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Retro Baltimore

Retro: When radio personalities like Johnny Dark and Kelson ‘Chop-Chop’ Fisher ruled Baltimore

1989 file photo of Johnny Dark, a WCAO-AM radio personality.

The recent death of Robert C. Allen III, the AM-radio personality born Robert Alianiello, was a reminder of the power of broadcast stations in the transistor radio era.

Figures such as Galen Fromme, Eddie Fenton, Tom Marr and Frank Luber gave us the news in the era before cable TV and the internet, but it was the disc jockeys who kept Baltimore humming the latest sweet melodies.

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Johnny Dark, a WCAO-AM radio personality, in 1989.

They became our local celebrities, and if you were opening a new laundromat, it was a smart move to hire one of them to cut the ribbon.

Johnny Dark was a radio powerhouse on WCAO during the glory years of rock ‘n’ roll. Could there have been anyone else to serve as the master of ceremonies for The Beatles’ 1964 appearance at the Baltimore Civic Center?

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Fans couldn’t wait to hear him spin a record.

Dark had amazing radio supremacy in the Baltimore market. In the 1960s, two of every three people listening to a radio were tuned in to Johnny Dark, according to ratings.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, WCAO was a monster, and Johnny’s ratings ... were phenomenal,” said Michael Olesker, a former Sun columnist.

Dark was born Albert Bennett in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and attended Cambridge Latin School.

He chose his radio name from the 1954 Tony Curtis movie “Johnny Dark,” about an engineer turned race car driver.

He arrived in Baltimore in 1961 on WCAO-AM and began a long tenure. Before his 2016 death, he was still working on satellite radio.

When The Beatles came to Baltimore, Dark had dinner with George Harrison and taped an interview with him.

Baltimore was a racially segregated city. White Baltimore teenagers in those years listened to WCAO and WITH, while Black teenagers and the hipper white kids sought out WSID, WEBB and WWIN.

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“WSID was introduced to me by my classmates at Booker T. Washington Junior High School,” said Milton A. Dugger Jr., an insurance executive and musician. “The new kid in town was the disc jockey Kelson ‘Chop-Chop’ Fisher, who became the big new guy in the mid-1950s.”

The early Black AM station had a formula: rhythm and blues and gospel. Gospel programming dominated mornings and Sundays.

Other wildly popular Black disc jockeys included Paul “Fat Daddy” Johnson, Fred “Rockin’ Robin” Robinson, Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert Jr. and “Sir Johnny O,” John Wendell Compton Sr.

“The afternoon war was between ‘Rockin’ Robin’ and ‘Fat Daddy,’” Dugger said. “‘Fat Daddy’ always won.

“Chuck Richards also had an evening program on WBAL called ‘Cupid’s Corner’ where you called in your dedications to the lady you liked,” Dugger said.

Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert Jr., a radio disc jockey, in 1974.

Radio was regional and signals did not travel far. Baltimore listeners could pick up, if faintly, Annapolis’ beloved Black disc jockey, “Hoppy Adams,” who was the master of ceremonies at Carr’s Beach in Anne Arundel County.

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Another force of the radio waves was Les Alexander, a WCAO radio disc jockey. His real name was Alexander Leslie Paternotte and he was known professionally as Les “The Beard” Alexander. He attended Princeton University and moved to Baltimore in 1950.

He always signed off by saying, “Thanks for tuning my way.”

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“He was always himself. The man had no ego,” said Jack Edwards, a fellow former WCAO host, in The Sun in 2017. “You could relate to him, and you couldn’t ask for a better guy to work with.”

It was not just teenagers who were glued to AM radio. The soft, unthreatening and authoritative voice of WBAL’s Jay Grayson made him the choice of thousands of afternoon listeners.

Until he retired in 1982, Grayson had been one of Baltimore’s more stable and respected disc jockeys, known for his witty on-air persona. Friends said he was talented and could extemporize about anything.

He also did television and appeared with Brent Gunts on “The Quiz Club,” a game show where the prize might be a Maish’s ham or box of Goetze’s caramel creams.

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Grayson (born Jerome Bernard Goldberg in Baltimore) attributed the show’s success to his taste in records. He mixed his favorite jazz and big-band records with contemporary music that resulted in a musical blend with broad audience appeal, The Sun reported.

As radio was beginning to change in the 1970s, in to WFBR-AM came Johnny Walker, who made Baltimore laugh and his station’s lawyers cringe at his brash, uncensored, often lewd remarks. He produced riotous commentary about 1970s scandals associated with Baltimore County politicians.

He liked stunts. He hosted citywide treasure hunts, flying to Kenya in search of a witch doctor to help the Orioles and reading his tax-evasion indictment on the air. Even his competitors called him a creative genius. His years were 1974 to 1987. He left as the era was ending and talk radio was in the ascendancy.


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