Jenice Armstrong: Patty Jackson, radio's wonder woman

Posted: October 24, 2012

THERE WAS the time in 2008 Tyler Perry showed up in the lobby of the WDAS radio station in Bala Cynwyd asking to see on-air host Patty Jackson.

She'd met him years earlier when he was still producing stage plays and only dreaming of getting into the Hollywood scene. But Jackson hadn't seen him in ages. When Jackson walked out into the lobby, Perry greeted her and explained, "I had to come by and see you because you were there for me from the beginning. You talked with me when nobody else would talk with me."

Her stunned reaction: "You hang with Oprah and Gayle, and you remember me?"

Or the time when Denzel Washington was in town filming the iconic 1993 film "Philadelphia" with Tom Hanks. After Jackson heard Washington was a fan of WDAS' (105.3-FM) classic R&B format and listened to it every day, she began dedicating songs to him. When they eventually met face-to-face at a charity event in Frankford while he was in town, Washington confronted her with: "Do you have to play a song for me every day?"

Jackson was mortified until she figured out he was teasing. Washington later sent her a list of songs to play for him, which didn't escape the notice of her then-boss, the late Joe "Butterball" Tamburro. He told her, "I'm your boss, not Denzel Washington. Go back to doing what you do.' "

After 30 years of being on air in Philadelphia, Jackson has a ton of stories like these, enough to fill a coffee-table book - with glossy photos to match - if she were inclined to put words to paper.

Think about it. It could include the good - like the time Jackson had dinner with her all-time idol, the late Donna Summers. And it could also include the sad - like Jackson's interactions with troubled singer Phyllis Hyman, whom she tried to interview during the early 1990s.

"She was not in the mood to be interviewed. She just came in, and the energy was crazy," Jackson recalled. "We kind of went back and forth."

Later, after learning Hyman had been hospitalized in a suicide attempt, Jackson reached out but was stonewalled by the singer, who refused to admit anything was wrong.

"Of course she lied to me," Jackson said. "A few months later [in 1995], she was dead . . . She had continued to go on with the lie."

There are so many memories, although these days Jackson doesn't have much time to reflect. The South Philadelphia High School graduate, who got her start in the early '80s at WSSJ (1310-AM) in Camden, is on air every day of the week, doing her regular work plus filling in for her late mentor Tamburro on Sunday from 7 p.m. until midnight. Butterball died in July.

Then, there's everything else she packs into her schedule: regular TV appearances; her "What's the 411?" column for the Philadelphia Tribune; and blog posts for WDAS' website. Her station calls her the "Queen of Midday" because she's on local airwaves (weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and in 16 markets nationwide. But a better title would be the "Hardest-Working Woman in Radio."

And that's not taking into account what this single mom and caregiver to an 89-year-old mother does every day before she leaves the house.

Even though she's long been considered one of Philadelphia's most beloved radio personalities - and she's been at this job for three decades - Jackson hasn't eased up. She works practically nonstop. On Monday nights, she hosts a party at The Reef restaurant at 3rd and South streets. On Friday nights, she's at Warmdaddy's on Columbus Boulevard. And then there are all the charity shindigs and other events people beg her to attend.

"I don't know how she does it quite frankly," said Sarah Glover, president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. "She's one of the hardest-working people that I know in media - period . . . I can't keep up with her."

At home, she doesn't get much of a break either.

Up by 6:15 a.m. most days, Jackson is a "sandwich generation" caregiver with a 12-year-old son and her elderly mother, a stroke survivor. In the mornings, she's combing her mother's hair and getting herself ready for a busy day while also making sure her son eats his breakfast before dashing out the door for school.

In between, she's preparing lunch for her mom and after-school snacks for her son and also cooking dinner ahead of time, since she's home late many nights.

Jackson's cooking skills are legendary. During the course of reporting this piece, I interviewed people who raved about how good her seafood salad and peach cobbler are. On Facebook, Jackson posted a picture Sunday of a sweet potato pie she'd baked, and there was a note from WDAS spokeswoman Loraine Ballard Morrill, thanking her for the banana-cream pudding she'd made for Morrill's surprise 60th birthday party over the weekend.

"People think I have this glamorous life," Jackson told me recently. "I have glamorous moments. But at the heart of my life is taking care of my mother. I'm in that sandwich generation. You have the parent. And you have the kid. You're in the middle and you're definitely balancing both worlds when you have to take care of your parent . . . That's what made me [dread]lock my hair, because my hair was getting too complicated. I had to simplify my life."

Jackson's best friend, PR guru Lisa Duhart-Collins, got to see the DJ's life up-close five years ago, when Jackson's house in South Philly was severely damaged after an adjacent home collapsed. The Jackson family briefly moved in with Collins. They now live in Montgomery County.

"I've never seen anybody go the way she goes," Duhart-Collins said. "It's like there's more than one of her."

Somehow, she keeps a smile on her face.

"If you go anywhere with Patty Jackson, people are stopping her every five steps saying, 'You are Patty Jackson. I love you.' . . . I've been places with her [with] people who don't know what she looks like, and she'll say something and they'll say, 'You're Patty Jackson!' "

Her distinctive voice gives her away.

E. Steven Collins, Duhart-Collins' husband, is an on-air personality at WRNB (100.3-FM) and director of urban marketing and external relations for Radio One. That's a rival radio network to Jackson's Clear Channel, but he's still a huge Jackson fan.

"She sounds like she's smiling when she's talking with you," he said. "When you wrap all that around the fact that she's a native Philadelphian, it's just a winning package."


Contact Jenice Armstrong at heyjen@phillynews.com or 215-854-2223. Follow her on Twitter @JeniceAmstrong. Read her blog at philly.com/HeyJen.

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