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Longtime WIP host Big Daddy Graham dies at 68

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 9/10/2021 Rob Tornoe, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Edward Gudonis, the fun-loving Philadelphia radio icon and longtime 94.1 WIP sports talker, better known to listeners as Big Daddy Graham, died Wednesday evening at home. He was 68.

The cause of death was heart failure.

Mr. Graham joined WIP in 1997 and spent two decades as the station’s overnight host, where he became known for quirky segments and eccentric callers, veering into just about every subject imaginable — including eating snacks on air and describing the experience in depth.

“In the middle of the night doing insanely entertaining stuff, he developed a tremendous following of people that became absolutely addicted to him,” said fellow WIP host Angelo Cataldi, whose morning show often overlapped with Mr. Graham’s. “He just loved to get a reaction and make people laugh, and he was so good at it.”

The news of Mr. Graham’s death garnered an outpouring of support and love from all facets of Philadelphia fandom. TV and radio personalities offered tributes on social media, while longtime listeners called in to WIP with their memories of listening to his show. Even the Sixers and Phillies — his two favorite teams — offered their condolences in public statements.

“He was just part of the landscape here,” said Cindy Webster, who worked with Mr. Graham at WIP after becoming friends in the late 1980s. “He’s definitely one of a kind.”

Mr. Graham was born and raised in Southwest Philadelphia and graduated from West Catholic High School. He eventually settled in Mullica Hill, N.J., where he and his wife, Debbie, raised two daughters — Keely and Ava. Ava has continued in the family business as part of WIP’s morning show alongside Cataldi.

“His kids were everything to him. He always had them both on the stage,” said comedian, radio personality, and longtime friend Joe Conklin. “He pushed them like he pushed his own stuff.”

Mr. Graham made a name for himself performing in smoke-filled comedy clubs across the Philadelphia region. He borrowed his stage name from Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and kept the nickname “Big Daddy,” which was given to him on the neighborhood playground as a teenager.

In Philadelphia media circles, Mr. Graham was considered something of a renaissance man. Over the course of his career, he was an author, recording artist, playwright, actor, and radio host. His rock parodies made their way onto 93.3 WMMR’s popular Morning Zoo show, and even after landing at WIP he continued to perform as a comedian, starring as one of “Two Funny Philly Guys” alongside Conklin.

But the grind of being on the road had gotten to Mr. Graham by the mid-1990s, when he landed a job cohosting The Sports Attack alongside Scott Graham and Neil Hartman on 1210 AM, which at the time broadcast a largely syndicated all-sports format as WGMP The Game.

“It was a lot of work and good money, but I oversaturated myself badly … There was no reason to be excited if you heard, ‘Oh, Big Daddy Graham’s in town.’ I was always in town. It got really bad,” Mr. Graham told the Inquirer in 1999. “Radio saved me.”

Since 2019, Mr. Graham had been paralyzed from the waist down following a spinal cord injury involving a burst blood vessel, and never fully recovered. But that didn’t keep the notorious hustler away from the microphone. Despite his health issues, he and Conklin were scheduled to perform together later this month at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, a show that had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He was a tireless promoter and a relentless worker, and his great talent was storytelling,” Conklin said. “He willed himself into the business, and he forged a 40-year career. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

In recent years, despite the loss of his mobility, he would still make a point to appear around town. In May, he attended his first Sixers game at the Wells Fargo Center since his injury, and he also showed up to a book launch for a revised edition of The Great Book of Philadelphia Sports Lists he wrote alongside fellow WIP host Glen Macnow.

“He was a brilliant man who didn’t want people to know he was brilliant. He was bighearted guy who wanted people to think he was cheap. He was a profound guy who sometimes masqueraded as a clown,” Macnow said. “He was just a sweetheart of a man, and the more you got to know him, the more complex and fascinating he really was.”

In addition to his wife and two children, Mr. Graham is survived by his sister, Liz; sons-in-law Matt and Bill; and two grandchildren, Lucy and Jameson.

The family is planning a private funeral, but said they plan to hold a public charity benefit to honor Mr. Graham. Donations in his name can be made to the Delaware Valley chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia.

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