The voice of a Philadelphia radio icon has been silenced.
WDAS disc jockey Joe “Butterball” Tamburro died Friday morning, July 27. He was 70.
Tamburro was known for hosting the famous “Sunday Night Dance Party” live broadcast featuring a master mix of R&B and soul classics from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
In addition to his contributions to broadcasting and the music industry, Tamburro was also an important figure in the local Civil Rights Movement offering the airwaves to leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cecil B. Moore.
“Over the course of his nearly 50-year career at WDAS-FM, Butter, as he was affectionately known, transcended barriers, broke stereotypes, and played the music of our generation with all the love and soul that was intended by the artists who performed it,” Congressman Chaka Fattah said.
“Butter was more than a radio icon. He was a civil rights leader and a voice for all that is good in R & B. His jovial laugh and his kind demeanor will be missed, but his soul will live on through the music.”
WDAS/FM’s Patti Jackson hosted a tribute show Friday afternoon where devoted listeners, recording artists and national figures such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton expressed their thoughts about the radio legend.
“I have met and worked with quite a few legends in my career. Butter was the pinnacle. He will be missed but never forgotten,” said Program Director for WDAS-FM/AM and Power 99 FM Ken Johnson.
During the tribute, Mayor Michael Nutter remembered listening to Tamburro while growing up in Philadelphia.
“He communicated the mood and attitude of the times,” Nutter said.
“We celebrate a wonderful person, a great man and a kind individual. I will never forget him.”
E. Steven Collins, director of urban marketing and external relations, Radio One, recalled the first day that he started at WDAS back in June 1978 and encountered Tamburro in the studio. At the time, Collins was nervous about doing his first news show on the station.
“He had that huge laugh and [it] reverberated in the entire studio. It made me relax and I did the news without a flaw,” says Collins.
“He was super deluxe mentor and father figure and a great down to earth colleague. He was special to all of us.”
Collins credits Tamburro with providing mentorship and words of encouragement throughout his career.
“I don’t think I would have made the kind of moves that I made in my career, or made it as far in my career. Butter was encouraging. He encouraged many people. He made you believe anything was possible,” says Collins.
Throughout his years at WDAS, Collins and Tamburro often worked together on securing talent for the station’s popular Unity Day Festival. Collins says Tamburro was instrumental in drawing top entertainers such as Maze and Frankie Beverly, Kool and the Gang and Smokey Robinson to perform at the festival.
Tamburro got his start at WDAS as an advertising salesman in 1964. He was nicknamed “Butterball” by Jimmy Bishop, the program director at the time. He soon became a part-time DJ and he began doing the first oldies show on Black radio.
“Here’s a guy who literally seasoned the musical tastes of Black Philadelphians,” Collins said, noting that Tamburro would play a mix of artists ranging from Temptations to Phyllis Hyman to Hall and Oates and Steely Dan.
Philadelphia International Records music legends and co-founders Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff saluted Tamburro said they were deeply saddened by the loss of one of the greatest disc jockeys and radio personalities in music radio history.
“Joe ‘Butterball’ Tamburro was a class act in radio and the music business and he was an icon here in Philadelphia,” said Gamble and Huff in joint statement.
“Butterball had a major impact and influence in picking many of the radio hits for our PIR label. More importantly, Butterball was a part of the Gamble-Huff Organization family. He will be remembered and respected in our hearts and minds forever. There will never be another R&B and soul radio like Butterball.”
Tamburro was program director for WDAS-FM and WDAS-AM until a recent illness, but was still active as an on-air personality on WDAS-AM.
“I smile when I speak on air,” he once said.
Tamburro was the recipient of many awards throughout the years. He was honored for excellence and service by two former mayors of Philadelphia W. Wilson Goode and William Green.
The NAACP, F.B.I., Philadelphia City Council, Pennsylvania State Legislature, American Jewish Committee, Martin Luther King Center for Change and numerous other organizations also paid tribute to Tamburro.
He has received awards and honors in the music industry from the Black Music Association and from many trade publications such as R&R, Billboard Monitor, B.R.E. Magazine, Gavin Magazine, Impact and Jack The Rapper.
