WDAS Legend Patty Jackson on Faith, Lizzo, and Delivering “Auntie Advice”
As she celebrates 40 years on the air in Philly, Patty Jackson opens up about her life-changing medical crisis, her real name and her decades on the radio.
The most listened-to radio station in Philadelphia is 105.3 WDAS-FM. And the best-known local personality at that station is its midday host, the one and only Patty Jackson. Here, she talks Lizzo, her deep-rooted faith, and why you’ll find her at “the Acme” every single Monday.
Hi, Patty. It sounds like you’re out and about.
Yes, my driver is taking me to the Acme to pick up my flowers for the week. Lately, I’ve been getting into floral design. On Mondays, I go to the Acme, because they sell cut flowers for a really good price. And then on Sunday, I throw everything out and start all over again. I love to be surrounded by beautiful things.
You mentioned a driver. Like Uber or Lyft?
No, I have a personal driver. I had a stroke in 2015, two weeks after my mom passed. I never wanted anybody to see me depressed or crying. I was in denial about her dying. And my body just broke. Recovery was very difficult. I couldn’t walk or see. But I could talk. And that is when I realized that God did not abandon me. I could still use my voice. Now, I still have problems with one of my legs, so my driver takes me everywhere. I still don’t have enough strength to switch back and forth between the gas and brake fast enough. I would definitely fail the test. [laughs] So once we pick up these flowers, he’ll take me home.
Where is home these days?
I live just a few minutes outside of Philly, in Montgomery County. I was born in South Philly and lived most of my life there, in the same house I grew up in, at 23rd and Ellsworth. But then 15 years ago, our house collapsed. My mother needed a rancher — she couldn’t do steps anymore — so we wound up out here, because there aren’t any ranchers in South Philly. I’ve lived in two houses my whole life. And if God did not take my house down, I would still live in that house in South Philly.
What do you miss and not miss about South Philly?
I miss the closeness of the neighbors, even when they got on my nerves. I miss the block parties. I don’t miss the fighting for parking. I am one of those people who would put out chairs or whatever when I dug out my spot in the snow. People who say that’s wrong just don’t know. They’re not real South Philly people. South Philly people know that if you dug out a spot, that’s your spot.
I take it your mom lived with you until the end. You two must have been close.
We were. I took care of her for many years. My dad was a rigger and foreman at the Navy Yard. I got my work ethic from him. He wasn’t one to just take a day off nilly-dilly the way the kids do today. And I’m the exact same way. And from my mom, I got my love of cooking. Mom got me in the kitchen at a very early age. Dad always wanted his dinner on the table on time, and I went from sous-chef to chef.
What would you make me if I invited you over for my Fourth of July barbecue?
I make goooood mac-and-cheese. My secret is heavy whipping cream. Mom always used Carnation. But I decided to try heavy whipping cream. And it was so, so good. Mom was horrified. She couldn’t believe I turned my back on Carnation. [laughs]
So, 40 years in the radio biz. How did you get into that line of work?
I’ve always been in front of the microphone. When I was a little girl, I would step up and read the Easter poems in church. On Youth Sunday, I would help lead the service. In high school at South Philly High, I would do the morning announcements over the PA system. They’d let me play one song over the PA, and then I’d make the announcements for the day.
What kind of songs are we talking about?
Kurtis Blow. The Treacherous Three. The Sugarhill Gang. This was rap back when most people had no idea what rap was. To us, it was the most exciting form ever. I love old-school hip-hop.
What about the newer stuff?
I love Lizzo. But I don’t understand this mumble rap.
Soulja Boy. Travis Scott. I don’t even know what they saying. Hip-hop fell out around 2010. That’s when I had to ask my one niece, “What is this?” She said I was so corny. Hey, I like Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” What can I say?
We didn’t even get to your full career path yet and you already went and brought up Will Smith.
I love him. I wish what happened didn’t. But I’ve known him for years. I was just with him in December for his book launch, and he was like, “Paaa-teeee!” This is not the Will Smith we all know and love. He’s such a genuine, nice man. And that was just awful.
Let’s back up 40 years to your first job in radio.
The pastor of my church lived around the corner from the owner of a radio station in Camden, WSSJ. I started there as an intern. And then I got the chance to be on the air when one colleague wouldn’t come to work because it was snowing. I said I would do it. I got my butt on the Broad Street Line and then the PATCO, and then I walked to the station through the snow. And that was my first gig on the air.
I read that you once worked at WXTU, the country station. Kinda scratched my head.
[Laughs] Well, when I went to ’XTU, it had this so-called “urban” format. They hired me, but with one condition: I had to change my name to Patty Jackson.
That’s not your real name?
No. My real name is Patty Nolan. But the station manager at ’XTU said that was an Irish name. It wasn’t “Black enough” for an “urban” station. And who was popular then? Michael Jackson. And so they named me Patty Jackson. My father was so mad: What’s wrong with our name?! So I changed my name for them, and don’t you know, about five seconds later, they changed formats to country.
Wow. Did you leave?
No, I stayed! It was painful at first. But I actually fell in love with Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. And I got tighter and tighter as a DJ. And then I wound up getting a job at Power 99 in ’86. But I wasn’t there long. Management changed, and I didn’t think I had a future there. And at this time, ’DAS was owned by a Black man — Power 99 may be a “Black station,” but it was not owned by Black people—and I moved to ’DAS.
[Several minutes pass as Jackson goes into the Acme to pick up her flower order. This takes longer than expected because she can’t find her readers, which means she can’t see the credit-card keypad. While she’s inside, two women can be heard gushing over her. “I know you!” one keeps saying.]
