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Bill Powell

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WILY and WAMO DJ -Pioneer of R&B

Radio station WILY, located in East Liberty, was the first Pittsburgh station to offer an all-Black radio format.  Changing its call letters from WPGH to WILY it went on the air in 1954.  DJ Bill Powell was hired away from station WSOK in Nashville, where he had hosted the “Bouncin with Billy Show”.  Powell and his fellow DJ Lee Doris, known as "3-D Lee D", became WILY’s two leading personalities.  Together their Southern style chatter and hep-cat patter celebrated both rural and urban cultures.  They played R&B and soul music for the African America audience of Pittsburgh.  WILY quickly became the second highest rated Black radio station in the country.   

Bill Powell became a influential force in Pittsburgh music.  He played the music of Pittsburgh musician such as the Del Vikings, the Marcel, and Skyliners on his radio shows.  He showcased local performers at his teen dances. Powell's record hop with the Del Vikings and Deltones drew more than 2,000 teenagers on August 17, 1957. Powell helped many Pittsburgh musicians obtain recording contracts.  He recorded demo tapes at his studio and contacted record labels on their behalf.  Powell helped the Steroes win a recording contract with Fee Bee Records and Louisiana Red to land a recording session with Chess Records.  He also helped the El Venos, the Capitols, the Smoothtones, and George Benson's R&B group the Altairs.  

The Rise and Fall of WILY

With is stronger 1,000-watt signal and targeted niche format WILY drew listeners and advertisers away from WHOD which only had a 250 watt transmitter for its multi-cultural ethnic music format. The Homestead based WHOD, founded in 1948, was the station of Mary Dee and Porky Chedwick.  As WHOD was losing money in 1956,  WHOD president Leonard Walk fired his African American staff and sold the station.  The new owners renamed it WAMO and converted to another radio format. It became the first full time country and western music radio station in the country.  The WAMO name was derived from the three Pittsburgh Rivers: Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio.  Only Porky Chedwick remained from the original staff.  He continued to play his R&B and oldies music.  Pioneering DJ Mary Dee left Pittsburgh for a radio job in Baltimore.

WILY had the African American market to its self in 1956 and 1957.  DJ John Christian, known as “Sir Walter” joined the station in 1957 and won a loyal following.  But the WILY success was short lived.  In the September of 1957 WILY dropped its “Negro appeal” programming, changed its format to Top 40 and changed its call letters to WEEP.  DJ John Christian was removed from the air.  Powell was promoted to program director and served until he resigned in September of 1958. WILY’s format change left Pittsburgh without a Black-oriented radio station.

Powell Moves to WAMO

On December 8, 1958 WAMO switched from country and western to a “New Sound” that focused on Black programming.  The station brought in deejays Bill Powell and Sir Walter from the demised WILY.  They also kept Porky Chedwick.  Powell, Sir Walter, and Porky became WAMO’s “Big Three.” They played a wide variety of music.  Sir Walter did the morning wake up show featuring smooth urbane tunes for the older middle-class audience.  Bill Powell manned the late morning/early afternoon slot playing broad appeal pop and R&B tunes.  Porky Chedwick was on from 4 p.m. until sign-off playing rock and roll and R&B music aimed at teen listeners.

Powell continued to promote Pittsburgh musicians at WAMO.  In 1960 he gave out the Bill Powell Pittsburgh Awards recognizing the national success of Walt Harper, the Skyliners, Adam Wade, and Chuck Jackson.

Powell became known as the "Voice of WAMO".  During the 1960s Powell hosted a two hour morning gospel show followed by a two hour jazz show every Saturday on WAMO-FM.  Leaving the airwaves Bill became the Public Relations Director for WAMO and an account executive.  On April 8, 1967 400 people packed the Loendi Club to honor Bill on "Bill Powell Night" 

Bill Powell's Social Activities

Bill Powell was born on March 1, 1925 in Nashville Tennessee. After graduating from high school he served in the Navy.  He graduated from Tennesse State A&I University where be became involved in radio. As an alumni he served as his university's alumni president and spokesman. On a visit to his hometown in 1962 he was honored when the Mayor gave him a key to the city.

Powell was also a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier. He column entitled Bill Powell Says..Have Pen Will Write" ran for during the 1950s and early 1960s .

Powell was very active in charites, the civil rights movement and politics  He organized and promoted many fund raising charity events for the YMCA, the YWCA, the NAACP, and the Bill Powell Youth Foundation.  Powell ran for Pittsburgh City Council in May of 1957 earning over 10,000 votes. Finishing 7th out of 11 candidates he did not win one of the five council seats. He served for many years on Democratic party committees where he fought against the destruction of the Hill District.  In 1961 the NAACP gave him the Reizenstein Award for his civil rights efforts. In 1975 Powell became a  legislative aid to Pennsylvania Senator Majority Leader  K Leroy Irvis.    

Bill Powell passed away in January of 1976. On his death WAMO station GM Skip Finley said "He was the voice of the Pittsburgh Black Community".

Bill Powell on left with Bill Toomey 1959
(Teenie Harris Photo)
Bill Powell and Sir Walter 1959