In an industry where the average length of employment can often be measured in months, Joseph Tamburro was one of the most enduring radio personalities to ever grace a mic.
Born in 1942 to Italian parents in the heart of South Philadelphia, Tamburro grew up enamored with the infectious melodies and sonic grit of soul music. By the mid-1960’s, he got his foot in the door at WDAS, then the top black station in America. As the story goes, the young wanna-be radio jock had attended enough urban record hops to know how people responded to the mix of rhymes spoken over syncopated music. While Philly was home to some of the biggest names in radio, it was the boastful on-air patter of New York’s Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker that caught Tamburro’s attention, and he would often drive between cities to listen to—and hopefully come to emulate—Crocker’s catchy rhyming patterns. Tamburro’s talkover deliveries were good enough to garner the attention of WDAS, one of the biggest black radio stations in America. He delivered his raps so flawlessly that he would go on to forge a nearly 50-year-long relationship with African-American radio listeners throughout the Philadelphia region.
“We always reflect our roots, and Butter bridging the racial gap as a young guy and a young DJ allowed him a better view of the kind of resilience that you need in this world in general—and in radio, because he came up not only having to prove himself, but deal with an extra layer,” says Wynne Alexander, who, in the early 70s, was a teen reporter at WDAS, the station her father managed and her grandfather owned. “When people pay too much attention to our physicality, it creates an extra layer. Race is an extra layer. Essence is a better way to judge each other. What is your essence?” Tamburro’s was pure love—love of the music, love for its makers and love for its listeners. As a testament to Tamburro’s staying power, he was still listed as “active” on the WDAS station log when he passed away on Friday, July 27 following surgery. And several commercial radio stations in the market adjusted their programming in memorial to the 70-year-old radio legend, a fitting tribute to a man so adored and respected by his multi-generational audience.
Looking back at a timeline of radio history in America, one sees a difficult past that was, more often than not, divided by culture and color; just as America was juggling new racial and social dynamics during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the powerhouse Philly-based WDAS radio station was serving as the “voice of the black community.” Founded in 1922, WDAS was one of the first radio stations in the region and had long featured ethnic and cultural programming. In 1950, candy manufacturer Max M. Leon purchased the station for $495,000, and by mid-decade had shifted to predominantly black programming. Under the direction of Leon’s son-in-law, general manager Robert Klein, the AM station provided in-depth coverage of the unfolding civil rights movement, even featuring reporter Ed Bradley, later of CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Throughout the 1960s, the station added a number of young personalities, including Georgie Woods, Jimmy Bishop, Carl Helm, Jocko Henderson and Hy Lit.
WDAS-FM went live in 1959 as the sister station to WDAS 1480 AM, initially playing jazz and a classical music show hosted by Leon, a serious musician who also financed and founded the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra in 1943. In 1968, the format changed to become Lit’s “Hyski’s Underground,” a new concept of playing album cuts that were not hit singles. In 1971, Lit was replaced by Leon’s son, Steve, known on the air as My Father’s Son—but Steve was pulled off the air by Klein, his brother-in-law, then fired for playing a song with a drug reference—”Coming Into Los Angeles” by Arlo Guthrie. Other staff jocks quit in protest, and a new line-up was installed, with Harvey Holiday appointed as the new music director and a new, progressive black music format set in place. The revolutionary music mix was initially given no chance of success, but it not only survived—it thrived. Over the next several years, the new concept would redefine radio, establishing a tried-and-true home for the eclectic mix of songs the station played.
“I’m going to put the WDAS days into two categories: when the AM was the top station in town, and then when the FM was the big station in town—and does pretty well today,” said Holiday, currently a mid-day personality for WOGL. “When I was a kid and fell in love with black music, I was 12, and Butter was 14. We didn’t know each other, but we had the same dream.”
The two youths would meet in the ‘60s while working the record hops with Lit. It was during those fabled hops that Holiday and Tamburro learned the fundamentals of moving a live audience with not only their voices, but the selection of music. Radio stalwart Louise Williams Bishop recalled insisting that her former husband, Jimmy Bishop, WDAS-AM program director in 1964, hire Tamburro. Bishop not only put the portly young man on the air; he slapped him with his Butterball nickname, and it stuck. By 1967, Butter was slinging rhymes on the air alongside his radio idols.
“Butter was the last great AM disc jockey,” noted Holiday, remembering his longtime colleague with fondness and admiration. “In other words, he broke into the all-star line-up of Georgie Woods, Jimmy Bishop, Kae Williams. You talk about the black disc jockeys that made WDAS, Philadelphia and did so much for civil rights? He broke into that line-up. He became not only one of them. He became as big as any of them.”
