Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting
Willis Conover might have been the world’s favorite jazz disc jockey, but in 1950’s Buffalo, Joe Rico was tops.
He started spinning what Buffalo Evening News radio reporter Ray Finch called “smoking hot discs” in 1947 on WWOL Radio, before moving to WEBR in the mid-50s, WUFO, and then WADV-FM through the 70s.
A steady, smooth deep-throated delivery and a knowledge of and love for jazz made Rico “the epitome of cool,” according to critic Gary Deeb.
Rico’s influence mattered to the musicians of the jazz world. Stan Kenton’s “Jump for Joe” was named with Rico in mind, as was Count Basie’s “Port o’ Rico.”
As much as he was known for bringing jazz to Buffalo’s radio dials, he was just as involved in bringing the top musicians in the country to perform in Buffalo.
As a promoter, Joe Rico’s greatest triumph was the Buffalo Jazz Festival—a nearly impossible to imagine lineup over two days at Offermann Stadium in 1960.
Joe Rico was raised in radio. His parents were the heart and the voice of Buffalo’s Italian-American community. For 50 years, Emelino Rico — known to listeners of “Neapolitan Serenade” as “Papa Rico” and the head of “Casa Rico” — broadcast Italian music, in Italian, for Italians, from his home on Seventh Street on Buffalo’s Italian West Side.
For most of five decades, come 10:30am, the Liberty Bell March would open another program of cultural pride, personal warmth and a taste of the old country. While he was heard on many stations through the years, often two or three stations at the same time, for 45 years the Ricos were heard on WHLD 1270AM.
Emelino came to America as a movie producer in 1922. Ten years later, on a stop in Buffalo, he met Mary Pinieri, who was destined to become the West Side’s beloved Mama Rico.
Mama Rico told listeners to their 50th anniversary celebration on WHLD in 1985 that their lives were spent highlighting the best in Italian music and culture, “helping others, and doing charitable work.”
The Ricos worked to bring some of Italy to Buffalo, and some of Buffalo to Italy, with many trips and exchanges. Papa liked to tell the story of a 1967 audience with Pope Paul VI, when His Holiness greeted him immediately by saying, “You run the Italian program in Buffalo.”
Many of Buffalo’s most famous Italian-Americans said the time spent at Casa Rico helped jump start their career — folks like Tony Award-winning choreographer Michael Bennett and pianist Leonard Pennario.
This page is an excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon
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.
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