He was a recipient of the Ken Garland Lifetime Achievement Award from the March of Dimes’ A.I.R. Awards, the 1998 recipient of the Salute to Excellence Award and a 1997 Philadelphia Music Alliance inductee onto the Art Bank’s Walk of Fame.
Tamburro was born in 1942. He leaves behind wife, Cynthia. He had five children and was grandfather of five. He collected old records and classic cars, once aspiring to become a race car driver. He was also a skilled auto mechanic, a lover of good foods and a connoisseur of restaurants.
In what could prove to be a very popular decision, 1480 WDAS-AM, once commonly known as “The Soul of Philadelphia,” has returned to the airwaves with “the best R&B oldies from the late ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s.” On Nov. 23, the station began the transition by switching to all Christmas music, offering a great selection of holiday hits by popular R&B artists.
After the holidays, 1480 WDAS-AM will begin playing listener favorites such as the Temptations, Archie Bell, Jerry Butler, Sam Cooke, Fontella Bass, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, The Drifters, Etta James, Isaac Hayes and Little Richard. Ken Johnson, Clear Channel director of urban programming, says working with 1480 WDAS-AM takes him back to his roots.
“My career started at a classic oldies station, and I am truly excited to provide this great music on 1480 WDAS AM for our listeners in Philly.” Johnson adds that beloved longtime ‘DAS disc jockey Joe “Butterball” Tamburro will be an integral part of 1480 WDAS-AM, saying, “It only makes sense that a radio legend is at the heart of this legendary station.”
A statement released by Clear Channel recounted the station’s rich tradition, noting that the station not only played a critical role in the history of broadcasting and music, but also in the history of the city. During a time when Black artists could not get airplay on white radio stations, 1480 WDAS-AM significantly helped advance the popularity of R&B artists. It was the first in the country willing to play records by many of these artists, including Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Not only did 1480 WDAS-AM give jobs to minorities, but it also put female DJs on the air, which was unprecedented at the time.
The station featured breaking news coverage of every civil rights event, including the Birmingham church bombings and the integration of Alabama University. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were both welcomed on the station during their lifetimes. Its dedication to the community in combination with its effort toward a racially just country made it “truly a pioneering force, inspiring movements toward a better future.”
Listen to 1480 WDAS-AM on the air and also online at www.wdasam.com. Listeners will also be able to hear the station simulcast on HD radios at 106.1 HD2.
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.”
Occasionally, what you don’t know can hurt you. For instance, if you grew up on classic R&B and weren’t aware that 1480 WDAS-AM was reactivated last November as “The Soul of Philadelphia,” you’ve been missing out on the Motown sounds and Philly grooves of your youth.
The broadcast day begins with Bobby Holiday, the pre-dawn purveyor of doo-wop, disco and classic soul who takes to the airwaves from 6 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday.
If the jovial jock seems vaguely familiar, it may be because this is the Chicago native’s second stint in Philadelphia. In the late ’90s, he was an on-air personality on 103.9, and literally made headlines when in 1999, he vowed to live on the roof of TGI Friday on City Line Avenue day and night until the Eagles won a football game. Amid the intense scrutiny of the media, not to mention rush hour traffic, Holiday spent 20 days and 19 nights perched on top of the restaurant before the Eagles finally put the Dallas Cowboys out to pasture for a win.
Holiday, a Chicago native, whose career spans more that two decades, was out of work and cooling his heels in the Windy City when he decided to return to Philly “off a hunch.” “It’s the first time I moved to a city without any prospects for a job,” said Holiday, during a recent visit to the Philadelphia Tribune offices. Why Philly? “I had the most fun in radio here,” he said without hesitation. “I had fun in other places, but Philly was where I became ‘Bobby Holiday.’”
“I got here and I tried to find some jobs at some radio stations,” he recalled. “I knew Ken Johnson, who was an operations manager. I had a meeting with him and he didn’t have anything at the time, but kept my name on file. Then, come December, he calls me and tells me, ‘They’re starting WDAS-AM again.’ I’m like, ‘That’s their Spanish station?’ He goes, ‘Yes.’ I’m like, ‘There better be more to it than that!’ He goes, ‘We’re going to turn it into an Urban AC (Adult Contemporary).” I’m like, ‘Thank you, ’cause I only have two sentences worth of Spanish, and after a while that’s going to get boring!’
