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On The Street

On The Street

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It has been 20 years since last we heard the dulcet tones of Johnny Martin's voice, 20 years since last we were comforted by his stylish musical selections and his sophisticated repartee.

From the KRMG studios, Johnny Martin ruled the nighttime airwaves over Tulsa, from Feb. 18, 1963, until June 2, 1978.

If ever there were such a thing as AM radio sex appeal, Johnny Martin had it. He defined it. His was a rich and deep voice, charming and all-knowing, aristocratic and solitary.

He was a friend in the night. A best friend. Every night.

Unchallenged and unparalleled, he was the Nighttime King of Radio. He was a product of the big-band era, and his nightly repertoire reflected that heritage. Sinatra and Dorsey, Ella and the Count. Johnny Martin was the conduit through which their music flowed.

He could turn a phrase as easily and as adroitly as Sinatra. His words still echo two decades after he left the air.

"Here's my favorite blonde," he said every time he introduced Peggy Lee. "The big redhead from Kansas City" was Marilyn Maye. "The big band from Balboa" was his introduction to Stan Kenton's group. "The kid from Red Bank, New Jersey" was Count Basie.

After midnight, when he ascended to even greater heights, he pulled you closer to the radio with his lush selections and his velvet phrasing.

Introducing a number by, say, Jo Stafford or Johnny Ray, he might suggest that "if you don't remember this one, it's past your bedtime."

Johnny signed on nightly at 8 o'clock with the hauntingly beautiful "Tenderly." When it was time, as he put it, to close the pool hall, he concluded his shows with Eddy Howard singing "So Long for Now," and Johnny himself saying, "It's time to turn the page and mark 30."

He altered the script ever so subtly on Friday night. "It's Friday night, case night in the city, play night," he would say as the Count Basie rendition of Neil Hefti's "Li'l Darling" swung in the background.

Bob Clear has stood at the head of the class of Tulsa nightclub pianists for 30 years. He recalled the days in the early '70s when he was playing regular gigs at the now-gone Copa Club in the Hilton Hotel at Yale Avenue and Interstate 44.

"Johnny knew exactly when I was driving to work on Friday nights, usually about 8:30, and he would always play an Oscar Peterson record and then say, `Here's Bob Clear's piano lesson,' " Bob said the other day.

Dan Bell still is making a living selling advertising for KRMG, just as he was doing when Johnny was on the air 30 years ago.

Dan recalled the sound of Johnny's Zippo lighter clicking in the background as he lit cigarette after cigarette during his five- hour show.

"John was a very loving kind of guy, but all the young people at the station were kind of scared of him because he was the king," Dan said.

He told about a youthful staffer reading the news during one of Johnny's shows. "He stumbled all the way through the newscast, and as soon as he comes out of the newscast, Johnny comes on the air and says, `Hey, kid, I understand they're hiring at QuikTrip.' Well, the poor kid was traumatized," Dan said with a laugh.

And Tulsa has never been the same since Johnny Martin's voice was silenced on Oct. 24, 1980. He was only 56, but he had battled cancer and emphysema until he could fight no more.

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