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Mike Tussey: Legendary broadcaster and Hall of Famer Jim LaBarbara started in 1959, keeps going


One of the most renowned and revered broadcasters of our time is still going strong. You know him as “The Music Professor” – Jim LaBarbara.

Recently, Jim and I got together and discussed his incredible career that soared to fame and created a legacy that still resonates even today. It’s quite a story.

THE BEGINNING

Jim was a dreamer. He saw a movie “Young Man with a Horn” when he was 10. The movie inspired him to buy a trumpet with his savings. By the 9th grade Jim was “First Trumpet” in the Stowe, Pennsylvania Senior High Band. When Jim was 11 he saw a photo of Williamsport’s historic Little League Field in Pennsylvania. He told his friends that their team would be going to the World Series. Jim’s vision almost came true when he was 12 and his team made did indeed make it to the Regional Tournament where they were defeated. They were one game away from making it to the Big Show.

In 1959 Jim made his debut in radio with his first show at a station in Meadville, Pennsylvania. It was just one hour a week at Allegheny College – playing the hits and talking about the football team. On his 3rd show, he got fired for playing April Steven’s hit – “Teach Me Tiger” a song in which the station manager deemed “too sensual.”

To this day, Jim still is puzzled by it all because it was the first song the crew of the Challenger heard when they woke up on the way back to Earth.

By 1963, Jim earned a Graduate Scholarship to Boston University. During the summer months he dabbled in radio at WTIV in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Later, Jim landed a job at WCED in DuBois, Pennsylvania and used is new name – “Jimmy Holiday.”

Jim LaBarbara and Ray Charles (Photo provided)

Later at WWGO in Erie, Pennsylvania; Jim became “J. Bentley Starr” – The Intrepid Leader. It was here where Jim became emcee of a concert while meeting The Four Seasons, The Beatles, and The Supremes. He gave himself a goal of 3 years to see what the future held. He targeted 2 stations- KDKA, Pittsburgh, WKYC in Cleveland.

While in Cleveland and ready to begin his dream job, he was told that he had to use his real name – Jim LaBarbara. In the early 60’s, he also landed jobs in Cleveland at 50,000-watt WKYC and WIXY and later in the 70’s in Denver.

THE MOVE TO CINCINNATI

By 1969, Jim moved on to Cincinnati radio over the years with stops at WLW, WCKY, WSAI, WKRC, WWEZ-FM and WGRR FM. While at WLW in 1969, he met a good friend Jim Gallant, the Program Director whom he had worked with in Cleveland. Gallant assigned Jim to work early nights and assume the title of Music Director as well. Gallant also gave Jim the moniker: “The Music Professor.”

Gallant’s reasoning was good commonsense, it was because of his Jim’s extensive background of music. He instructed Jim to talk about the song, the lyrics and the artist. Jim agreed, and the rest is history.

After a while, Jim moved to WLW’s afternoon drive – an assignment he would keep for 15 years.

JIM’S MENTOR

Jim will tell you that the most important radio personality in his life would be his mentor, Bill Randle. It’s because Randle was the one man who had a tremendous influence on him. Randle’s DJ fame grew throughout is storied career as he became legendary in Cleveland and New York.

Jim LaBarbara, Tommy Devito and Frankie Valli (Photo provided)

During their tenure at the University of Cincinnati, the two became close friends. Randle was the Head of Broadcasting at UC and as such – gave Jim plenty of attention. Randle’s celebrity status began in 1955 when Time Magazine named him the #1 DJ in the country. Later, in 1956 he introduced Elvis Presley for the first time on network television. During this era, Randle discovered tremendous talents of the 50’s such as The Crew Cuts, The Diamonds, The Four Lads and others.

Over time, Jim earned his Master’s Degree in Broadcasting in 1976-77 from the University of Cincinnati. Randle being the every present scholar possessed several Masters Degrees along with a Law Degree. He even advocated that Jim should earn his law degree and write a book.

