`One of the greatest performers who ever opened a mike' on radio

Disc jockey's WFBR show kept listeners laughing

March 03, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Johnny Walker, who made Baltimore laugh and lawyers wince for more than a decade as a madcap disc jockey and then shucked the fame and walked away when his AM radio station switched to an all-talk format, died Monday evening at University Specialty Hospital in Baltimore.

He was 56 and suffered in recent years from a pulmonary disease, said his former wife, April Montgomery, who had looked after his affairs.

The trumpet-blowing Mr. Walker's stunts included citywide treasure hunts, flying to Kenya in search of a witch doctor to help the Orioles, reading his tax-evasion indictment on the air, and his Charles Center marriage to Mrs. Montgomery -- who said she met him while participating in a contest.

"In the history of Baltimore radio, he'll go down as one of the greatest performers who ever opened a mike," said Alan Christian, a former Baltimore radio personality and colleague on the old WFBR-AM. "He was a creative genius whose sketches had you rolling in the aisles. No matter if you heard him play that battered trumpet of his 500 times, it still made you laugh."

"Walker set the bar that the other stations had to live up to. If he said something on the morning show, an hour later you'd hear it around the office water cooler," said Marty Bass, a WJZ-TV personality.

For 13 years, from 1974 until his final broadcast in 1987 when WFBR dropped its top-40 format for talk, the Johnny Walker Show was likely the most popular morning drive-time diversion for Baltimore-area baby boomers.

Listeners were treated five mornings a week, between 5:30 and 10, to a steady stream of risque features, as well as trenchant observations that took on the pompous, powerful and political, in his high-pitched staccato delivery that stopped only for the music he spun on the turntable.

"I met an awful lot of lawyers while Walker was working for me. However, most folks took what he said in stride," said Harry R. Shriver, then the station's general manager.

"After the Flying Dutchman [morning disc jockey Pete Berry] left, I wanted someone crazier than him and found Walker working on a station in Chattanooga," Mr. Shriver said. "He certainly brightened up a lot of Baltimore mornings."

Mr. Shriver recalled sitting at a traffic light at North Avenue near the Jones Falls Expressway and seeing others' reactions to Mr. Walker's show.

"He said, `We've just been listening to Elvis the Pelvis. Good thing he wasn't named Enos.' I looked around, and all the drivers in the surrounding cars were laughing," Mr. Shriver said.

"Walker really did stretch the Federal Communication Commission's tolerance level," Mr. Bass said.

Mr. Walker wore wire-frame glasses on his thin face, sported a Beatles-style haircut and occasionally grew a thick mustache. And he had a signature, cartoonlike voice delivering such feature schticks as "Chickennnmannn: The Most Fabulous Crime Fighter the World Has Ever Known" and "The Little News of the Morning From Around the World, Across the Nation and Up Your Alley."

Any nervousness on the air was offset by his chain-smoking at least two packs of cigarettes per show -- a habit his former wife said contributed to his eventual decline.

Mr. Walker broadcast treasure-hunt clues that sent listeners scurrying around town, and he clogged streets surrounding the station's North Avenue studios with bikini-clad women hoping to win a free record album.

He flew to Kenya in search of Dr. Agunga -- purportedly a witch doctor, who was to put a hex on Oriole opponents.

His 1977 marriage to the former April Clawson, at Charles Center Plaza, was attended by several thousand guests and spectators. Baltimore Comptroller Hyman A. Pressman escorted the bride.

While his shows may have seemed ad-libbed, they represented hours of painstaking work carried out in studios he had installed in his house on Paddington Road in Homeland, and later in Catonsville.

"He was much more than a shock jock. He was a thoughtful and brilliant satirist. He was well-read and devoured books and newspapers. After all these years, he still has a hold on Baltimore," said Ron Matz, a former WFBR colleague who is now a regular on WJZ-TV. He was also co-creator with Mr. Walker and continues to be the voice of the fictional Hollywood reporter Harry Horni.

In addition to his radio work, Mr. Walker embarked on an after-hours career performing in bars and nightclubs.

Over the years, there were troubles with the Internal Revenue Service over filing false income tax returns, and a libel judgment and fine for a remark he made -- in bad-taste jest -- about an African-American television news anchorman being seen carrying a television set during looting after the blizzard of 1979.

While the general perception was that Mr. Walker was a high-performance extrovert, he was anything but once the mikes were switched off or the stage lights dimmed.

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