I get the sense that happens to you a lot, people recognizing you.
It sure does. Especially now that we came out of those masks.
What did you play on your show earlier today?
Today I played the new one from Lizzo, the Jay-Z song from the ’90s, “Excuse Me Miss,” and because it’s a Monday—on Mondays I celebrate artists from Philly—I played some Teddy Pendergrass, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Paul’s “Let’s Make a Baby.” At ’DAS, we are R&B and throwbacks. So we will play music from the ’70s and ’80s, but also music of today that adults would like.
You’ve interviewed so many people over the years. Who are your favorites?
Well, my first one was Gary Hart, that guy who ran for president until he got caught with that chick. [laughs] My favorites are Lionel Richie. Quincy Jones. Janet Jackson. Denzel Washington. And then there was Oprah. She was a little weird and didn’t warm up until the end.
What Oprah stage was this?
She’d just made the cover of Vogue and was promoting that horrible, horrible movie Beloved.
The world is such a different place than when you started out. What’s been the most dramatic change in radio?
You have to remember that there was a time when a lot of radio stations didn’t want to play our music. There was a rebellion against Black music. Michael Jackson helped break that. MTV didn’t want to play his videos from Off the Wall. But once Thriller came out, they just didn’t have a choice, though they still didn’t want to play Rick James. … And then there’s social media. There is such a heavy emphasis on us doing social media, and YouTube presented a steep, steep learning curve for me. But it’s not all about social media. You have to know how to do commercials on radio or you have no future. So it can’t be all about posing in the studio and looking cute for a selfie that you post on Instagram, which is what I had to tell a young lady recently.
Which brings us to this role that you seem to fill on social media and on the air, where you dole out advice and, often, criticism of the way people act. You call it “auntie advice.”
It’s just life. I talk real to people. Sometimes you need to tell young people that they are, at times, told no because they are being protected. Being told no is not always a bad thing; it can be a delay, not a denial. Being told no is sometimes God’s way of protecting you. So I try to share some wisdom about life, about maturing, and about understanding some things in this world.
[Ding … ding … ding …]
Last year, I interviewed Pierre Robert on the occasion of his 40th anniversary and asked him for his top three Philly concerts of all time. And now I ask you.
Prince at the Spectrum, the Purple Rain tour. Luther Vandross at the Vet in 1986. And Elton John at the Wells Fargo Center. I had the best seats ever. All these white people were looking at me like, Who is this Black girl who has better seats than us and knows every word to every single song? I was so close that Elton could hear me.
[Ding … ding … ding …]
In this month in 1985, the biggest concert ever in Philly history was held at JFK Stadium. I am, of course, talking about Live Aid. Were you there?
I was not. I was at home in South Philly, watching it on TV. I did not move. I loved it when Tina Turner was onstage with Mick Jagger. And Patti LaBelle. Mmm-hmm. Keep in mind that there was a lot of controversy surrounding Live Aid. They ain’t have much soul up in there. But then Patti stepped out. Her hair was so high.
[Ding … ding … ding …]
Patty, what IS that incessant dinging sound?!
[Laughs] My driver is just bringing my flowers into the house and my seat belt isn’t buckled, so the car will just keep making that noise forever. You know these cars today.
Okay. I know you have a son, but I never hear about any other men in your life. Have you ever been married?
I do have a son, who turned 21 today, and I also have a seven-year-old niece who lives with me, the daughter I never had. She was the first girl born in the family in 30 years! It had been boy-boy-boy-boy-boy-boy-boy-boy-boy-boy. That’s why I know so much about Marvel. [laughs]
There was one person I wanted to marry in the ’80s. His name was El DeBarge. But he didn’t realize I had such a crush. He found out much later and thought I was a stalker. I said something to him like, “You’re my husband in my head. … We got married in the ’80s to the ‘Rhythm of the Night.’” And he looked at me … [pauses] Who was that chick in Misery?
That’s it! Kathy Bates! He looked at me like James Caan looked at Kathy Bates in that movie.
Do you see yourself retiring at ’DAS?
I don’t wanna go anywhere, but who knows what the future holds? But let me put it this way: If they wanted me to go, I wouldn’t have a problem finding a job. Mmm-hmm. I’m a worker and very passionate about what I do.
Does the station have anything big planned for your 40th?
Yes, we’ll be doing the “Celebrating Patty” party at the Dell over Labor Day weekend. I wanted El DeBarge, but he was booked. [laughs] I would have walked out onstage with a wedding veil on.
You know it.
If you do ever move on to another station, something tells me it will still be right here in Philadelphia.
I love Philly. I do realize I’m part of the fabric of some people’s lives. My life changed dramatically after that stroke, and it just fueled me. If I was driven before, I am even more so now. I need to use the gift that God gave me. You know, you become very humbled when you can’t walk, when you can’t bathe yourself, when you can’t go to the bathroom without help. I am so grateful to be here today, and at the end of the day, what you need to do is be kind. You never know what people are going through in their lives.
Your words remind me of what my wife told our teens the first time they went with our church to hand out food and toiletries to people on the streets in Kensington. She said to them, “Make sure you smile and be kind, because you might be the only goodness that person sees all week.”
Your wife is absolutely right. Be grateful for what you have, and be kind to others.
Sometimes auntie advice is just so simple. Thanks, Patty.
No, thank you.
Published as “On the Record: Soul Sister” in the July 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.