Disc jockey is re­called as a force in Bal­ti­more rock ra­dio

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - By Jac­ques Kelly and Fred­er­ick N. Ras­mussen jac­ques.kelly@balt­sun.com

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 WCAOAM. 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.

Johnny Dark

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