“When they said what it was, it was ‘Best of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, I’m like, ‘OK!’ He goes, ‘So you can handle that much?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ Then when he said what I’d be doing, ‘I’m like, ‘So you want me to do mornings — come on before Butter?’ He goes, ‘Yeah,’ and I’m like, ‘I love my life!’ In January, it’ll be a year.”
Holiday indeed felt fortunate to have worked with Philadelphia radio icon Joseph “Butterball” Tamburro, calling him “a beautiful brother.” Tamburro, who was affectionately known as ‘Butter,’ followed Holiday from noon to 6:00 p.m. weekdays before passing away last July. “There’s only been three times when I’ve been emotional,” said Holiday. “When I announced the passing of Harold Washington, the mayor of Chicago, when I announced on November 4, 2008, that we have a Black president, and when I announced that Butter passed away.”
But for the most part, it’s been all good. Spinning such R&B gems as “Take This Heart of Mine” by Marvin Gaye, “You Haven’t Done Nothing” by Stevie Wonder, “Crazy” by the Manhattans and “Part-time, Party Time Man” by the Futures, with The Trammps’ “Hooked for Life” thrown in for good measure, Holiday, 44, loves to interact with his listeners and has regular callers, including “Peaches” and “Robert,” as well as a very special “fan” with the exotic name of Parella.
Judging from some of his on-air exchanges, the fun-loving Holiday, to quote the great Eagles’ safety, Brian Dawkins, another one of Philly’s adopted sons, still isn’t afraid to “act a fool,” much like in the days when he decided to participate in a celebrity boxing match against former heavyweight boxing champ, Jacqui Frazier, or audition for the Fox reality competition, “So You Think You Can Dance.” Apparently not ...
But above all else, Holiday, who felt that there was “something here” for him when he decided to return to the City of Brotherly Love, is proud to be a part of the WDAS legacy.
“I knew that Butter ran it, and I knew that ‘DAS was legendary — the AM and the FM,” he said. “So it’s one of the those situations where when I started in radio, when you dream of getting to a Philly or Chicago or New York, and you finally get here, and these people that you look up to are now your colleagues, that’s a trip!”
So if you love old school soul, and prefer a bit of local flavor to the nationally syndicated Steve Harvey and Tom Joyner morning shows, tune in to 1480 AM, and make every weekday a “Holiday.”
Services will be held Thursday August 2 for radio legend Joe “Butterball” Tamburro.
Tamburro died July 27, 2012. He was 70.
A cause of death was not given, however he had been battling complications stemming from diabetes and heart disease.
Tamburro was a WDAS disc jockey whose career spanned almost 50 years. His career at WDAS dates back to 1964 when he joined the station as an advertising salesman.
He is survived his wife Cynthia, five children and five grandchildren.
The funeral and holy Mass will be held at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, 1723 Race St.
In lieu of flowers the family is requesting that donations be made in his name to the American Diabetes Association, 150 Monument Rd. Suite 100, Bala Cynwyd, Pa. 19004.
It seemed only fitting that the ultimate silence of one of urban radio’s most powerful and influential voices would draw thousands in tribute to his life. Longtime WDAS AM/FM radio personality Joe “Butterball” Tamburro was laid to rest on Thursday during a standing-room-only Mass of Christian burial at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia.
Tamburro, who died on July 27 at age 70, was eulogized by members of his radio family who spanned the arc of Tamburro’s career.
The first speaker was fellow radio icon state Representative Louise Williams Bishop, who recalled insisting that her former husband, Jimmy Bishop, (the then-WDAS program director in 1964) hire the young man. Bishop not only put Tamburro on the air, he slapped the portly young man with the nickname “Butterball.” Within months, “Butter” was a hit with listeners — and was a popular on-air presence until his death.