Taking Randle’s advice, Jim later wrote his memoirs and even included a chapter about his mentor within his book.Sadly, Bill Randle passed away in 2004. It was certainly difficult for Jim in every way.

BUDDY HOLLY AND THE CRICKETS

If you asked Jim LaBarbara what group would be his favorite, without any hesitation he would emphatically answer – it was Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Jim feels that Buddy Holly set the template for all rock groups to this day – with lead and rhythm guitars, bass and drums. The public instantly identified with Holly’s music and lyrics and subsequently, his career took off like the wind.

Buddy wore black horn rim glasses and his persona reflected them very well. Jim also wore glasses back then and if you did, you were considered cool. Jim loved to sing along with Holly’s hits whenever and wherever he could.

Jim LaBarbara and Tony Bennett (Photo provided)

When he heard the news of the plane crash in Iowa on February 3, 1959 that took the life of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), he became depressed for quite a while.

DICK CLARK

Jim said that Dick was a terrific business man, but would certainly tell you that he wasn’t a fan. Although, he had interviewed him and there were photos of them together, the fact the Dick was busted for payola did not set well with Jim.

However, Jim strongly felt that Alan Freed was severely prosecuted as well for so very little. The fallout of it all was such that he couldn’t find a job and died a broken man at a very young age. Alan Freed gained Jim’s admiration because he knew the business and the performers. He had a wonderful passion for the music and really didn’t play a record he didn’t believe in.

RADIO TODAY – YESTERDAY

Jim’s career began in 1959. It was a time when commercials were read Live or on a big reel to reel tape. Some were on a 33 1/3 rpm disc. Jim loved playing the hits on those 45 rpm discs and of course; cart machines ultimately became very important to the operations.

Jim LaBarbara and Johnny Bench (Photo provided)

Jim will agree that today’s technology is a huge difference. Seemingly, everyone is voice tracking and not Live on the air. The main source for new music was the radio during yesteryear, that’s not true today.

He truly loves personality radio.

Jim will tell you he wants to be entertained when listening to radio. Sadly, that’s missing from many stations today. Corporate Radio is where content is missing. Working in a small market was a thrill Jim remembers well when he dreamed of making it big someday in the profession.

THE MUSIC PROFESSOR IS BACK

Jim feels he is truly blessed as he begins his 3rd year at WDJO-99.5 and 107.9 FM and AM 1480. He’s still playing the hits of the 50’s-60’s and 70’s – 6-10 a.m. Monday through Friday.

During his 65 years in the profession, Jim has worked with every format available. He has interviewed and hung out with stars such as Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and even Tony Bennett.

THE SUPER STARS

When asked about being a member of Broadcasting’s Best-“The Super Stars” a lunch group that meets quarterly for lunch, Jim explained:

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to experience the camaraderie with people who’ve been in the same profession. It’s like one Big Fraternity! I am amazed how our group has grown. Every Lunch – new people show up and enjoy our stories and laughs.”

Today, Wednesday, February 7, The Super Stars will meet at 11:30 at Barleycorns in Lakeside Park for their Winter-Fest Luncheon. An open invitation to all those who were and those who are presently in Broadcasting. The Super Stars say “WELCOME!”

So, The Music Professor-Jim LaBarbara hits the air at 6 a.m. tomorrow. Doing what he does best, he will wake up thousands of his listeners with the monster hits of the mid-20th Century.

Jim would love to have you join him as his incredible legacy continues to grow hit by hit. After all, even without those horn rim glasses, take it from me – he’s Cool.

Mike Tussey has “retired” from a 60-plus-year career as a legendary play-by-play announcer for over 2000 football, baseball, and basketball games, including most recently for ESPN+. His career also includes a stint in law enforcement, teaching and coaching, and writing books, including the “Touchdown Saints.” He grew up in Eastern Kentucky and now lives in Florence with his wife, Jo. He has opened another “Door of Opportunity” and is now a regular columnist for the NKyTribune.


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