Brought glitz to the fight against AIDS
In the 1980s Sunny Joe White was one of Boston’s biggest radio personalities. That might not be such a distinction today, with satellite and Internet radio, iTunes, and multiple, independent methods of distributing music. But in 1980, when Sunny Joe White left WILD for WXKS (Kiss 108), it was a big deal because radio disc jockeys had the power to make or break an artist, and talented music directors like White could steer a station to the top of the ratings. And Sunny Joe White was among the most powerful of the power brokers.
A lengthy profile of White that ran in the Boston Globe in 1982 describes a scene that would never take place today: a line of people waiting in the Kiss 108 lobby to get a piece of White. They included a rep from Columbia Records, who’s there to give White tickets to an upcoming Billy Joel concert (“You’re the one guy he wants to talk to in Boston,” the rep tells White). There’s another rep from Polygram Records, and one from Arista Records who’s pitching Aretha Franklin’s “Love Me Right.” There’s a camera crew from the “Good Day” show. And, of course, there’s the Boston Globe reporter there to profile him.
‘To have this really public icon doing an on-air tribute, it really made a statement.’
After trying to probe White about his personal life with little success, White finally says, “If you’re asking me, do I live life in the fast lane, the answer is yes.” White, who never formally came out, was gay. “Sunny was flamboyant. That’s what the code word was back then for being gay,” recalls Bay Windows Publisher Sue O’Connell, who worked for White at Kiss 108 from 1981 through 1987. “No one ever questioned the fact that he was gay, but no one ever talked about it, either, and that was about as out as you got in those days.”
But as his friends succumbed to AIDS, White, who died of a heart attack in 1996, lent his talent and starpower to the fight against the epidemic. But even more important, by doing so, he helped make it easier to talk about the disease. For instance, when popular WBCN music director Jimmy “Mack” McIntyre, who was a friend of White’s, died of the disease in 1986, White went into his studio, turned the lights down, and played two hours of music that he dedicated to McIntyre. “To have this very public, local icon doing this on-air tribute to someone who was the first person many of us knew who had died from this disease — which didn’t yet have a name — it really made a statement,” says O’Connell. “It was a compelling two hours of radio.”
In 1985, White joined Maggie Trichon, owner of Maggie, Inc., the modeling and talent agency, to help organize the Boston Against AIDS benefits. The star studded galas raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the AIDS Action Committee and local area medical research. Along with other organizers including Harry Collings, who was then the chairman of the AIDS Action Fundraising Committee, and Patrick Lyons, who owned many of the nightclubs on Lansdowne Street, White helped bring pop stars to the event. That first year featured Cyndi Lauper and Dionne Warwick. Later benefits included Gladys Knight, Racquel Welch, and Cher (White flew to New York to meet Cher at dinner the night she appeared on The Letterman Show for the “Sonny and Cher” reunion in order to convince her to perform at Boston Against AIDS; they hit it off and became close friends).
“He was able to corral these folks based on his personal relationships and his professional relationships with them and was really able to help put these AIDS fundraisers on the map as a social event that you had to be at,” says O’Connell.
White and Kiss 108 manager Rich Balsbaugh, also threw their station behind the first AIDS Walks. At the time, Kiss 108 was one of the most successful Top 40 radio stations in the country. “They didn’t stop for a second to think about what the support of the AIDS Walk would mean in regard to the really hateful backlash that people were feeling about AIDS at the time,” O’Connell says. “They didn’t worry that their association with the AIDS Walk would endanger their business even though that could have happened. They just lended their five-star brand to the Walks.”
Richard Giglio, who helped organize the first Walks with Liz Page, recalls that White convinced Liz Walker, who was, at the time, a very popular newscaster for WBZ-TV to speak at the first Walk. “I remember what she said,” recalls Giglio. “She said that we are all our last chance to save each other.”
And that was the spirit that drove White, who was honored by AIDS Action in 1989 as an unsung hero in the fight against AIDS. “He was just fearless about the right and wrong of gay civil rights and trying to work toward caring for people who were sick,” says O’Connell. “Sunny’s on-air persona was light and frothy and fun. But he was tough and never backed down.”
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