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.