Profile: Johnnie Walker: If, at the age of 19, Johnnie Walker (real name Peter Dee) hadn't bothered to pester the manager of a Locarno Ballroom to let him dee-jay for one night a week, then he might have never been the famous name that he is today. Johnnie, one of the BBC's top DJs, was born in Birmingham on March 30th, 1945, one of five children. He went to Solihull Public School and left at the age of 16 with the rare distinction of having failed eight 'O' levels. Johnnie was once beaten into third place in a Birmingham DJ competition by Les Ross!
He had a love of cars and so after failing his exams, he left home to work as a car mechanic in the Cheltenham area, returning 18 months later. He then worked in a Solihull garage and was eventually 'promoted' to car salesman. He even thought about being a racing driver and spent some weekends training at Jim Russell's racing school at the Snetterton circuit in Norfolk.
At the end of 1964, the turning point in Johnnie Walker's life started. He pestered the manager of the Locarno Ballroom into letting him have a disc-jocket spot on Friday nights. Johnnie recalls: 'They had just one turntable and I got 28 bob a night. That was living! By this time i found that I was becoming more and more involved with the music. It wasn't just a case of putting on records - I wanted to entertain people with the sounds available and with a bit of chat in between. I wanted the audience to be involved too'.
By February 1965 Johnnie was doing quite a few evening discos as well as keeping his job as a car salesman. Anyway, he decided to take a day off from this job to visit the offices of a commercial radio station for an audition. 'They turned me down and said I would never make a dee-jay, so it was back to the garage' he recalls.
But not for long. 'The garage boss gave me an ultimatum' he says 'because I was running up too many miles on the office cars doing gigs in the Birmingham area. He gave me three days to decide whether I was going to stay on at the garage or go it alone.'
And go it alone he did, on a tender to the Radio Caroline ship anchored in international waters where he gained valuable experience in and out of the studio! He also spent some time aboard rival station 'Swinging Radio England'.
In 1967, the Government brought in the Marine Offences Act. Station after station tumbled spectacularly from the airwaves. On Radio Caroline South, onboard the Mi Amigo, only three presenters stayed to see the Act in and take the station on. Along with Robbie Dale and Ross Brown, Johnnie Walker was on-board and on-air at Midnight August 15th 1967 and, addressing an estimated 20million listeners, he said that the station belonged to them, that it would continue and that the new Act had actually officially acknowledged the station's legality. "Radio Caroline would like to thank Mr Harold Wilson and his Labour government for at last recognising this station's right to exist, its right to be here and its right to provide you with entertainment, because we belong to you and we love you. Caroline continues." He later went on to re-broadcast Mrs Dale's Diary, which was no longer the most popular programme on the network. "We have got to help the old BBC!" Johnnie quipped. Technically speaking, the entire case had also breached the Marine Offences Act. Mrs Dale, aka actress Jessie Matthews said that Johnnie 'should be imprisoned'.
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As with many of the offshore jocks, Johnnie made the move ashore and started work on the very young BBC Radio 1 in 1969 where, in a post lunch spot, he played a diverse selection of album tracks, primarily from rock artists and featured chart information & the 'Pop The Question' music quiz. This was the beginning of an eight year stay, which was only ended after the station management fell out with Johnnie over what music he played and about how it was seen not to fit in with the station's daytime music line up. Johnnie left in the Summer of 1976, and moved to San Francisco, California where he produced radio shows syndicated around the world, in particular on Radio Luxembourg as the 70s drew to a close.
He returned to the UK after a comparatively short time, and moved into local commercial radio presenting the first ever networked show on the station that was created when Radio West & Wiltshire Radio merged - that station was GWR and Johnnie aired from 11am - 2pm. The rift between presenter and station wasn't as wide as with a lot of other big names, and Johnnie later made a return to Radio 1 in 1988 for another six years, presenting the 'Stereo Sequence'. He was then heard on Richard Branson's ILR sustaining service 'Radio Radio' aka The Superstation.
Johnnie's voice was the first voice heard on the newly launched BBC Radio Five in August 1990, with the children's show Take Five as the first show on the old Radio Two AM / MW frequency, 693 and 909kHz, which has more recently been changed to BBC Radio Five Live.
