“So grab your head and make a fist. Listen at me and remember this, that I’ll tell it to the hot, tell it to the cold, tell it to the young and tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughing, I don’t want no crying, and most of all, no signifying.”
Mixing gritty newsreel footage, present-day interviews and newly discovered archival tapes from the TV show Petey Greene’s Washington, ADJUST YOUR COLOR: The Truth of Petey Greene (narrated by Don Cheadle) captures the tumultuous era when America’s melting pot was bubbling over and media paradigms were shifting.
His was a familiar trajectory for young African Americans living in poverty and despair. Born in 1931 to parents on their way to prison and raised by his grandmother in the Washington, D.C. ghetto, young Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr. had numerous scrapes with the law, eventually dropping out of high school to join the army. He served in Korea, but was discharged from the military for heroin use. A heavy drinker and minor drug dealer, Petey was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 10 years at Lorton Reformatory in 1965. The story would have ended there, save for Petey Greene’s gift for gab.
While in prison, Petey was allowed to speak to his fellow inmates over the public address system. His fast-talking, animated delivery, infused with street jive, was a big hit with prisoners and guards alike—the latter found Petey so entertaining that they refused to let him be paroled, even though he was eligible.
Foreshadowing his later showmanship, Petey convinced a young inmate to climb a water tower in the prison yard and threaten suicide. As pre-arranged, Petey talked the man down in just minutes, remarking afterwards, “It took me six months to get him to go up there.” Petey’s contrived act of heroism earned his release in 1965.
On the Airwaves
Dewey Hughes, program director for Washington, D.C. radio station WOL-AM, heard Petey’s prison show while visiting his brother at Lorton Reformatory. After Petey’s release, Dewey rolled the dice by hiring the ex-convict, whose show Rapping with Petey Greene was an immediate hit with the large urban community.
Have you ever been poor and cold and ain’t got no heat? Have you ever been hungry, poor and can’t get nothing to eat? That’s real poor. You see, I was real poor. You see, some of you all was just jive poor. But I was real poor.
The public access show, Petey Greene’s Washington, which began with Petey’s signature, “Adjust the color of your television,” soon followed and was picked up nationally by the fledgling Black Entertainment Television (BET), eventually garnering two Emmy Awards. Petey’s show operated outside the box, entertaining viewers with skits performed by comedian—and Petey protégé—Howard Stern, who appeared in black face, and was challenged by Petey to say the “N” word on air.
Petey’s show also mixed it up with African American role models like boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard and the up-and-coming political strategist Donna Brazile. He invited politicians and bureaucrats to appear—and they did, invariably proving that they were no match for Petey’s sharp wit and impressive drive for drilling down to the truth.
Petey Greene’s commitment to his Washington, D.C. roots ran deep. A moralizing activist who proselytized over the airwaves and in personal appearances, Petey rallied the community against poverty, racism and drug abuse. He founded the nonprofit Efforts for Ex-Convicts to help former felons fit in and succeed. And he served as community liaison strategist for the nonprofit United Planning Organization, provider of human services in blighted neighborhoods.
Inspiring a New Generation
When riots erupted after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Petey waded into the fray to calm tempers and stop the destruction of property. Petey was so respected that he didn’t need protection of any kind as he soothed tempers, quelled unrest first on the street and later on the airwaves.
Petey’s larger-than-life persona inspired a new generation of media personalities and invigorated the African American community nationwide with a new mantra: tell it like it is.
From a man nearly destroyed by crime, drugs and poverty to an admired media icon and honored guest at Jimmy Carter’s White House, Petey defied labeling. With his patois of street talk, Bible citations, rhyming rap, quotes from his grandmother and African American poets, Petey Greene was unique. His legacy lives on 25 years after his death in the outrageous banter of today’s shock jocks, who consciously or unconsciously emulate the man who lit up the Washington, D.C. airwaves for almost two decades.
Dewey Hughes, the station manager of WOL-AM and the man who gave Petey Greene his first break, became a successful broadcast executive with NBC affiliate Radio One Network, going on to win a total of 10 Emmy Awards. Today, he lives in Venice, California, but has recently returned to Washington, D.C. to celebrate his 70th birthday. He is working on a spoken word tribute to Petey Greene.
Talk To Me, a feature film biopic about the life and times of Petey Greene, starring Don Cheadle as Petey Greene and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Dewey Hughes, was released in 2007. It is available on DVD.