An Italian American from South Philadelphia who began work at WDAS in 1964 as an advertising salesman after a brief career as an auto mechanic, Mr. Tamburro soon had his own show alongside such other legendary record spinners as Georgie Woods, Jocko Henderson, and Hy Lit. Station manager Jimmy Bishop hired Mr. Tamburro and gave him his nickname "because I was sort of overweight," Mr. Tamburro told The Inquirer in 1997.
He would later serve for years as the 'DAS program director while maintaining an on-air presence.
His passing was considered a death in Philadelphia's African American musical family. "People loved Butterball," Kenny Gamble, architect of the Sound of Philadelphia, said about his friend of nearly 50 years in an interview Friday. "Radio is totally different today than it was then. A DJ was the most iconic figure in the community."
Gamble said that when he and Leon Huff were overseeing the hit machine that was Philadelphia International Records in the late 1960s and 1970s, they would often bring recordings directly to Mr. Tamburro to seek his opinion.
"There wouldn't have been a Sound of Philadelphia were it not for Jimmy Bishop and Butterball," he said. "They played our music first. I would go in the studio and record and produce something, and I'd say, 'Butter, I want you to listen.' He'd pick my singles. This guy had golden ears. That continued for many years. I would always consult him."
O'Jays singer Eddie Levert was one of many artists who called in and spoke to WDAS DJ Patty Jackson Friday. Fighting back tears, he remembered Gamble introducing Mr. Tamburro to him as "my right-hand man."
"He kept us in his mix all the time," Levert said. "I love him. Butter, may you rest in peace."
The O'Jays were scheduled to play at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night, along with Patti LaBelle and Frankie Beverly and Maze. Concert promoter Live Nation planned to give a donation of $5,000 in honor of Mr. Tamburro to the American Diabetes Foundation.
Mayor Nutter also called in to Jackson, recalling that he grew up listening to Mr. Tamburro, who "communicated the mood and attitude of the times." The mayor called Mr. Tamburro "a wonderful person, a great man, and a kind individual. I will never forget him."
Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, drummer for the Roots, tweeted: "Staple of my childhood, my creative development & music curiosity has left earth. Joe 'Butterball' Tamburro, Philadelphia Thanks You."
In addition to playing music, Mr. Tamburro was known for his involvement with civil rights issues in the 1960s, providing time on WDAS for leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cecil B. Moore.
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) issued a statement saying Mr. Tamburro "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. Butter was more than a radio icon. He was a civil-rights leader and a voice for all that is good in R&B."
In 1997, when Mr. Tamburro was inducted into the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame and a plaque with his name was placed along Broad Street, he talked about his initial difficulties breaking into R&B radio.
"I kept making tapes, but everyone looked at me like I was completely crazy," he recalled. "In the early '60s, a white guy trying to get on the air on a black radio station was just as crazy as a black guy on a white station. People kept trying to figure out, 'What is he trying to do?'
"Why do I love black music? I don't know. I just know it is the only music I ever wanted to play."
Mr. Tamburro was heard on the air as recently as Thursday, when a show he had recorded played from noon to 6.
"Butter started back when radio was radio," said Jerry "the Geator" Blavat, the Philadelphia DJ whose career stretches back even further Mr. Tamburro's. "You had the freedom to play what you liked, to play the music you could share with your audience. He created a rap, a style, that came from black radio back in the day. He was as smooth as a knife cutting through butter. There'll never be another Butter."
Mr. Tamburro is survived by his wife, Cynthia; five children; and five grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.