Bill Wright Sr., 92, of Wayne, a radio and TV pioneer who was heard locally on WIBG-AM and WPEN-AM radio, died Sunday, Aug. 8, of senile degeneration of the brain at the Wayne Center for nursing and rehabilitation.
Known on the air as Bill “The Rebel” Wright and “Uncle Bill,” Mr. Wright associated with such stars as Dick Clark, Rosemary Clooney, Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, Dinah Shore, and countless others. He greeted the Beatles in Philadelphia during their American debut in 1964.
“He was present for some amazing events,” said his son Paul.
A childhood disease led to Mr. Wright’s love for radio, and a knack for entertainment and several fortuitous introductions made for a long career on the airwaves. He spun records and told stories at radio stops in Birmingham, Ala., Cincinnati, and Philadelphia.
Using a singsong cadence and animated style, he was part of the “Wibbage good guys” at WIBG in the 1960s that included popular DJs Jerry Stevens, Joe Niagara, Frank X. Feller, and Hy Lit. They talked fast, promoted records by early rockers and established crooners, and Mr. Wright’s morning shows became sound tracks to the lives of thousands of listeners.
In a 2017 interview, longtime Philadelphia radio DJ Helen Leicht said WIBG “had a great ‘good guys’ softball team, and my favorite ‘good guy’ was Bill Wright.”
“Few broadcasters have had careers as long, diverse and successful” as Mr. Wright, reads the introduction to his profile on the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia website. Mr. Wright was inducted into the group’s hall of fame in 2005 and named its 2009 person of the year.
In 1990, Mr. Wright joined WPEN as a fill-in for Niagara and Ken Garland, and stayed there four years. He also worked in early satellite radio, was the voice of public exhibits and radio and TV documentaries, and did public relations and production jobs for the Philadelphia Drama Guild.
“No matter the occasion, Bill had a story to make every person who met him feel like they had a friend,” his family said in a tribute.
Born the second of six children in Birmingham on Dec. 18, 1928, Mr. Wright contracted osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bones, in his legs when he was 10, and spent the next five years recovering. Surgeries left one of his legs a few inches shorter than the other, and he used a wheelchair, crutches, a prosthetic boot, or cane for the rest of his life.
In 1939, during his convalescence, his mother, Margaret, gave him a bedside radio, and Mr. Wright, as he recounted in a YouTube interview, “listened to that radio constantly.” The family was musical, and Mr. Wright learned to sing and tell stories at the weekly gathering around his mother’s piano.
He first performed on air in 1943 in Birmingham, singing with a youth chorus, and he got his big break as an announcer when he was asked to fill in for another host who had been fired from Birmingham’s WSGN-AM.
“I thought I was the hottest ticket ever cashed,” Mr. Wright said in 2018 at a WIBG reunion celebration (skip ahead to 29:15). Later, he worked in Birmingham for four years as host of a children’s TV show.
In 1958, Mr. Wright moved to Philadelphia to work for WIBG. After the station changed formats and hosts in 1969, he opened broadcasting schools in Providence, R.I., and then in Philadelphia.
He also recorded his own versions of “Scarlet Ribbons,” “Deck of Cards,” and “This Boy That I Call Son,” and performed them on American Bandstand.
In addition to his son, Mr. Wright is survived by his former wife Kathleen Wright; daughters Kelly and Katy; sons Kevin and Peter; sister Mary Jo; 11 grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and other relatives. His first wife, Kathryn Lanman Wright; son William; and three brothers and one sister died earlier.
Visitations are to be Friday, Sept. 17, from 7-9 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 18, from 10:30-11:30 a.m. at St. Monica Church, 63 Main Ave., Berwyn, Pa. 19312. A Funeral Mass is to begin at 11:30 a.m. Saturday with a reception to follow.
Private interment is to be later in Birmingham.
Donations in his name can be made to the Broadcast Pioneers’ scholarship fund, or mailed to P.O. Box 2886, Bala Cynwyd, Pa. 19004.