Recalling Johnny Dark as a force in Baltimore rock radio

Johnny Dark at one time dominated Baltimore radio, and was the emcee for the Beatles visit to the Baltimore Ci

Johnny Dark was a radio force on WCAO during the coming of the age of rock 'n' roll, perhaps hitting his peak when he served as master of ceremonies for the Beatles' 1964 appearance at the Baltimore Civic Center.

For a generation of fans, he was the usher who brought them to rock's front row.

"Before he put a record on, you couldn't wait to hear it. He brought incredible excitement to the music," said singer Ronnie Dove, a pop and country recording artist Mr. Dark introduced to Baltimore audiences in 1964.

"He was my friend and my mentor in the music business for more than 50 years," said Mr. Dove. "I loved him."

Mr. Dark, a Reisterstown resident, died Thursday at Johns Hopkins Hospital of complications from cancer and a blood clot. He was 82.

In his heyday, Mr. Dark dominated Baltimore radio, attaining a 68.3 ratings share — meaning two of every three people listening to a radio were tuned in to Johnny Dark.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, WCAO was a monster, and Johnny's ratings ... were phenomenal," said Michael Olesker, a former Baltimore Sun columnist.

"White Baltimore teenagers in those years listened to WCAO and WITH, while black teenagers and the hipper white kids listened to WSID and WWIN," Mr. Olesker said. "Johnny was a powerhouse. He played a vital role for the first generation of rock 'n' roll music in Baltimore."

"We throw the word 'legend' around a lot, but he truly was a legend, not only in Baltimore but all across the country," Ron Matz, a WJZ-TV reporter and former WFBR radio personality, wrote in an email. "He was one of the top radio personalities of his era."

Born Albert Bennett in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Dark was the son of Albert Bennett Sr. and Mona Perry. After graduating from Cambridge Latin School, he sought and obtained local radio jobs beginning in 1953, but stations were reluctant to hire him until he completed his military service.

He chose a radio name — which later became his legal name — when a friend suggested it from the 1954 Tony Curtis movie: "Johnny Dark."

He enlisted in the Army and became a base disc jockey and announcer serving at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia, while also freelancing at civilian stations.

After being discharged, he entered the Washington market at WEAM-AM in Arlington, Va., which had a Top 40 format, then came to Baltimore in 1961 on WCAO-AM. He remained there until 1991, when management changed to a gospel format.

Richard Sher, a former WJZ-TV reporter who hosts "Square Off" on WMAR, worked with Mr. Dark at WEAM and called him "the most professional guy I ever knew. So dedicated to his fans, who adored him back."

"If you were a teenager growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, Johnny Dark was a part of your life. You listened to him every day," said Mr. Matz, who later worked with Mr. Dark at WCAO. "It was a dream to work with the man I used to listen to when I was growing up. He was a real pro and so easygoing, just a pleasure to be around."

When the Beatles played the venue then called the Baltimore Civic Center, Mr. Dark was the obvious choice to be master of ceremonies. He once recalled having dinner with George Harrison and taping an interview with him between the Beatles' two shows.

Mr. Dark spun records at local venues and functions, including once at a nudist colony in Crownsville that was hosting an event with music from the 1950s and 1960s.

"It's gotta be more fun than the Mormon singles dance ... where they played Scrabble all night," he told The Sun in a 1983 article.

In 1992, Billboard magazine named him Program Director of the Year.

After leaving WCAO, Mr. Dark hosted a weekend oldies show on Washington's WBIG-FM. He also worked for World Satellite Radio.

In 2010, he became an afternoon host on WTTR-AM in Westminster. He left the station earlier this year.

"He was still playing oldies from the 1950s and 1960s with the same sound and patter as if it were 1960," Mr. Olesker said. "He knew the history and background of the music, as well as its artists. That's what made him the voice of authenticity."

In a 2007 Sun interview, Mr. Dark recalled his advice to high school and college students he mentored: "Find what it is you love, and if you get paid for it, it's even better."

He said he liked his job so much that he felt he had "never worked a day in my life."

His wife of 33 years, Colleen Ann McCarty, died in 2011.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Eline Funeral Home, 11824 Reisterstown Road in Reisterstown.

Survivors include two sons, Alan J. Dark of Timonium and Brian S. Dark of Owings Mills; two daughters, Danielle M. Lister of Bel Air and Michelle L. Dark of Reisterstown; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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