If you are a native Washingtonian and can remember the seventies; you know the hippest DJ in all the land. It was Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr. a two-time Emmy Award-winning television and radio talk-show host but the people of “Chocolate City” knew him as Petey Greene or the ruler of “Ptown” as he called DC – his town. This man of the people was significant to the community because he overcame drug addiction and a prison sentence for armed robbery to become one of the most prominent media personalities in Washington DC.
At a time of racial turbulence and unrest, he was known to tell the truth about issues concerning racism, poverty, drug usage, and current events among others. He was credited with calming the unrest as the city burned after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 and endeared to city residence for his community support. Greene attended Stevens Elementary School and Cardozo Senior High School in Washington. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and enlisted in the United States Army at age 16 in 1947. He served in the Korean War as a medic and was honorably discharged from service in 1953.
In January 1960, Greene was convicted of armed robbery at a grocery store in Washington and sentenced to ten years imprisonment at Lorton Reformatory in Virginia. There he became the prison disc-jockey that made him popular and well liked by fellow prisoners. His gift for talking soon proved beneficial in other ways.
In May 1966, Greene persuaded a fellow inmate to climb to the top of the prison water tower and threaten suicide so that Greene would be able to “save his life” by talking him down. He would later say, “It took me six months to get him to go up there.” This act, combined with his generally good behavior, earned him a reduction in his prison sentence and paroled the following week.
In the summer of 1966, Greene was hired by Dewey Hughes, another notable DC figure, to work as a disc jockey at WOL/1450 AM station to host his own show. Rapping With Petey Greene aired in the Washington Metropolitan Area throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. His prominence grew, and soon he was hosting his own television show, Petey Greene’s Washington, with a six-year run from 1976 to 1982 on WDCA/20 winning two Emmy Awards. This show won two Emmy Awards.
He was invited as a guest to the White House by President Jimmy Carter where according to Petey “stole a spoon” during the evening gala for a visiting dignitary. In 1981, Greene had radio personality Howard Stern on his show for what was one of Stern’s first television appearances. Stern appeared on the show in blackface, which Greene found funny because it was radio. The audio of this interview eventually was played as part of the 2007 Sirius satellite radio documentary The History of Howard Stern, in which Stern called Greene “way ahead of his time.” Stern later called Greene a “broadcasting genius” in his 1993 book Private Parts.
Aside from being a radio personality and talk show host, Greene was also a community activist, joining the United Planning Organization and founding the Ralph Waldo Greene Community Centre and Efforts for Ex-Convicts. This organization remains devoted to helping former prisoners succeed in legitimate ways and to advocate prison reform. He rallied against poverty and racism on his shows and on the streets, participating in demonstrations during the height of his popularity. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, and during the subsequent riots that erupted throughout the USA, Greene made statements on air that were credited with quelling the riots in Washington, D.C.
Greene was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1982. As a result of his ailing health, his career as a radio and television personality ended. Greene died on January 10, 1984, thirteen days before his 53rd birthday. He was survived by his wife, Judy C. Greene, and their four children. Approximately 10,000 mourners lined up outside Union Wesley AME Zion Church to pay their last respects.
If you want a good read, pick-up Greene’s autobiography, Laugh If You Like, Ain’t a Damn Thing Funny, was published in 2003. The book is a result of conversations recorded by him and author Lurma Rackley. Petey was a voice for the voiceless, and he will not be forgotten! And that’s my thought provoking perspective…