when her father launched the Teen Town Singers in 1949 shortly after WDIA switched from country and western music to all-black on-air personalities and programming to attract black listeners.
The group disbanded in 1970. Standouts included Carla Thomas, an early star at Stax Records who was crowned “The Queen of Memphis Soul,” and Regina Bennett-West, who would make a pivotal move to Rhythm and Blues and gospel, including an oversees stint with The Platters.
Mark Stansbury, the former assistant to the president of the University of Memphis, was a Teen Town Singer, too. The relationships he’d cultivated since then has kept him on the air at WDIA for 57 years.  
 “When we were the Teen Towners, we were popular with our peers,” said Stansbury, recalling his student days at Booker T. Washington High School when the pianist for the Teen Town Singers, Cathryn Rivers Johnson, urged him to join the group.
“I couldn’t sing, but A.C. Williams saw something in me,” said Stansbury. “He saw other qualities in his students” even if they couldn’t sing as well.
Bennett-West’s father died when she was 11 years old. So Williams, she said, stepped in as her surrogate father, calling him “Daddy,” like most others.
Bennett-West, one of the youngest members then, stayed with the group for 5 years. Her two older sisters, now deceased, sang too. She vaulted from that point in her life and emerged as a recording artist – a well-rounded singer, lyricist and musician. Williams, she said, taught her so much about life.  
Patterson joined the chorale of junior high and high school students from seven schools and sang with them on Saturday mornings at the radio station. Her six-year stint with the group ended after she graduated from Booker T. Washington High School en route to Tennessee State University, her father’s alma mater.
 “He loved working with kids. That was his thing,” said Patterson, who opted to pursue her own path in the world. Radio, she said, just wasn’t her thing. So as her father’s star kept rising at WDIA and in the community that he loved so well, she pursued her own career without the fanfare that surrounded her father.
 “When I would meet people, I wouldn’t tell them that my father was A.C. Williams,” she said. “They (Patterson’s parents) had goals for me. Therefore, I tried to achieve those goals rather than everybody knowing who my father was.”
Getting a good education was germane, and A.C. and Joan P. Williams wouldn’t let their daughter forget it. Williams taught biology at Manassas High School, so Patterson decided that science would take her where she wanted to go in life without the benefit of her father’s burgeoning reputation.
Williams worked at WDIA for 34 years as a D.J. and director of community relations. Twenty-one of those years were spent organizing and directing the Teen Town Singers, an idea that emanated from Manassas, where he’d first organized a boys choir.
According to Williams’ handwritten notes, the idea would come to fruition after listening for some time to a radio program of singing white youth and wondering if he could corral a group of young African American students to do somewhat the same thing.
Writing in the third person to document the origin of the Teen Town Singers, Williams wrote, “Having listened for some time to Young America Sings, he (meaning himself) wondered if some such program could not be done with Negro youth.”
Williams pitched the idea to a program director at WMC-AM in 1947. The program director tossed the idea to other radio stations. But no one was interested – that was until the co-owner of WDIA, Bert Ferguson – who had a similar idea – saw its potential.
Ferguson initially brought in Williams for another type of on-air program. He offered the live glee club show idea to a Matt Garrett, who turned it down. This was the opportunity that Williams needed to pitch the Teen Town Singers to Ferguson, who aired the first program on June 11, 1949.
Much of Patterson’s memories are intertwined with hundreds of Teen Town Singers, whose members – numbering in the hundreds – meet twice a year for a reunion in honor of Williams, WDIA’s first fulltime disc jockey. Williams died Dec. 3, 2004.
During his tenure, Williams developed and promoted other programs as well, including “Feature for A Wonderful Teacher,” “Soul of School Award,” “Top Scholar Program,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “Delta Melodies” and “Wheelin’ on Beale.”
Williams also was instrumental in the success of WDIA’s “Goodwill Revue,” a Christmastime show promoting the best gospel, blues, R&B, and soul performers in the nation, and the “Starlight Revue,” both charitable causes.
Stansbury credits Williams and other WDIA luminaries – such as Nat. D. Williams, the first African American to host a show on the station, and Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade – with helping to create a pathway for him in radio.
 “I spun the records for Nat D., A.C., Theo Wade and others,” said Stansbury, pointing out that the aforementioned pioneers taught him a lot about the business while making significant contributions in radio.
The memories are sweet – unforgettable – for Patterson who, from time to time, reflects on the life and legacy of her father. The scrapbook is just a snapshot of his life and a transport back to her youth in the Williams household.
“They were regular folks,” Patterson said about her parents. “Dad was a teacher and Mom was a Girl Scout leader. Both were religious people. They were pretty good parents who led by example. So I had a pretty decent childhood.”
Her mother could sing, too, she said. “She had a voice like Marian Anderson,” one of the most celebrated contraltos of the 20th Century.
But it was her father’s voice on WDIA that reverberated near and far and helped to change the course of a once failing radio station.
“I always knew I had to share my father,” said Patterson. “But I didn’t mind sharing him with others.”
Now she’s trying to find the best way to preserve her father’s storied collection. Until then, she’s settling for being the guardian.

1 comment: