Legendary music promoter ushered rock & roll into Atlanta
When Alex Cooley was 27, the music world was changing, and his world changed with it. On their way to Key Largo, Fla., to scuba dive at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Cooley and three friends heard a radio station promotion for the two-day Miami Pop Festival being held that weekend.
“They were listing all of these groups I loved, groups that were hard to come by in Atlanta,” Cooley says. He told his friends to drop him at the festival and go diving without him.
“I had the most fun I’ve ever had,” he recalls. “At the time I was looking around for something to do, trying to come up with a direction for my life.”
Music promotion became that direction, and in the intervening years “Alex Cooley presents…” became a familiar phrase in the Atlanta and national music scenes as Cooley—along with his partner, Peter Conlon—worked his way to being one of the most successful music promoters in the business. But success didn’t come easily.
After stints at Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, Cooley dropped out to run a pizza business with a partner. Despite “doing a bad job selling pizzas,” Cooley began bringing doo-wop and R&B groups to perform live music in the shop, his first experiences booking bands.
“I made a lot more money doing that, and it was a lot more fun,” he says. After his experience at the Miami Pop Festival, Cooley came back to Atlanta and immediately began looking for partners to put on a similar show in Atlanta. He convinced 17 associates to join him in the endeavor.
”We didn’t realize it was impossible, so we went on and did it anyway,” Cooley says.
Within a year, the group organized the first Atlanta International Pop Festival, held July 4-5, 1969. The festival drew crowds estimated around 100,000 to the Atlanta International Raceway to hear a lineup of more than 20 rock and pop acts including Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin. “We made about $15,000 on that first festival and we were ashamed we’d made money. We felt like we needed to give it back,” Cooley says, chalking it up to the “hippie” ethos of the time. To make up for it, the promoters held a free concert in Piedmont Park two days after the festival featuring the Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, and several other bands.
The next year, the second Atlanta Pop Festival, held in Byron, Ga., drew crowds of nearly 500,000 and backed up traffic on I-75 from the small town southwest of Macon “all the way to The Varsity in Atlanta,” he says.
Cooley has been a pivotal figure in the Atlanta music industry ever since. Over the years he helped save the Fox Theatre from demolition, develop the Roxy and the Tabernacle into music landmarks, and establish the Music Midtown Festival, an annual three-day Atlanta music institution that ran from 1994 to 2005.
A lifelong Atlanta resident, Cooley grew up around the Morningside and Glen Iris neighborhoods near the Emory campus. Whenever anyone in his family needed medical care, Emory was the place to go, he says. Cooley himself credits Emory for saving his vision and his life. In gratitude, Cooley has made a bequest leaving a significant portion of his estate to support the Emory Eye Center and the Division of Cardiology at Emory School of Medicine. The gift honors retina specialist Baker Hubbard, who treated Cooley when complications of diabetes threatened his sight, and cardiologist Gerard McGorisk, who Cooley says saved his life after a heart attack.
“I feel like I owe a debt for everything they’ve done for me,” Cooley says. “I’ve had open-heart surgery and more stents than I can count. The eye surgery saved my vision when things were going dim. All of these things speak for themselves to me.”
Cooley’s career in music made it possible for him to make the generous bequest.
Cooley was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 2004 was presented with a Heroes Award by the Atlanta chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
He retired from music promotion in 2004, but admits that he has “stuck one tiny toe” back into the business with his 2011 purchase of Eddie’s Attic music club in Decatur, Ga.
Reflecting on his career, he is humbled by the rewards he has gained from doing something that has brought him and others so much enjoyment.
“I’m just glad for this gift to go where it will do the most good,” he says.
A lifelong Atlanta resident, Cooley grew up around the Morningside and Glen Iris neighborhoods near the Emory campus. Whenever anyone in his family needed medical care, Emory was the place to go, he says.