"Back in 1943, there was a movie called 'Hello, Frisco, Hello.' Alice Faye was in the movie and I think she sang the song there. but the big record was by Dick Haymes and it was back during the musicians' strike when they had to use choral background. So they had a group called the Song Spinners. Here's Dick and 'You'll Never Know.' "
Ed Walker, host of "Play It Again."
When Ed Walker, purveyor of the sound of memory, puts the needle down on a 1944 recording of "I Love You" by Johnny Desmond and the Glenn Miller Air Force Orchestra, there's a little hum in the background. When Connie Boswell whispers the 1934 hit "All I Do Is Dream of You," there's a faint noise like a cat's tail brushing paper.
But the fuzz coats Walker's show with its essential patina. For 10 years now, "Play It Again," the title itself a plucky steal from the romantic icon of the era, has been drifting out of WMAL at 8 a.m. every Sunday. The lineup is Benny Goodman, Big Band swing and the ever-present crooners -- songs that evoke crystal lights on ballroom ceilings, soldiers leaning over a ship rail going off to war and lines of teens around the Paramount Theater.
Second, but in some minds equal to the music, is the authority of Walker, a fixture of Washington radio for 33 years, 22 of them as one of the famous "Joy Boys" with Willard Scott.
For five hours Walker, 53, is Washington's connection to a past some have lived and others are curious to know. His is the second most popular show in brunch time, with the bulk of his audience -- 36.3 percent -- the Depression generation. His listeners, Walker says "either remember the Big Bands as they were going out or actually went to see these band. I didn't because I was still a kid but I collected their records." yet he's so established as a guide through the music of the '30s, '40s and '50s that the local Big Band Scoeity named its chapter after him.
On the weeknight show he cohosts with John Lyon, Walker showcases the comic characters he created years ago like "Bal'mer benny," poet of the Patapsco. He chats about anne Murray and Roberta Flack, banters about the folk songs Lyon favors but sneaks in a Mel Torme fact and record. "He has a wonderful feel for the business of radio, not really as a business but as an art form. He has an absolute adoration for radio," says Lyon, eight years Walker's junior.
Yet it's the purity of Sundays that people rave about.
Has he been surprised at the show's popularity? "Yes," he says quickly. The show is over but the phones are still ringing, questions about a song he played, about a record's availability. He says its success is partly due to its Sunday slot. "Weekday mornings you are rusing around, trying to get to work. You are gulping down breakfast and you [are listening for the] time. On Sunday morning you are going to church, going to play golf, and sitting around reading the paper. We find those listeners tend to listen longer than those during the week."
And some listen simply to stump the expert. "Sometimes there is more than one version of a song. For example, Benny Goodman's 'Sing, Sing, Sing' was recorded in the studio at one point but another recording is from his famous Carnegie Hall concert. And people will always call and say why don't you play the other version," he says. "Sometimes I will play an alternate recording and some people are such experts, they will know from a guy's solo that you are not playing the original. These listeners are very sharp."
"When Marion Hutton collapsed on the stage, who replaced her?" asks Walker for his weekly question. The lines light up immediately. The first caller has the answer. Kay Starr, Sighs Walker, "I thought it was a hard question. Well, here is one of two songs she did with Glenn Miller."
Though Walker is a living encyclopedia of the nostalgia genre, he never wings it. Saturdays he meets finished high school in 1950, he was encouraged to try piano tuning. He remained convinced he could be an announcer. At American University, where he was the first blind student, Walker started as a sociology major but soon proved to the city's rehabiliation department, which paid his tuition, that he could make a living in broadcasting. In his first year he helped start the university station, thus creating his own job and career.
Soon afterward he met Scott, who was a year behind him and already doing part-time announcing. Scott asked his bosses if Walker could be his partner. "He broke a lot of ice. People were more willing to give me a crack if I had a sighted partner," says Walker, who had a reader to help with his college courses and later had his father read him the radio copy.
They became, says Scoot, "closer than most brothers." He remembers antics like letting Walker take the wheel of his car on the Whitehurst Freeway. And the story of colors. "We were going to a dance and I told him we had to get corsages for the dates and he would need to know what color the dresses were. I told him purple. And he said, 'How do you describe purple?' I was very touched."
For some time Walker didn't let his audience know he was blind. "When I first got into this business, I never let it be known on the air that I didn't see. Not that I was ashamed of it. It was in my mind that if I was going to be successful in this business, it was because I was a good performer, not because people felt sorry for me."
Though he frequently makes fun of his own handicap -- his wife remembers how hysterical he thought it was that he once used Ben-Gay instead of toothpaste -- Walker resents being viewed as a curiosity. "I think the same way as everybody else. I have the same frustrations, maybe more than other people. I have this inconvenience of having to ask someone to read my mail, asking people for help in the street. It takes me longer to do the same amount of work that other guys do in the business. But I love it that much, I am willing to make that sacrifice."