Under the direction of Lit as V.P. and general manager, in 1968, WDAS-FM switched to an experimental FM format to help shape the new sound. Radio programmers were allowing their FM air talent to explore the long play (or LP) albums in ways unknown on the AM side, where the three-minute, Top 40 radio format ruled. Tamburro moved over to WDAS-FM as midday host in the mid-1970s and eventually became its program director—a title he would maintain for the next 25 years—while Holiday focused on a Sunday night oldies show. When Holiday exited the station, Tamburro took over the popular weekly series and hosted it until his death.
He put the vision in visionary, pioneering a progressive urban blend of R&B and oldies that generated buzz locally and resonated nationally. And while widely credited with showcasing now-iconic R&B artists and introducing innovative music concepts to the mainstream, Tamburro, many say, served as midwife for the birth of the sound of Philadelphia. “Butterball had a major impact and influence in picking many of the radio hits for our PIR label,” said Philadelphia International Records co-founders Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff in a joint statement expressing their condolences last month. “Radio showed me just how powerful a microphone could be,” noted Snookie Jones, a former RCA Records promoter in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “I was a fan. [Butterball and his ilk] were kings, but they also didn’t have any handcuffs on them. They had the freedom to broadcast any way they want. Every show that went on, their show was their show.”
According to WURD 900 AM host Joey Temple, a WDAS producer from 1979 to 1997, “When Butter was the program director out there, Butter could listen to a song and tell you if it was a hit or whether it would be in the trash. Even when I’m on the air at WURD in a ‘Quiet Storm’ mix, Butter taught me the ingredients of that. The secret formula: You think about something like a relationship, and you put it in the music. And there’s a message in the music.”
Current WDAS midday hostess Patty Jackson laughs at the memory of Tamburro’s legendary knack for picking the hits. “He really knew the difference in music by just having that ear, and he passed all of that down to me,” she said. “‘What’s Going On’ was a project that Motown didn’t even want to release. (Motown founder) Berry Gordy didn’t get it at all. ‘What’s Going On?’ was one of those albums that was in your face, and you couldn’t ignore the fact of civil rights or the Vietnam war. Butter started playing this album, and he was criticized. Then it caught on, and now it’s one of the greatest albums of all time.” Dr. Perri Johnson, who became one of WDAS-FM’s most popular air jocks during Tamburro’s tenure as program director in the ‘70s, recalled how “when Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ came out, I just put it on from the beginning and let it play all the way through. That was unheard of. Radio just wasn’t doing that, except underground radio, and they weren’t playing Marvin Gaye. AM was playing ‘What’s Going On’ for three minutes because that was the format. When we put that thing on, it blew up. It put us on the map. Then it became more about theme. And (WDAS) became a soundtrack for a lot of the (‘70s) movements that were going on.”
In October of 1979, Max M. Leon, Inc. sold his stations to Unity Broadcasting, owners of the National Black Network, for $6 million. W. Cody Anderson, WDAS Radio president and general manager in the ‘80s, noted that “Butter was a survivor of Urban Contemporary radio. Butterball was able to transcend that because of the nature of what he did. He played oldies, which was different from the normal format. And he was able to, as a result, maintain his personality.”
As he struggled with health issues—diabetes and heart disease among them—Tamburro continued to regularly host “Sunday Night Live Oldies Dance Party,” which aired weekly on WDAS-FM. In late 2011, he returned to his roots as afternoon host on the re-established WDAS-AM, playing music branded “The Soul of Philadelphia.” Although his job duties had been reduced from management to part-time on-air personality, Tamburro remained a ratings winner.
During his nearly half-century in radio, Tamburro worked on both the AM/FM sides of only one station: his beloved WDAS. It is a feat his colleagues believe will probably never be duplicated. According to Williams Bishop—who has clocked in over 50 years at WDAS-AM and is currently at WURD—“One of the things that made Butter last so long was the fact that he worked for one radio station. He was not moving and running from place to place: he worked for one radio station in one town, and basically he did the same thing [at both]. He played good music, he had a good rap, he was warm, bubbly, and he gave people what they wanted to hear. He never tried to change his format. He may have added some new music—because he was known to bring the hits. In his day, in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, he played hits. In the early portion of radio, he made hits or played records that had potential of being hits. He was different from all of the (radio jocks) we have today.”
Former WDAS-FM host Dyana Williams, the current host of “Spiritual Soulful Sunday” on WRNB-FM, wholeheartedly agrees. “It’s unheard of in radio—in any city, period—for one person to sustain the entirety of their career at one broadcasting facility for nearly 50 years,” said Williams. “There were those, like Butter, who made the transition from AM to FM, and that’s part of what made him so spectacular—because people who listened to AM radio when there wasn’t FM listened to Butter. Then FM came about, and he was still there. Almost to the end.”
PW's Music Issue 2014