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August 22, 2014, 11:41 am

Remembering Butterball (1942-2012)

E. Steven Collins was 19 years old when he met the famed radio announcer, Joe “Butterball” Tamburro. Like most Philadelphians in the 1970s, Collins faithfully tuned into WDAS FM and jammed to the R&B and soul classics of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

But when there was an opening at WDAS for a newsperson, at that time, the news director, Dave Shorr, called Collins and asked him to try out.

“I was deliriously happy,” Collins recalled. “And I tried out on Butterball’s show — the midday show from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. And I remember it because I was scared when I got there.”

As a Temple University student, most of Collins’ peers were auditioning for jobs at KYW and other local stations. Having previous radio experience at WHAT for a year and a half, he knew he was ready.    

“I wanted to be a journalist, but I wanted to work in Black radio,” Collins said.

Around a quarter of one, Collins entered the studio on Belmont and Edgeley Roads. When he walked in, Butterball was on the phone. Collins sat down and Butterball pointed and directed him where to sit. There was a microphone there and Collins prepared his newscast.

Just as the music began to fade out, Butterball turned to him and said, ‘Alright guy, if you mess up, it’s back to WHAT.’ The two shared a laugh — a hearty laugh as Collins' described it that would spark a friendship lastly over thirty years.

And Butterball’s laugh carried over on air when he announced that it was time for news.

“He said what song had just been playing, Earth Wind and Fire or something. ‘And here’s E. Steven Collins.’ I was on the air. Because I was relaxed, I did a really good newscast. My father heard it and he called me.”

“When I finished, Butterball put a song on and he called Bob Kline — who was the general manager — and he said, ‘This guy is good enough for my show.’

Thus, Collins was hired in June 1978, a summer of memorable firsts.

“In all those years, and the most important thing, Butterball was a constant. I worked at WDAS, later Clear Channel, for 22 plus years and we had a number of different general managers, market managers, field mangers and promoters.”

“But there was only one program director all of those years and that was Butterball. [He]

was an enormously powerful person in the music industry. He was a guy who many people consulted with on what songs to release off new CDs. Kenny Gamble talks about it all the time.”

WDAS radio personality Patty Jackson said that Gamble often praised Butterball’s ability to hear a hit.

“Kenny Gamble said Butter had the best ears in the business for picking hits,” Jackson said. “Everyone from Smokey Robinson, The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, James Brown and Frankie Beverly to Eric Benet, Babyface, Boyz II Men and Teena Marie got their chart topping hits started right here with Butter playing them first in the country on ’DAS.”

“A big part of the success that they had has to do with Butterball,” Collins continued. “Butterball had as Kenny Gamble once said, ‘a golden ear for radio and music.’ It didn’t matter who the artist was. Butterball would hear a song and he would know. Barry White would ask him. Luther Vandross would ask him. And [Butter] would tell them and he would play it on the radio right away.”

“He was so much more because he got Philadelphia. He was an Italian kid from South Philly, but he understood the African-American experience because he lived it. He didn’t see me as a Black kid from West Philly that was coming out of Temple and trying to get a job on the radio. He saw my potential.”

Butterball’s ability to hear talent even picked up Patty Jackson’s voice, which led her to work for WDAS.

“I remember Patty being on an AM radio station,” Collins said. “And I told Butter, ‘She sounds like us, man. You should put her on.’ And he said to me, ‘You don’t know anything about radio. I’ll listen to her.’ He and I went to get a cheese steak and I put on this AM station she was on, WSFJ, and Butter listened to her and said, ‘Hey I like her. Tell her to call me.’ She’s always had an amazing sound and of course Butter had that ear.”

From Collins’ 1978 interviews of Frank Rizzo, Edward Rendell, Hardy Williams and other people making news in Philadelphia, there was an impact in the news department and the Black community’s ability to get information.

“Butter wanted us to be in the community. Late in the summer of ’78, we talked about a way to create something for the community that would bring people together.”

During this time, Klein had been WDAS’ general manager for 30 years and retired. His assistant, Cody Anderson took over and had input into the efforts to have more station presence within the Black community. Even still, it was Butterball who implemented the Unity Day initiative and made it work.

During the same year in 1978, Fat Larry’s Band performed on the Belmont Plateau for Unity Day’s premiere. Collins remembered there were about eight or 10 vendors and people played softball.

“We had a ball,” Collins chuckled. “And 30 or 40,000 people [came] and we couldn’t believe people showed up for our first Unity Day. The city didn’t have an African-American centered event. The next year it became bigger.”

Unity Day eventually was held on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with several performance areas with varied entertainment including the gospel stage, senior citizen area and children’s area. A highlight was the Unity award — given to someone who preserved and protected Black heritage. It was presented to several national recognized figures like Reggie White, Dr. Leon Sullivan and Julius Irving.

“Butterball was hands-on deck, very instrumental in helping us to get really good entertainment on these stages. Artists like Kool and the Gang, Phyllis Hyman, The O’Jays, The Whispers, and ultimately James Brown and Smokey Robinson. The top names would come in and perform in the dead of summer and give Philadelphia just an amazing day. What I call, ‘Our Day on the Parkway.’ ”

Collins said that Butterball’s impact to the radio station, community and to his personal life was a memorable experience.

“Butter was like a father with all of us at ’DAS then. He was proud of us if we got a new car or house, if we had a baby, if we got married. Butter could tell if you needed a pep talk or if you just wanted a partner to roll with and get a cheese steak. It wasn’t like you went out with your boss. You went out with Butterball.”

Collins now serves as director of urban marketing and external relations at Radio One.

“For all of us, Doug Henderson, Mimi Brown, Patty Jackson, Terry Johnson and Tony Brown and Louise Williams-Bishop, we cry when we think about him not being around,” Collins said. “It’s such a loss. I don’t know if I can find the proper way to express what he was in our lives. He was special.”