On AM dial, Johnny Walker was world apart

His death at 56 recalls a happier era, when shy man off air was a wild one on it

Appreciation

March 07, 2004|By Michael Olesker

Johnny Walker was the last gasp of AM radio in Baltimore when it still knew how to swing. He was the song-and-joke man trying to hold back the future for a medium losing its sense of fun and capitulating to the furious talk-show hosts, those know-it-alls who never leave the studio but pretend to see the world.

He was that madman in the little room behind the curtain, surrounded by electronic dials and flashing lights, an odd little comic wizard never in his whole life to be confused with James L. Embrey Jr., who was his real self.

Walker was the man at the WFBR radio microphone for 13 years who became one of Baltimore's great pop-culture heroes because he learned how to perform inside somebody else's psyche. Embrey, inside the same skin, was a shy hermit with a pinched little face and a Prince Valiant haircut and a body so scrawny you expected straw to fly out of his chest, like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

When he died this past week, at 56, his passing reminded a generation of Baltimoreans of that dual personality. It's nearly 17 years since Walker's morning show disappeared from the airwaves, but he's still remembered for his wake-up wisecracks, his Charles Center outdoor marriage, his flight to Kenya to ask a witch doctor for a hex to help the Orioles, the candygrams he sent to the beleaguered Nixon White House, the $129.63 he raised from listeners to help bail New York City out of its financial crisis -- and his "X-rated Olympics" nightclub act, the lawsuits he inspired, and the federal indictment for tax evasion that he announced over the air.

But he left Baltimore when WFBR, like so much of AM radio, went to a talk format, and he spent his days living by himself on a big patch of isolated West Virginia mountainside until his health gave out. He was all alone in his last hours at University Specialty Hospital, save for one of his ex-wives, who still loved him but had left him because she couldn't stand the isolation.

"The real me is shy," Walker told me one day years ago. I was writing a magazine story about him, and following him around. Early each morning, a uniformed chauffeur in a black Fleetwood Cadillac showed up at Walker's Paddington Road house in Homeland and took him to WFBR's studios on 20th Street. Then the limo returned and took him home at 10 each morning, where a girlfriend named Susan waited to serve him a champagne breakfast by an ornate fountain in the landscaped back yard.

The house had hand-carved Mexican furniture. It had every conceivable piece of futuristic electronic equipment, including a videotape outfit long before anybody else had them. He had a giant movie screen in his basement and showed himself first-run movies all day long.

"There's no comparison between the public and private me," Walker said. "I'm very shy. I don't like to go out in public. I get real self-conscious, like I have to cut my steak the right way. A psychiatrist would have a ball with me. You know, the quiet guy letting out his aggressions on the air."

He was part of AM radio's last great dance party. Harry Shriver was running WFBR back then, and he understood the thing that was happening all around him. FM radio, with its stereophonic sound, was grabbing off all these young people whose parents had grown up listening to music on AM. The AM band had to get an imagination, or die.

So WFBR went with its Mad Radio format, and Shriver brought in all these wild people to shake up the airwaves. Before Walker, there was Pete "The Flying Dutchman" Berry, whose screams ("I want a woman!") pierced the morning air. There was Ron Matz doing his Harry Horni bit that parodied the classic Hollywood gossips. There was Commander Jim Morton, with his Singles Radio show every night, where he'd set up blind dates on the air. There was funny man Mike March. There was the midday half-hour Conference Call political gabfest with Lou Corbin and Tom Marr and Ted Beinert, a forerunner of today's angry talk radio. There was Charley Eckman, the basketball coach and referee turned wiseguy sportscaster.

And there was Walker, starting things off every morning. He was a little waif of a fellow with wire-rim glasses and floppy hair, and this tight little mouth from which an endless succession of cigarettes dangled. And that voice -- as if he'd swallowed helium, as if his vocal cords had hit adolescence and run into a stop sign.

The humor could be pretty adolescent, too. "This is Johnny Walker," he said, "the only guy whose mouth was given a moving violation by the police department." But he ran through a ton of it every day, some of it his own, some of it supplied by a funny engineer named John Elder who worked with him, and some of it from joke services Walker bought.

Also, there were the nightclub shows, performed in front of huge, overflow crowds, X-rated "Olympics" with wet T-shirt contests, banana-eating contests, balloon-popping contests involving midsections only. The shows weren't exactly artful. But they were a Rabelaisian quickening of life designed for the wild child that remained inside adults after the workday had robbed them of everything else.

That's what Walker brought Baltimore: its inner kid. He cast off his James Embrey grayness for a few hours, and he played phonographic records and told jokes, and he tried to hold back the relentlessly angry, argumentative future arriving for AM radio.

Ultimately, it was too late for AM radio. But, for a long time around here, Johnny Walker offered a smile instead of a growl.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.