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Barbero set high standards for entertainment in region

| Sunday, Sept. 24, 2006

John Barbero was the house disc jockey at The Inn Crowd for "about a year or so." But the thousands of young people who flocked to his dances there and at other night spots in the region and enjoyed his radio shows were part of a much larger "in crowd."

"We always appreciated the support of the teenagers who came to our dances and shows," Barbero, of Roscoe, said in his typically humble manner. They and the people who ran the clubs and fire halls we played were the ones who made it work."

Barbero, a 1963 graduate of California Community High School, made his radio debut in the summer of 1964 at WESA in Charleroi and prevailed on the air waves for 10 years.

"We were only an AM station at that time, running from dusk to dawn (sunup to sundown)," Barbero recalled. "It was a great way to break into the business because I got to do a little bit of everything. There were days I would sign on, host a variety of shows, do the news and then sign off in the evening. It made for long days at times but I enjoyed every minute of it."

Barbero had just completed his freshman year at Grove City College when he applied for, and landed, the WESA job.

"I decided to transfer to California (University of Pennsylvania) to be closer to home and the opportunity there (at WESA)," he recalled. "I had done some work for the college station at Grove City and at the station in town and I fell in love with it (broadcasting). Bill Richards was the station manager at WESA and he gave me the opportunity to go on the air there. I believe Dee Galiffa, who had a show for several years, had just left the station. So they had an opening and everything fell into place."

The decision was a good one for the station and Barbero as it launched one of the most successful and personal careers in WESA history.

Barbero played host to a popular music show that was a favorite of young and old listeners alike from 1964 to 1973, featuring rock 'n' roll and oldies, especially the ballads that were to become his signature over the years. In addition, Barbero also handled play-by-play duties as WESA broadcast high school football and basketball games and California University football games. Among those who teamed with him as color commentators were Armand Niccolai, Myron Pottios, Jay Morton and George Beckey.

Barbero and Morton became part of Pittsburgh sports history during the season that the Pittsburgh Pipers, led by the legendary Connie Hawkins, won the American Basketball Association championship. Through the efforts of Richards, WESA became part of the Pipers radio network, which was anchored by WEEP in Pittsburgh. Barbero did the play-by-play, and Morton was the color analyst.

The regular music format at WESA at the time was "easy listening ... songs by Robert Goulet and Barbera Streisand and the like," Barbero recalled. But it was his style and mood-setting voice that complemented his music, making his show a favorite in the Pittsburgh market.

"Honestly, I really wasn't aware of the popularity of the show at the outset," he said, smiling. "But when we began getting 700 to 800 telephone calls requesting songs on our Saturday shows, we had a pretty good indication that we were doing something right, that the audience liked what we were doing."

Barbero remembers his first record hop. It was the Slovak Club in Roscoe in 1963.

"Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were very popular then," he said. "They had a major hit with 'Sherry' the year before and topped the charts with 'Big Girls Don't Cry' in '63. I had been collecting records for several years and my good friend, Tom Flanagan, and his sisters also had good collections. We combined all those records, I bought a PA system, and we went to the Slovak Club. It went over well, and I thought this was something I would like to do."

As his popularity grew on the radio, Barbero graduated from the Roscoe Slovak Club to venues like The Inn Crowd in Rostraver Township, the Lock Four Fire Hall, Crystal Pool in Fayette City, the Blue Fox in Monongahela, the White Elephant near McKeesport, the Stockdale Fire Hall, the Love-In at the Roscoe Fire Hall and the Red Rooster sites in Greensburg and Uniontown, to name just a few.

"I got the call at The Inn Crowd after Clark Race left in 1965 and I was there about a year or so, until the place was gutted by fire," Barbero said. "We always drew big crowds on Friday nights, Saturdays were OK and Sundays were fair."

In addition to local bands such as the Mystics, whom he managed, the Volcanics and the Rogues, Barbero enjoyed working with The Vogues, Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners and Bo Diddley, among others, at The Inn Crowd.

"Lou (Forlini) and Bill (Evans) made a point of bringing in big-name entertainment," Barbero said of the men, who with Al (Jack) Harris owned and operated The Inn Crowd. "They were willing to take a chance, to invest some money, and it paid off with big crowds."

The same was true for Bob Mack, who ran the Blue Fox and the White Elephant.

"Bob was a great promoter," Barbero said. "He hired me to introduce the entertainment at both places and he always had top flight performers."

Barbero did the same at the Love-In in Roscoe, bringing in such talent as Lou Christie, Edwin Starr, Junior Walker and the All Stars, Brenda and the Tabulations and • and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 hit with "96 Tears" in 1966.