Whereabouts: After a reasonable time away from the main radio spotlight on Radio Five, Johnnie made a welcome return to take over the retiring John Dunn's evening show on Radio 2 in October 1998. The show was then officially renamed the Drivetime Show (5-7pm weekdays), which he has now made his own, with features like the Mystery Voice and 'Cruisin'. Even to this day Johnnie still uses his originally 'sonovox' jingle preceded by the female shout, 'he's here, he's on....Johnnie Walker.' This jingle was recently replaced with a remake but it would appear Johnnie has ensured the original was returned.' For a considerable time, Johnnie came off his show whilst some personal problems were sorted out. Richard Allinson very capably filled for him, whilst in turn Janice Long and other presenters looked after Richard's weekday Monday to Thursday 10:30-Midnight slot. However, with a highly public sorting out of these problems, Johnnie returned to his Drivetime Show as if he'd never been away.
On Thursday 5th June 2002, whilst presenting his Radio 2 Drivetime show, Johnnie Walker shocked his loyal listeners and the radio world in general when he announced he was suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer. He ended his show by stating he was beginning a course of treatment and would be taking some time off to see how it goes. The ex-Radio Caroline, Radio 1 & Radio 5 star was diagnosed with the condition just five weeks previously.
Johnnie said '...obviously at the time this was a great shock but I have now come to terms with it and I am determined to face the challenge and do all that's necessary to try and get well. Sadly, it's an all too familiar situation for so many people these days and I'm beginning to truly understand the difficult times sufferers and their families face. Normally, this is something one would like to keep private but with the need to take some time off from my Radio 2 show, and the effort involved in making excuses for my absence, I decided it would be much easier for me to just be honest about the situation. I'm very lucky to have the support of a wonderful wife, close friends and my bosses at the BBC who have been very understanding and helpful. As he announced his illness, he played Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' for anyone affected by cancer in some way and said '"..to all those who are facing that challenge, to those who love people and are part of a family of people facing that challenge, it's a toughie isn't it?"
The controller of BBC Radio 2, James Moir, speaking on behalf of the network, said 'We offer Johnnie every good wish and will give him all the support he needs during his treatment.', which started the day after his live announcement (Friday 6th June) - Stuart Maconie filled in for his final show of the week and went on to deputise for him. Johnnie married his second wife Tiggy in 2002 and lives in the picturesque area of Leigh in Wiltshire.
Martin Barclay wrote in saying...'I was told this story by another guy who used to DJ on Caroline and it sounds just crazy enough to be true. Apparently, when the station (Caroline) was in serious trouble over it's legality, most of the advertisers were running for cover and there was no revenue. The station owner also owned a number of down market record labels with artists no one had ever heard of, for good reasons! He brought in a box of records which he wanted Johnnie to play on the basis that this would boost record sales and bring in some much needed cash. Johnnie looked through the box of records and refused to play them on the grounds that they were all rubbish. Anyway, an argument ensued with no agreement on either side and at this point Johnnie said 'I just couldn't get it through to him so I just had to throw the box out through the porthole and into the sea!'. That sounds like our man! If you speak to him or have any contact, please wish him all the best and pass on the message from me from that early 'Eagles' track he plays so often - 'Take It Easy''.
Was it a case of a change of circumstances for the BBC? After AIRCHECK reported Stuart Maconie announcing on the 10th July that the postponed appearance of a studio guest would be '..be rescheduled when Johnnie is back in August', it seemed that it would be a little longer until Johnnie Walker made a return to his Radio 2 Drivetime Show.
On Thursday 24th July 2003, the BBC announced one of the most welcome returns in the history of radio. Noel Edmonds was returning to national radio after 20 years away from it. Noel joined BBC Radio 2 from 4th August as a two-month stand-in for Johnnie, which will ended on Friday October 3rd. Speaking on the return Noel said "This is a bittersweet experience. I am a huge fan of Johnnie's and I wish him a full and speedy recovery. I'm very much looking forward to the challenge of looking after the Drivetime show. It's a great opportunity and I'm very excited to be back behind the microphone, at the country's most listened to radio station." Radio 2 programme controller Jim Moir said on Noel's appointment 'I join Noel in wishing Johnnie a swift recovery and return to the airwaves. In the meantime, Noel is one of the UK's most successful and innovative broadcasters and we are delighted that the Drivetime show will be in such capable hands.'.
Johnnie's recovery continues, but there was to be no return after Noel's run. True to his word, and obviously with other things already scheduled, Noel Edmonds finished his eight-week run on Friday 3rd October 2003 at 7:00pm. The man he took over from, Stuart Maconie, continues as a stand-in for Johnnie. At the beginning of Monday 6th October's Drivetime, Stuart played Bruce Springsteen's 'Born To Run' especially for Johnnie, remarked that he was doing well, and that he was due to return at the end of the year. We'll keep our ears to the ground for news on both Johnnie's recovery and Noel's next moves and will let you know just as soon as we find out!
We'll keep you posted on Johnnie's progress right here and via AIRCHECK RADIO NEWS.
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