A new voice for Buffalo’s Black community: WUFO

       By Steve Cichon

Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 

“Buffalo’s newest radio voice spoke in its debut with a sound of moderation and sincerity, and promised an ambitious public service program,” reported Jack Allen in the Courier-Express as WUFO signed on at 1080am.

WUFO’s original on-air staff, 1961, including Eddie O’Jay, Jimmy Lyons, The Hound– George Lorenz, and Joe Rico.

Since 1961, WUFO’s programming has remained 100% dedicated to Buffalo’s Black community, which had grown 143% from 1950-1960.

“The only Black-owned and operated radio station in Buffalo and the only source of music and information reflective of the black experience,” said a 1981 station promotional piece.

Jimmy Lyons with Sammy Davis Jr.

In signing on, WUFO brought to the airwaves Buffalo’s first two full-time African-American disc jockeys.

The Courier-Express called Jimmy Lyons “the Jackie Robinson of Buffalo Broadcasting.”

 When this photo of Jimmy Lyons was taken in the WXRA studios on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, he was Buffalo’s first (and only) black disc jockey.

By the time WUFO signed on, Lyons was a Buffalo radio and entertainment veteran who was first heard on local radio in 1937, when he won the Shea’s Buffalo Amateur show on WBEN in 1937 at the age of 17.

Through the ’40s, Lyons was a singer and dancer at nightclubs in Buffalo and across the northeast with a stint as an Army lieutenant in between, serving in Italy and Germany during World War II.

After settling back in Buffalo, Lyons became a draftsman for Bell Aircraft, while also entertaining in nightclubs and picking up weekend radio work at small stations around Buffalo like WWOL, WXRA and WINE where he was a pioneer in playing a mix of rhythm and blues and gospel music.

On WUFO, he hosted “The Upper Room” with gospel music twice a day and “The Lyons Den,” with R&B music middays.

Bob Wells wasn’t the only deejay to host dances at the Dellwood Ballroom. Jimmy Lyons with Sam Cooke and fans at the Dellwood, Main at Utica.

Ellicott District Councilman King W. Peterson, WXRA owner Ted Podbielniak, Jimmy Lyons, and attorney (and future councilman and judge) Wilbur Trammell celebrate Lyons’ work in the African-American community.

Eddie O’Jay came to Buffalo from Cleveland as WUFO’s program director and daily “Blues for Breakfast” host.

Eddie O’Jay (left).

He would later hold the same on-air job at New York City stations WWRL and WLIB. His fast-paced pioneering style in Buffalo and then New York inspired many aspiring young African-Americans, including Frankie Crocker and Imhotep Gary Byrd.

Gary Byrd, 1975

Both Crocker and Byrd were Buffalo natives who listened to O’Jay on WUFO, got disc jockey jobs at WUFO themselves, and then followed O’Jay to fame at WLIB in New York City.

When O’Jay died in 1998, both Crocker and Byrd attended his funeral and spoke to the New York Daily News.

“When I was growing up in Buffalo,” said Byrd, “there were no black radio stations and no black jocks. Eddie O’Jay was the first black voice I heard on the radio. He hit that town like a tornado.”

Crocker said of his mentor, “The deejay was the show. You never looked at the clock. When the record ended, you talked, and Eddie was a master. He’s the reason I went into radio.”

The most widely remembered claim to fame for O’Jay, whose real name was Edward O. Jackson, was the soul group the O’Jays.

The group that scored several hits in the ’70s including “Love Train” was formed in the ’50s as the Mascots. They renamed themselves the O’Jays in honor of the disc jockey after he began to heavily promote their music on the radio in the early 1960s.

O’Jay and Lyons starred in a series of radio commercials for Simon Pure Beer, where Lyons was aboard a spaceship called the “East Aurora,” which was fueled by Simon Pure Beer.

When WUFO first signed on, Courier-Express critic Jack Allen wrote, “O’Jay has arranged, along with Lyons, a schedule of daily broadcasts which at first listening seem conservative and in excellent taste, and which should gain wide appeal with its constructive service contributions to the community.”