"We decided to expand our ventures with the Mysterians," Barbero recalled. "We booked them at the Shady Grove pool near Uniontown and at the Love-In on the same night. What a mistake that was. We drew only two people at Shady Grove and the band was arrested by the state police for some reason on their way to Roscoe. They were late and the crowd was a bit restless. We took a bath on the expenses for the Uniontown show. We bit off more than we could chew."

Jim "J.D. the D.J." Dudas, of North Charleroi, possibly the most prominent oldies disc jockey in the region today, said the performance by Junior Walker and the All Stars of Shotgun fame worked much better at the Roscoe site.

"Junior Walker was great, a real gentleman and a nice guy," said Dudas, who credits Barbero with giving him his start in the business. "They traveled in a big touring bus and it was parked right outside the Love-In. They were a friendly group of guys and took time to sign autographs and talk with the crowd after putting on a super show."

Dudas, who played records when Barbero was on break, began his radio career in 1982 at WESA in Charleroi. His "Mon Valley Memories" show was a staple there until the station was sold and moved out of town in 2000. It now holds forth from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays on WJPA in Washington. Significantly, Barbero was a frequent guest disc jockey on Dudas' show at WESA in the 1990s.

"It's always a pleasure to have John sit in with us," Dudas said. "He's such a professional and knows the music very well. John has a distinct voice and our telephone lines always light up when people hear him. He's one of those guys you want to emulate."

Barbero recalled that getting the Love-In off the ground involved some unique promotion.

"We convinced the firemen to let us use one of their smaller trucks to ride around the Mon Valley," he said. "We had one of those large bullhorns and went from town to town on the back of the truck like town criers to proclaim all the good things about the club. It worked because the crowds grew and grew."

Barbero has a plethora of stories about his experiences with the big names in the recording business.

"I'll never forget the night Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were at the Blue Fox and later the same night at the White Elephant," he said. "The dressing room at the Elephant was upstairs and the crowd below was wall-to-wall people. Smokey didn't like large crowds and refused to go through the shoulder-to-shoulder throng downstairs. And he wouldn't go outside so we could bring him in through a side door. Bob (Mack) decided we needed a human battering ram to get through the crowd, and we formed a huge circle around Smokey. As we were working our way through the crowd, I asked Smokey if he was going to sing the group's big hit, 'Would I Love You?' He said he had never heard of that song."

Another experience, this one involving Arthur Connelly of Sweet Soul Music acclaim at the Blue Fox in Monongahela, also lingers with Barbero.

"It wasn't unusual in those days for artists to work under different names," Barbero said. "Arthur was getting ready to go on stage and asked, 'Who am I tonight?' We told him, 'Arthur Connelly,' and he went out and did a great show."

Working with singer Tommy James also provided a lasting memory.

"Bob Mack brought Tommy into the area and was taking him from (radio) station to station to meet the disc jockeys and play his record, 'Hanky Panky,'" Barbero recalled. "He was a very good singer but he had no backup band. Bob recruited a group from Pittsburgh called the Raconteurs, and they became the Shondells. We played the heck out of their record, and I firmly believe we helped it become a national hit."

Lest anyone think Barbero spent his life spinning vinyl discs and working the club circuit, the record shows that he also posted a distinguished career in education. After graduating from California University of Pennsylvania (then California State Teachers College), he began teaching English in 1969 at Carroll Junior High School. He later became assistant principal there and then moved to Waynesburg High School in 1976, retiring from the Greene County school as principal in 2003.

Barbero, the son of the late Thomas and Kathrine Barbero, of Roscoe, also has been the public address announcer for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Civic Arena and Mellon Arena for 33 years.

Does he ever get the urge to return to the turntables and do just one more record hop?

"Not really," he said. "I still collect (records) and I enjoy listening to the music on vinyl or CDs. We did a brief run in the '80s at the Lower Level in Charleroi and the Brass Saddle in Smithton, but I have no desire to go back to the club scene. People have called about doing class reunions, but I'm not interested. I had a great run and I enjoyed working with some very nice people who enjoyed the music. I was very fortunate."

Barbero is the father of three children -- daughter Melissa, who lives in New Haven, Conn., and sons Brady, a teacher at Charleroi Area Middle School and a football coach at California Area High School, and Brett, a senior at California Area. He also has a granddaughter, Stella (Melissa's daughter), who will celebrate her first birthday in October.

Barbero also keeps busy with daily walks (about 2.5 miles) to and from Stockdale, being an officer at The American Legion in Roscoe and working out at Mon Valley Fitness Center in Dunlevy.

He also takes time to reflect on the proverbial "good old days."

"Anytime I drive by the building that used to be The Inn Crowd or go past places like the fire halls in Roscoe and Stockdale, a lot of great memories come to me," he said.

Barbero said he often thought of the weekly dances that began at the Stockdale Fire Hall in December 1957 as setting the standard for entertainment for teenagers because of, as he put it, "good music and great shows."

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