During the hour-plus service, current WDAS FM mid-day host Patty Jackson delivered a biblical passage, which drew a round of applause in recognition of her decades-long friendship with Tamburro, whom she called her “mentor.”
Monsignor Arthur E. Rodgers also received applause when he recalled Tamburro as an Italian-American from South Philadelphia who was an avid admirer of African-American rhythm and blues music culture. Prior to landing at WDAS, the aspiring radio disc jockey played at record hops around town for legendary Philadelphia on-air personality Hy Lit. The lessons he learned there, he would eventually bring to the airwaves for the next 47 years.
As program director for WDAS, Tamburro was uniquely attuned to the station’s faithful listeners for 25 years. He maintained the sound heard on WDAS AM/FM by selecting the music played, choosing the jocks that played the music and going on air himself. It was a winning formula that drew high ratings for the stations, as his distinctive touch and charming personality warmed the hearts of listeners for nearly five decades. Tamburro had often shared that he smiled when he spoke on the air, thus creating a soothing bond that listeners responded to as friendly.
According to a station spokesperson, Tamburro had been battling complications from heart disease and diabetes, and was in his Haverford home at the time of his death last week. In passing, Tamburro is survived by his wife, Cynthia, five adult children and eight grandchildren.
The weather was absolutely perfect, the tastes and aroma of picnic fare were irresistible, but most of all the spirit of friendship among old friends was awesome. Nearly 200 picnickers gathered at Bluebell Park for “The 4th Annual Back in the Day Picnic … the picnic of all picnics” on July 21.
The host committee has been working to spread the word and organize the increasingly popular picnic for a year. Lynda Brown Bagley, Michele Lewis Bell, Robert “Bobby” W. Williams III, Barry D. Crawford, Malcolm McGraw, Dr. Rusty Frye, Norris Roundtree, Lionel Sharpless and Donald Johnson did a fantastic job again this year.
So many families participated, including children and grandchildren of Philadelphians who have known each other as neighbors from a very young age. Many were classmates from elementary, junior high, high school, college and even graduate school. They attended Henry and Houston Elementary, Roosevelt Jr. High, Masterman, Cardinal Dougherty, Germantown, Girls’ High, Cheyney, Howard, Morgan Drexel, Lincoln and University of Pennsylvania among others.
They came together to relax, dance, reminisce and enjoy each other’s company. Of course there was no shortage of delicious food and grilling competition, tents, lawn chairs and blankets. A great selection of familiar tunes was provided by Dr. Rusty Frye and Michelle Perton kept the children thrilled with special face painting designs.
Just some of those “Out & About” enjoying the sun and fun were: Michelle Chew, Gus “Windy” Lacy, Jackie Johnson, Ronald “Beetle” Tyree, Janet Hunter, Mark Chandler, Lee Gaskins, Linda James MeGregor, Karen Ragland, Jackie Crawford, Linda Simpkins Scott, Donald Williams, Butch Williams, Ali and Helen Salahudin, Angi Brown Johnson, Meriam Lawson, Rodney Spears, Reggie Johnson, Phillip Lightfoot, Camille James Robinson, Meryl Evans, Barbara Blount Armstrong, Velma Chain, Iris Chew and Sue Hary Thomas.
The picnic, which begins early in the morning, is a daylong affair traditionally ending at dusk. At that time everyone joined hands in a huge circle. This year Tony Webster offered a beautiful prayer and friends no longer in the circle are remembered with love and good thoughts.
Everyone left nature’s beautiful backdrop of Bluebell Park with revelry of years gone by and the rejuvenation of friendship. After a day of laughing about their youth as well as their maturity they will meet in the same time, same place next year!
As I reflect upon the memories of the iconic Joe “Butterball” Tamburro, I do so with a smile. I think about fantastic memories and the joy he brought to generations by sharing his genuine love of music. When I wrote about his return to the scene at Temptations Banquet Hall in Germantown, I introduced myself and we spoke briefly. His voice resonated as did his kind spirit. I am thankful for the opportunity to have been able to personally express how I had been uplifted and entertained by him for years. You will be missed, “Butterball,” but your name will be spoken countless times for years to come. Thank you, and may you rest in peace.