Luckily for the nearly six decades of great radio it inspired, WUFO from its very earliest days has remained excellent in taste, but has veered from the conservative to the innovative more often than not.

WUFO newsman Malcom Erni

O’Jay spent about a year at WUFO and was replaced by Sunny Jim Kelsey. Soon after, Frank Crocker became a regular in WUFO’s lineup.

Sunny Jim Kelsey, WUFO

Frankie Crocker… Chief Rocker… The Eighth Wonder of the World!!! Revered as the man who changed the rules for African-Americans as both disc jockeys and musicians, Frankie Crocker started down the road to national fame via New York City and nationwide reverence from his native Buffalo.

A graduate of Buffalo’s East High School, Crocker was studying pre-law at UB when he was bitten by the radio bug, joining WUFO as News Director in 1964. There, he tasted early success spinning urban wax and never turned back.

Francis Crocker, East High Class of 1958

As a deejay at New York City stations WWRL, WMCA and WBLS, Crocker began playing album cuts and extended mixes from Urban artists, bringing a more diverse sound to the airwaves and opening the door for more creativity and wider audiences for artists of color. Adding to his cache, was the time he entered New York’s famous Studio 54 on white stallion.

Starting with his time in his native Buffalo at WUFO, Crocker helped to bust stereotypes and bring the music of an entire race from the remote corners of the music world to the popular choice of hip New Yorkers.

Frankie Crocker, at New York’s WWRL Radio shortly after leaving WUFO Radio in the mid-60s.

After Gordon McLendon bought WBNY 1400am and moved his WYSL call letters over to the station in 1961, WUFO Radio took over WYSL’s old spot at 1080am. The call letters at that frequency changed from WXRA to WINE to WYSL to WUFO in a matter of four years, but have remained WUFO for six decades.

WINE’s format was Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll, but WYSL was “beautiful music” when the station first signed on. By the end of the 1960s, WYSL was WKBW’s primary Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll competitor.

This page is an excerpt from  100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon

The full text of the book is now online.

The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

Fire takes the Little Harlem Hotel

By Steve Cichon

As he stood on the curb watching the 70-year history of the Little Harlem Hotel being swallowed in bright orange flames, former City Court Judge Wilbur Trammell reflected  that the place was the only landmark the black residents of Buffalo had.

Catherine and Clyde Collins head into 1920s Night at the Little Harlem Hotel in 1984. (Buffalo News Archives)

Trammell recalled being one of 10 African-American students at UB in the 1940s, and how they all met at Little Harlem for 10-cent Buffalo-brewed Manru draft beers. Trammell purchased the building a few years before a February 1993 cooking accident rendered the place a total loss and left the burned-out, salmon-colored shell of one of Buffalo’s foremost entertainment landmarks on the emergency demolition list.

Hundreds of the earliest purveyors of jazz played and sang at Little Harlem, especially in light of the fact that they might not have been welcome at other clubs around the city. The Little Harlem’s owner, Ann Montgomery, described in a 1934 article as a “middle-aged negro of motherly appearance,” was welcoming not only to those of her own race in a heavily segregated society, but also to anyone of any group who couldn’t find a place to fit in.

1934. Buffalo Stories Archives

One night, as she ordered a round of drinks for everyone at the bar, she looked to the lone white woman there and told the bartender, “Give that lesbian a drink, too.”

As Prohibition agents raided “The Little Harlem Resort” in 1930, it was described as a place “where the color line faded under the stimulus of silk drapes and glittering pianos.”

Buffalo Stories Archives

Those were the days they were trying to relive in June 1984, when Catherine and Clyde Collins came in full costume for 1920s night at the landmark. Today, that site is a parking lot at the corner of Michigan and William.


Feb 13, 1993: Fire destroys landmark club for black stars: Little Harlem Hotel lost

HAROLD McNEIL – News Staff Reporter

The Little Harlem Hotel, a historic Buffalo entertainment landmark, went up in flames Friday.

The curious joined former patrons who looked on in shock but who recalled all the great black entertainers who performed there over a 70-year history.

