Go, Johnnie GO: things you didn’t know about DJ Johnnie Walker
PUBLISHED: 14:44 01 May 2020 | UPDATED: 14:44 01 May 2020
Credit: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo
DJ Johnnie Walker talks to Stu Lambert about taking his Sounds of the 70s radio show on tour, and how he fell in love with the county he now calls home
In the early 1980s, my bandmates and I drove from Shaftesbury, where we had a studio in my schoolfriend’s house, to Bristol for our first ever radio interview. This was to be with a DJ who had introduced me to great music, surreptitiously under my pillow, via crackly pirate radio. Half a lifetime later that DJ, Johnnie Walker, now lives in Shaftesbury and I am interviewing him.
For over ten years Johnnie has served BBC Radio 2 listeners a Sunday afternoon treat of 1970s music with his show Sounds of the 70s. Johnnie is now bringing the best pop music of that decade to concert halls around the UK with his Sounds of the 70s Live tour, where a full live band will belt out classic tunes ranging from Leo Sayer to Lou Reed. Lead vocals are delivered by Hayley Sanderson, who sings with the Strictly Come Dancing house band. Johnnie describes Hayley as “an amazing singer”, and she is a huge fan of 70s music.
“It was such an amazing and diverse decade for music, from David Essex to the Sex Pistols,” says Hayley. “All that great music is mixed with some amazing stories from Johnnie! I love singing the Stones and Marc Bolan numbers, but there’s some Bowie and Doobie Brothers songs that I also can’t wait to sing too!”
Johnnie is equally stoked about the tour. “We are taking the radio show on the road really. We made a huge long list of all the songs from across the decade and whittle it down to however many we can fit into the show.” The songs will be performed in chronological order, interspersed with ad libs and Johnnie sharing his personal memories and stories of pop stars from the decade.
Johnnie, his wife Tiggy and their working cocker spaniel Darcy divide their time between an 18th century farmhouse in Shaftesbury and their London pad. “The more that I can be in Dorset the better,” Johnnie says.
“I used to motorbike around the county with mates, so I got to know it pretty well,” he adds. Tiggy first visited Dorset with her grandmother at the age of 16 and announced that she would live there one day. “It was through Tiggy that I came to really know Dorset and fall in love with it.”
Some might be taken by surprise that the music Johnnie can choose from to represent the decade is about to clock up its half-century. As the style innovations of the late 1960s developed, sound technology leapt forward so recordings still sound relatively modern. Number 1 singles from 1970 alone include Bridge Over Troubled Water, Spirit in the Sky, In the Summertime, Lola, The Tears of a Clown, Band of Gold and Voodoo Chile. By the end of the decade, the canon of classic tunes of disco, electronica, folk- and country-rock, heavy metal, prog, punk and reggae were hugely enriched and the foundations of hip hop were laid.
It was in 1970 that Johnnie, who had been one of the last DJs to broadcast on the iconic pirate station Radio Caroline until the previous year, gained his first daily show on BBC Radio 1.
“I was on air for two hours at lunchtime, Mondays to Fridays. And it became a very special show for me,” he recalls “It gave me the chance to play the occasional album track, so I could champion artists like Rod Stewart, who wasn’t well known then, and Elton John. Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side (1972) was my record of the week - it was a very good time for music.”
Johnnie’s relaxed broadcasting style fitted the more album-oriented music of the times and might be thought of as the mainstream equivalent of ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, the voice that introduced the more cutting-edge music of the period. By 1976 his choices jarred with the increasingly formatted music policy of Radio 1 and, on-air, he dismissed teen idols The Bay City Rollers as ‘musical garbage’, leading to a reprimand. Johnnie soon made a move to the US, at the time when sun-drenched, sophisticated sounds such as The Eagles, The Doobie Brothers and Fleetwood Mac ruled FM radio.
Returning to Britain in the early 1980s, Johnnie worked in local radio in the West Country – which is when he and I met - and then on the BBC’s London local station GLR. “It’s very sad that Dorset doesn’t have a BBC Local station. I don’t really connect BBC Solent to Dorset,” he comments.
Johnnie returned to the national airwaves in 1990 on the newly established BBC Radio 5 and on Radio 1 at the weekend. He eventually migrated to Radio 2, as the station had updated its music policy to accommodate a baby-boomer audience that had grown up with rock. He also became the voice of many excellent rock documentaries on BBC Radio and has completed 10 series of Johnnie Walker’s Long Players, that each explore two classic albums.
There were some rough patches: sacked from GLR for saying there would be street parties when Margaret Thatcher left office; suspended but not sacked from Radio 2 after a tabloid exposé of his cocaine use, which led to a prosecution and a fine. In 2003, when he and Tiggy had only been married three months, Johnnie was treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer. A decade later Tiggy was diagnosed with breast cancer. On her recovery in 2015, the couple’s experience of caring for each other led them to become joint patrons of Carers UK.
As well as his lifelong involvement with music radio, Johnnie has an interest in inspirational and radical thinkers. His Alternative Johnnie Walker podcasts in the early 2010s featured a spiritual healer, an organisation tackling infection in Africa, shamanic drummers and many more. “I’m very interested in having a positive outlook on life despite all the negative stuff that’s going on around the world. I’m also a fervent believer that death is not the end, that life continues in some other dimension,” he says.
Climate change is at the forefront of radical-thinking minds these days and Johnnie recalls a contribution he made to the debate while at Radio 1. He read out an amazing letter written by Chief Seattle of the Dwamish Tribe in Washington to President Pierce in 1855. “A most prophetic and profound piece of writing, an amazing statement on the environment,” he comments. “I split it into five sections and read out a piece each day.”
At one point, the letter reads: ‘Man has not woven the net of life: he is just a thread in it. Everything he does to this net he does to himself. What befalls the earth will befall the sons of the earth.’
Listeners to the show got in touch asking for a copy, so Johnnie told them to send in a stamped addressed envelope. “We got sack loads of post,” laughs Johnnie. “I was called into the boss’s office and told off as they had to hire people to deal with all these envelopes. I thought they would be rather pleased with the reaction, but he just didn’t see it like that at all!”