WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - John Isley and Bill James have been partners longer than nearly every team that has worked in radio or television. Longer than Abbott and Costello, Lucy and Ricky, even Homer and Bart. Isley and James, who grew up about two hours apart in North Carolina, met professionally in 1980 and a year later, launched the John Boy & Billy Big Show on WBCY-FM in Charlotte. They are still together today, syndicated on radio stations across the country and waking people up with their own special brand of fun and games.
“Usually with teams, you know, like Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, they usually end bad for some reason. But Billy and I have been on the same page since the get-go,” Isley said while on vacation in Wrightsville Beach. “We’re totally opposite, I think that helps. We don’t spend too much time together out of the studio. We’ve just had a great relationship and I’ve really been blessed to get together with that partner.”
While the current coronavirus pandemic has forced many shows to work remotely, the crew on The Big Show have continued to gather in their Charlotte studios, where the program is syndicated to nearly 50 stations in 16 states( according to the show’s website). Isley credits Executive Producer/General Manager Randy Brazell, who he says came up with a plan to keep the studio as clean as possible, so the crew could keep producing live shows for their legion of fans.
“Everything’s been good so far with our on-air crew,” Isley says. “We’ve all been able to go in. We figured we’ve got papers from FEMA that say I’m essential so, okay, what am I essential at? Let’s see if we can make somebody smile during this (pandemic).”
Isley turned to radio after what he calls short careers in the oil business (pumping gas) and movie business (running the film projector at the theater) in his hometown of Graham. He grew up listening to one of the industry’s legendary voices, John Records Landecker, on the night shift at WLS-AM in Chicago. That influence, combined with a high school teacher’s shrewd judge of acting talent, started the wheels in motion that eventually lead to Isley finding a home behind a microphone.
“When I was a senior we got a brochure from the Professional Academy of Broadcasting in Knoxville,” Isley remembers. “I knew I didn’t want to go to college, I didn’t have the courses for it. I think my senior year I had to pass basic English to graduate. It so happened that my English teacher was in charge of the plays, and so she asked me if I would come out for the high school play. It was Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillowtalk. Of course, I landed the part of Rock Hudson. Well, the girl who was in it with me was dating a disc jockey who was at the station in Burlington (NC), so it just kind of all came together. I saw the brochure to go get a license and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do’. Mom and Daddy paid $1200.00 to get me into that broadcasting school. I came back and got my first job at that same station running Sunday morning tapes, that was my foot in the door.”
Isley worked at several stations before eventually landing in Charlotte in 1980, hired there by Bob Kaghan, who had fired him at two other stations. The well-known programmer thought a change in timeslots would help, and he eventually brought James on as part of the team.
“He said ‘I want you to do mornings’,” Isley says about Kaghan’s idea to hire him at WBCY-FM. “I said, ‘I don’t know if I can be funny in the mornings’. He said, ‘If you promise me you’ll be there, let’s see how it works out’. I said ’Alright, I promise you that’. Billy had applied for the same job, and Billy had put a fake commercial on the end of his tape, and that’s what caught Bob’s ear. It was very funny. So, he hired Billy to do production, and when I would get off the air we would get together and write. So in about a year and a half, Billy came on full-time on the air with me, and it’s gone from that.”
Isley moved over to another station in Charlotte, WRFX-FM, in 1986, and James was hired along with him. The ratings success continued, and in 1993 the “John Boy and Billy Big Show” started syndicating to other markets with its’ classic rock format. Wilmington’s WRQR-FM became the third station outside the home market to run the show, and dozens of others followed suit. Brazell developed a way to syndicate the show without music, allowing stations with other formats to add John Boy and Billy to their lineup. The evolution of satellite radio and streaming allows listeners around the world to enjoy the antics of the Big Show Gang.
Away from the studio, there’s a good chance you can find Isley in Wrightsville Beach. He first started visiting when his wife Eve had a job at UNCW in the late 70s as the head coach of the women’s basketball team. “She was coaching the women’s basketball team at UNC Wilmington for two years, so when I would get fired, I would sneak down here and hang out, which happened twice! I fell in love with it,” he says about the oceanside community in New Hanover County. The two honeymooned at the Blockade Runner Resort in Wrightsville Beach after they got married in 1980, the ‘other’ partnership in Isley’s life still going strong after 40 years.
As for how long the show will go on, Isley says the current contract runs through the end of this year and they are negotiating with the network. He wants to keep the Big Show family together, because at this point John Boy can’t see doing it without Billy, Randy, Jackie, Marci, Jeff, Pearl and the essential behind-the-scenes group that makes it work so well.
“As long as we can do it, we will do it,” Isley says. “Everybody knows their parts. You take one out and it throws the whole thing off-kilter. We’ve just got the best crew.”
Millions of people who tune in weekdays between 6:00am - 10:00am would agree.
To listen to my entire interview with John Isley of the ‘John Boy and Billy Big Show’, click on any of the links below.
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