The two-story nightclub and hotel at 496 Michigan Ave., near William Street, was gutted in a two-alarm blaze that was apparently caused by a grease fire that began in a second-floor rear apartment at 4:15 p.m.

Damage was estimated at $150,000 to the building and $60,000 to the contents. Fire officials were expected to request emergency demolition for the building, owned by former City Judge Wilbur Trammell.

Trammell said he was in the building when the fire began. He said the fire was accidental, triggered when a Little Harlem employee and building tenant began heating oil to cook chicken wings.

“I was there. The waiter was there. He went upstairs to cook himself some wings and a grease fire took off. Just three minutes he was downstairs,” Trammell said.

The tenant, who identified himself as James Gordon, stood outside and watched the building burn. He said he left the apartment briefly to use the downstairs bathroom.

“When I came back the whole place was on fire,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Trammell and several others watching the fire recalled snippets of the landmark’s history. “Any number of outstanding black entertainers (have been here). I met Sarah Vaughn here and Lena Horne, ” Trammell reminisced. “It’s all gone just like that.”

Many African-American entertainers — especially those considered jazz royalty — who appeared in Buffalo in the 1930s through the 1950s either performed or stayed in the Little Harlem Hotel in the days when blacks were restricted from other downtown hotels.

Trammell, a longtime patron of Little Harlem, bought the establishment four years ago.

“I bought this for one reason: I thought it belonged to the center-city community. I just thought it was the only landmark blacks had, quite frankly,” Trammell said. “I just thought we ought to keep it and I tried my best to keep it.”

“Ohh,” he groaned, as bright orange flames shot through the roof and a huge chunk of the building’s salmon-colored facade crumbled to the ground. “It hurts to see it. Oh,look at that!”

Back in the late 1940s, Trammell recalled, he and other black students attending the University of Buffalo used to meet every Friday night at the Little Harlem.

“There were only 10 blacks at the University of Buffalo at that time and we all came by here. We

used to drink 10-cent Manru beer. It was made here in Buffalo,” he said.

Tommy Fugate of Buffalo said some of his earliest memories are associated with the nightclub.

“When I was just a little boy I can remember Joe Louis being there . . . Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstein — all of them used to come right there,” he said, pointing to the burning building. “It’s a sense of loss because, face it, black people don’t have that many places to go to now anyway. And this was one of the main spots.”

Conde Peoples, a Buffalo firefighter who was born and raised in the neighborhood around the Little Harlem, said it’s been a part of his life, too.

“My mother and father, I can remember them going out. It was a big night out for them to come to the Little Harlem,” Peoples said. “I grew up and couldn’t wait until I got to the drinking age where I could come to the Little Harlem.”

“I really get choked up when I start talking about it,” he said. “It’s like a part of my life is dying right here. Over 20, 30 years of my life, I’ve spent some good times at the Little Harlem.”

Longtime patron Carl Johnson noted that it was long a favorite watering hole for many of the movers and shakers in the black community.

“A lot of political decisions that affected the city,

particularly the black community, were all discussed here,” Johnson said.

Buffalo firefighters received the first alarm at 4:21 p.m., and the second six minutes later. They brought the fire under control at 6:30 p.m. Fire officials said the fire was difficult to fight because the flames had penetrated a loft inside the building.

At about 9 p.m., one of the walls of the building caved in, leaving debris in the streets, which fire officials sought to have removed.

Brent Trammell, 30, who ran the business for his father, said the property is insured but it was too soon to say if the business will be rebuilt.

“It’s a shame that so much history is gone and especially when things were looking up business-wise,” the younger Trammell said. “We were doing some renovation in the back and, you know, this was my thing. It’s killing me to see this.”

Meanwhile, Pam Kehoe, a neighborhood resident, snapped photos of the fire — for posterity.

“The people in the neighborhood care for the businesses that are surrounding us and supporting (us),” Miss Kehoe said. “I’m taking pictures to compare the old building to what the new building will be like because I know Little Harlem will be open again.”