While Walker was working at the old WPGC, he met his wife at a wedding. "My college roommate married his high school roommate," says Nancy Walker, a teacher in Montgomery County schools. They have been married for 28 years. His wife, like everyone else, puts his sense of humor at the top of a long list of admirable traits. "But Ed is also a worrier. If the sun is out, he worries if it will ever rain again. One thing he is, is a wife's dream. Because of his blindness he is very neat," she says. They have two children, Susan, 27, and Carole 23.
When he and Scott were fired by WRC in 1972 after a 17-year tenure, their fans sent in 2,000 protest letters and hundreds of calls. They were picked up by WWDC and for a while their soap opera spoof, "As the Worm Turns," and Walker's characters had a home. Two years later they broke up. "There just wasn't much of a market then for two-man radio shows," says Walker. Now WMAL itself has three teams, Harden and Weaver, Trumbull and Core, and Lon and Walker. In the Washington market, Walker's show was a forerunner of what is known as the nostalgia format: now WWDC-AM plays "The Music of Your Life," a syndicated format, and WWRC-AM started a similar format last fall.
After the demise of the Joy Boys, Walker joined television, the industry that had killed most of the shows he grew up admiring. For five years he cohosted "AM Washington," a weekday interview show, but missed radio. Five months after joining the talk show in January 1975 he sent a tape to WMAL. "Then I got a call to see if I would be interested in working Sundays. Well I had worked Sundays at WWDC and the automated FM part of the station had more audience that I had," he says, laughing. "But I thought, well, it's something and it gets me back in."
Eileen Griffith, now WMAL's program director, was Walker's first assistant and she remembers his sensitivity to her inexperience with blind people. "He was very organized. In my zeal to keep the ash trays empty, I did empty one into the trash can. I left the studio to go get the sports copy or something. He was alone. I got a page to get back to the studio," she recalls. "The trash can was smoking badly, the paper was on fire. And Ed said, 'Eileen it doesn't matter what happens to the copy, but I have this little problem about fire. I can't see where it is.'"
In 1979 Walker flirted with leaving WMAL but stayed. "I wanted a full-time job and I almost went back to WRC." But eventually his WMAL Sunday show grew to five hours, its popularity in the time period surpassed only by Patrick Ellis' gospel show on WHUR. When the Redskins play at 1 p.m., Walker's show is cut back 1 hour and 15 minutes.
In his off hours Walker fills his day with commercials and a weekly show for National Public Radio called "Connection," with a magazine-type format aimed at the disabled. Betty Bird, a former producer who is also blind, says Walker is a taskmaster on himself. "He hates it when he's off. Any host that feels they're not doing it well gets tense," she says. When he was sounding too serious, Bird recalls, "I would tell him 'You sound like Digger O'Dell,' the undertaker on 'The Life of Riley.'"
On the public radio show Walker specializes in features about technology, like the one he did on the key ring his daughter gave him. If you're in the room with it and clap your hands three times if makes a noise like a cricket so you can find your keys.
Walker receives, says the staff, a lot of kidding about his nostalgia music and his old-fashioned view of women. "We teased him about living in the last century, playing the old music for old people like him," says Bird, who is 43. "We do some stories about women's rights, and when the microphone was off, he would say things like 'What do women want now?'"
For his show on WMAL, the copy has been prepared a variety of ways. For some time he had a Braillist. Most recently the station has had his copy typed into a computer at Gallaudet College which only takes 45 seconds to translate five hours of banter into Braille characters.
Walker is now testing a newly developed system. The universal copy is stored in a computer at WMAL and then converted to Braille characters with a special program on a personal computer and then transferred to a Braille printer at Walker's home. This eliminates the retyping and the need for the Gallaudet unit. "All the other guys' copy is now computer-generated," he sa," he says. "It makes me a lot more flexible. If someone were sick and they called me to come in, I could get my copy a lot quicker. It would make me a lot more competitive."
A year ago Walker and Lyon teamed up to do their own show from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on WMAL and work as vacation substitutes for the station's other teams. "He has learned to treat my characters as people," says Walker. The partnership has spawned a new sideline for Lyon and Walker -- rap records. "Rap for the Redskins." "Rap for the End of Summer," which pokes fun at driving to the beach and dealing with the crowds. It ends: "What I do is not as hard/I just get a case of beer in my own backyard."
Besides singing, the two have become part of the draw to the city's craxy nighttime events. They have transported their show to the New Year's Eve party at the Old Post Office Pavilion, the Fourth of July on the Mall and the Halloween party in Georgetown. Neither Lyon nor Walker were thrilled about the Halloween remote. Twenty steps out of the cab at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, Walker's wallet was picked. He says the evening was so bad that "When it was over we went straight to the old Charlie's, had a beer and listened to the piano player."
Today's radio listener, says Walker, is getting shortchanged because few announcers choose their own records.
"When I first got into radio," he says, "the announcer reflected his personality in the music he picked. The idea was to introduce the audience to new records or something they had never heard. That is what I try to do on Sundays. But the trend now is to play what they think the audience wants them to play. And I prefer the other way."
In the Walker fashion: "We are playing some music of Dick Haymes. He learned music from this mother. He worked with Harry James, a short time with Tommy Dorsey. Here's one of his great records from 1940, 'The More I See You' . . . "