Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sir Walter

John "Sir Walter Raleigh" Christian from Poise Foundation

Losing WAMO wasn't bad enough. Now a monument to Pittsburgh's early R&B history, John Christian, has left us, too. Sir Walter Raleigh passed away after a long illness last weekend at the age of 92.

He was born in Virginia on March 1, 1917, and raised in Binghamton, New York. Christian attended Virginia State University, and graduated with a degree in education. Always athletic, he went on to play semi-pro baseball for the Newark Eagles.

Christian planned to trek to California in 1951 to make a name for himself, with a new set of wheels and some cash in his pocket, but he didn't get very far. He ended up in Steubenville, Ohio, where his mother lived, and eventually opened an appliance shop. And those Maytags and Amanas would soon unwittingly launch him on his media career.

His store was the only black-owned appliance shop in town, and he'd advertise on East Liberty's WILY to draw some customers, calling in his spots. One day, the station manager heard his dramatic basso profundo voice over the phone and offered him a job on the spot.

Hey, spin damp clothes or wax? That was a no brainer. In 1955, Christian came east to the Steel City, twirling disks at WILY. There he joined Lee "3-D Lee D" Dorris and Bill Powell. The trio became the original godfathers of soul for the black audiences of Pittsburgh.

He needed an airwave persona, and because of his deep and cultured pipes, Time Magazine dubbed him "Sir Walter Raleigh" in 1957. Christian liked it, and took to wearing fancy duds, a derby and a monocle, generally immersing himself in Sir Walter-ness.

1957 marked another big event - Christian joined WAMO, which had just purchased Homestead's WHOD. His morning show featured smooth R&B, often by unknown soul artists, and he greeted his listeners with the intro “Sir Walter Raleigh, the gent with the accent.”

Porky Chedwick was already there, and in 1960 Bill Powell jumped ship, too, and they became the holy trinity of Pittsburgh radio jocks to the area's hep cats, white and black, in the early sixties.

But the era of jock-driven radio soon passed, and ad-driven formats pushing top-40 sounds replaced their hand-picked playlists. It was time for a change.

In 1970, Christian switched media and began a long career as a newscaster, producer, and talk show host for WPXI-TV (then WIIC), where he, Dee Thompson, Bev Smith, and Della Crews became city pacesetters as black TV personalities. Christian also served as Channel 11's local conscience, letting the suits know when the station let Pittsburgh's black community down.

He retired from WPXI in 1992 after 22 years of TV work. But he wouldn't sit still; Sir Walter still had deeds to do.

Christian was a dedicated jogger and tennis player, and later on, he became an avid golfer. He turned that hobby into an annual charity golf tournament. His John Christian Charity Golf Classic has raised $300,000 for local charities since its inception in the eighties.

But that's all in the past now. As the poet Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:
"The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields."

Rest in peace, Sir Walter.

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