Alex Cooley, known as “the unofficial mayor of Atlanta music,” is credited as the man who brought rock and roll to Atlanta. In his lifelong career as a concert promoter, Cooley put on thousands of shows, bringing to his hometown almost every major musical act in the world for millions of music fans. He owned and operated some of the city’s legendary rock music nightclubs, in addition to founding the Music Midtown festival in 1994.
Born in 1939 in Atlanta, Cooley graduated from Henry Grady High School and attended the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. Cooley became interested in concert promotion after attending the Miami Pop Festival in the late 1960s, and on July 4-5, 1969 (a few weeks before the famed festival in Woodstock, New York), he and seventeen other partners hosted the Atlanta International Pop Festival at Atlanta International Raceway in Hampton. Attendance was reported to be around 150,000. A second such festival the following year in Byron (Peach County) attracted some 500,000 attendees, and Cooley—who by now had promoted similar events in Texas—formed his first promotion company, Alex Cooley Inc.
Cooley brought a variety of high-profile performers, including Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna, to such Atlanta venues as the Fox Theatre, the Omni, Chastain Park, and the Lakewood Amphitheater. In 1974 he opened Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom, where many stars, including Bruce Springsteen, made their Atlanta debuts. He also owned the Coca-Cola Roxy, the Tabernacle (located in the same building where his mother attended church as a child), and the Cotton Club. During these years Cooley was also instrumental in efforts to preserve and renovate the Fox Theatre.
In 1980 Cooley and his partner Peter Conlon established Concerts/Southern Promotions, which, as the most active and prolific concert company in Atlanta and the Southeast, presented nearly 400 shows a year. The business was bought in 1997 by SFX Entertainment, which in turn was purchased in 2000 by New York–based Clear Channel Communication Inc.—recognized as the largest promoter of live entertainment events in the world—for a reported $15 million. Cooley and Conlon remained the local directors of the company they founded.
In 1994 Cooley realized a long-held dream when he and Conlon promoted the inaugural Music Midtown, a three-day festival in Atlanta that featured a diversity of musical talent on a number of stages. By the festival’s tenth anniversary in 2003, Music Midtown had grown to hold eleven stages, more than 120 artists, and some 200,000 fans on a thirty-five acre tract and was considered to be the nation’s largest three-day music festival. In 2011 Cooley purchased Eddie’s Attic, an acoustic music venue in Decatur, with co-owner Dave Mattingly.
A man who worked just as hard for environmental and animal welfare agencies as he did in his promotion business, Cooley earned the respect of his peers in the music industry for his integrity and honesty. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 1993 was appointed to the Board of Governors for the Atlanta chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the organization that distributes the annual Grammy Awards). In 2004 Cooley received—along with producer Dallas Austin, pianist Chuck Leavell, and the musical group OutKast—the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy’s Atlanta Hero Award.
Cooley died at his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, on December 1, 2015, at the age of seventy-six.