June 15, 2004 by

Joe Niagara


Categories: Media

Joe Niagara, a fixture on Philadelphia radio for more than four decades, died on June 4 of heart failure. He was 76.
Born Joseph F. Nigro Jr., the South Philadelphia native served in the U.S. Army for one year. He was only 20 when he landed his first job on the radio at WDAS-AM.
The fast-talking broadcaster joined WIBG-AM as a disk jockey in 1956 and spent more than 13,000 days at the microphone. Known as The Rockin’ Bird, he built a reputation for mixing Perry Como and Doris Day music with upstart genres like R&B and rock ‘n roll. Teens adored these new tunes and boosted the station’s ratings by becoming devoted Niagara listeners. They also crammed into high school sock hops to hear him spin songs like “The Bristol Stomp” and “You Send Me.”
In 1959, disc jockeys all over the country lost their jobs for taking under-the-table payoffs to play certain songs on the radio. Known as “payola,” the practice sparked an investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives and caused Niagara to resign from WIBG. He moved to Los Angeles for a couple years, did a bit part in the Elvis Presley movie “Blue Hawaii,” then returned to Philadelphia — and his old job. He also worked for WFIL-AM, WCAU-AM, WCAU-FM, WDAS-AM and WIFI-FM before ending his career in 2002 at WPEN-AM.
Niagara was listed in the 1980 Guinness Book of World Records for playing the most consecutive different versions of “Stardust”; he aired more than 500 covers of the song. Niagara also received a star on the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame.
Listen to a 1957 Broadcast

16 Responses to Joe Niagara

  1. C. Pierre R. LeBoutillier

    Besides the enjoyable music, Joe played Traffic
    Trivia. One of his questions was; How does the state of PA get its southeast boundry line with the the state of DE and what is the distance?
    I was the first to answer this question with; The arc of a circle with radius point at the Court Houst in New Castle, DE and radiuds of 14 miles.
    I won 2 tickets to the Keswick Theater to hear Glen Miller.

  2. Charles Poehlmann

    I grew up in cheltenham village in the 60’s
    and we all listened to W.I.B.G. Joe and the other
    D.J’s Took out all of the hassles of growing up.I will miss Him Dearly.

  3. larry horochov

    I first met Joe when my friend Jack and I worked as summer relief engineers at KYW we went to check some kind of problem with WIBG getting into some equipment we had. He was a funny dynamic and above all a gentlemen.I next met Joe when I was working at WCAU-FM around 1973 just when they went live. Joe was doing mornings and I was his
    engineer (after Long John Wade left….I also worked with him before Joe). It was a blast,he was
    the “rockin bird!!” It truly was the time of my
    life. I had grown up listening to him and here I
    was working side by side with him. I had been with
    during that period to his record hops, reunions
    and private parties and I was at his home and met
    his wife and son, he was a gracious and kind person and I was honored to be involved in all these things, it was special. All good things come
    to an end and a few years later a fatal idea on
    managements part destroyed a fine radio station.
    And WCAU-FM went down the toilet.I went into TV.
    I ran into Joe again in the early 90’s when I
    moved back to Phila.I met him and spent the afternoon before he went on just remembering
    how it used to be… the only thing that didn’t
    change was Joe he was Joe still the “ROCKIN BIRD” and the greatest personality I had ever met!!
    And I had the honor of working with him!!!
    It truly was an honor. I miss you Joe!!!!

  4. George B.

    He was simply the very best DJ ever. I had the
    pleasure of knowing him, working with him. Joe
    could make anything exciting. Long before I ever
    met him ,WIBG had this “Hi-Fi Club” and you received your membership card when you joined.
    Just about every kid in my high school had a card. We ALL listened to Joe. Later, after I got
    to know him I was sitting in his living room
    one evening. We were having a little wine and
    some cheese his wife Evelyn cut up. We were
    listening to new “45’s . I thought, wow this is
    really great….Joe was as nice as could be.

  5. Bruce Northwood

    I have been in the radio business for 40 years. I was Joe Niagara’s engineer when he worked at WFIL in the early 70s. Working with him was the most fun I ever had in radio.

  6. patrick

    The guys at the job love listening to Joe on the cruisin 1957 tape. We always get a laugh at the classic Muntz TV commercial he did.

  7. Tom Busch

    It was Joe who inspired me to go into radio. I wound up in Alaska, first as an engineer/announcer, and then as a GM for thirty years.
    I wound up president of the Alaska Broadcasters Association twice and was inducted to the Alaska Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Am I bragging? Well, yes, but it was all due to Joe, to whom I’ll be forever grateful.
    Back in ’73, a fellow announcer who also credits Joe with the inspiration, and I, formed the “Nome Alaska Joe Niagara Fan Club,” and on a trip to Philly, I was able to meet my idol and present him with a small piece of carved ivory from the two of us. It was a great thrill. I just learned of his death more than a year after the fact, and will have to face a world without Joe Niagara in it.

  8. Jim Potter

    How well I remember Joe. I started to listen to WIBG in 1958 when I was in 6th grade in Glenside, a suburb of Philly. There was a time before WIBG went to high power, and you couldn’t hear the station at night. (BTW: the callsign WIBG originally stood for “I believe in God” and was licensed by the Glenside Methodist Church before being sold.)
    Joe and Hi and some of the other Wibbage Good Guys were on hand for the death of Buddy Holly that year. As I kid, I was confused for years with Joe’s signature line: “Niagra calls in Philly….” How was it possible that Niagra Falls was in Pennsylvania? Aren’t the Falls in New York?? You never know what impressions are made on Kids. I also remember him and some of the others being sent away for Payola reasons. It saddened me to come to the understanding that they were playing songs for the money in the record jacket rather than the ringing truth of their hype. Then I got into broadcasting myself and the scales from my eyes. Older and wiser now. Regards/Jim

  9. Denny Bryan

    Nothing triggers my memories of the 60’s while riding in my 53 Plymouth convertible more than the voice of Joe and Hy Lit playing tunes on WIBG AM. Those were great days!!

  10. Kevin Fennessy

    Althugh I had the pleasure of working with Joe Niagara at WCAU-FM beginning in 1974, the greatest impression that Niagara made upon me, was his transition into modern radio…when Storer sacked almost the entire staff at WIBG, and retained only Joe Niagara. He subsequently did Talk at WCAU-AM, mornings at WFIL…and demonstrated to me what a professional was. Someone who could do it all, and not miss a beat. WIBG converted from an old line Top 40 into Bill Drake style radio with Niagara on mornings…and alnmost no one has any recordings of this!

  11. Edward Bunn

    I was working the overnight shift at an FM station in Philadelphia, PA, a summer job in 1968 at WPBS, when one morning after completing my shift, I drove up to the WIBG studios to meet a couple of the DJ’s. I met two of them — Bill Wright (The Rebel Wright) and Joe Niagara. He gave me some advice, that I took to heart and followed up to my retirement from Broadcasting in March of 2007 (from a station in Lynchburg, VA). I heard of Joe’s passing in 2004 during a visit with my mama in Lumberton Township, NJ, from a Philadelphia TV station. Joe is missed. Wasn’t he inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame posthumously?

  12. soul historian

    I am questioning the above comment “when WCAU-FM went down the toilet” WCAU-FM never went down any toilet. They went thru several format changes in the 7o’s and 80’s, but they were always competitive. Really, what planet are some of these comments from, anyway?

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