Johnnie marks a musical milestone

THE first thing Johnnie Walker says to me is that he’s sorry for calling so late.

I’m genuinely confused for a second, because a legend of the radiowaves can be as late as he likes in my book.

The man on the other end of the phone is, after all, one of the last radio DJs of the 60s; responsible for a generation of sleep-deprived kids sneaking their cheap tranistor radios under the covers to tune into broadcasts way past their bedtimes.

The veteran voice of Radio 2– famed for such notorious behaviour as hosting pirate radio show Caroline in the 60s – takes the compliment with a bemused laugh.

But while my nostalgia is decidedly secondhand in nature,  he’s taking a personal tour down memory lane with his newest live show,  which he will be sharing with audiences in Bradford next month.

“It’s called Musical Milestones,” said Johnnie. “I play all the records that mean a lot to me, like the first record we played when my father bought home a wind up gramophone when I was five.”
“But there are some nights where I will come off and I’ll go ‘darn, I didn’t play that one’ or I say ‘I must use that one again’, so it’s constantly changing. I never know what I’m going to play but I doubt that it will be boring,” he added.

Johnnie began his radio career in 1966 on offshore pirate radio station, Swinging Radio England, before jumping ship, as it were, to Radio Caroline.

It was during his time playing plastic out at sea that he entered the history books on August 14, 1967, as one of the only DJs brave-slash-risky enough to carry on playing as the government imposed a ban on pirate broadcasting.

For Johnnie, it was a defining moment in his career.

“A really big moment for me was when I went against all the advice of my parents and friends and DJ friends, when I carried on broadcasting on Caroline after the government made it illegal. I played All You Need is Love by the Beatles and became a criminal for playing records.”

His decision to keep on playing was a likely combination of part protest/part dedication, based on an unshakeable passion for the job and the music itself:  a feeling he wasn’t about to give up so easily.

“I managed to get a job on a radio station so I could play all my favourtie bands and share that experience of good records with the Caroline audience,” he said. “All the DJs in those days wanted to find that next big thing because it’s exciting, it just shows you’re doing your best to discover new music.
“I used to go through 60 or 70 new singles every week in the 70s searching for that gem. A lot of it was really bad, then you come across a gem and you think, ‘wow, this is brilliant’.
“Finding the little nugget amongst all the other stuff is brilliant. I remember when Walk on the Wildside became a hit, I thought, ‘I knew that music had something and lots of other people did too’,” he added. 

Audiences in Bradford have a lot to look forward to with such colourful anecdotes on the cards, but according to Johnnie,  no two nights are the same.

He said: “I’m really looking forward to coming to Bradford. The great thing about people in Yorkshire is that they will tell you what they think and I like that. 
“They’ll just shout, ‘Hey Johnnie you’re show is rubbish’.  I don’t mind a bit of heckling, it’s good fun. 
“We leave little index cards in the interval and people go off and have a drink then come back and write questions.  We get the house lights up and read them out – it’s the best part of the show for me and the audience I think.”

You would think after four decades on the airwaves, talking about his life in music would be second nature, but even someone with his experience gets the pre-show jitters.

“I’m always really nervous when I go on, I’m pacing up and down 10 minutes before a show,” said Johnnie. “It’s very different to doing it to a live crowd, it’s more embarassing it if bombs, so there’s more tension.
“You can take some great artists like Paul Simon or Neil Diamond and they all get nervous, because they care about what they do.
“If you pull it off then it’s a wonderful feeling.  But I put everything I have into it because I want people to have a good night, and if it goes well I’m happy.
“I don’t want to big it up too much though,” he laughed, “in case I have a bad night in Bradford.”

Johnnie Walker will play the Bradford Alhambra on Thursday, May 12.