His musical reach on the Outer Banks is undeniable. His voice is instantly recognizable to those who tune into his broadcasts. His influence has, seemingly, seeped into the sands that his listeners populate as they soak up the sun, digging the tunes he provides.
For the most part, I’ve directed my columns to feature our local musicians…those that sing, play an instrument, (or two), and head out nightly to attempt to capture the attention of tourists in the summer or locals, during the shoulder season.
But there are others who are involved in the OBX music scene that are, pretty much, unheralded. One of those is local radio DJ and Virginian Pilot/Coast OBX entertainment writer, John Harper who has been documenting the local scene for The Coast and The Virginian-Pilot since 1994.
John is as direct a link to the music as someone that straps on a guitar every night. It’s hard to deny his importance, locally. He’s an icon. As program and music director for WVOD-99.1-The Sound, Harper’s voice is heard 6 days a week as a radio broadcaster. If that’s not enough, Harper can also be heard on Classic Rock 104.9 and 92.3 FM.
Q: What brought you to the Outer Banks?
A: I’m an army brat. But I consider Richmond to be my hometown. A radio job — WOBR-Beach 95FM — brought me here in 1985.
Q: How would you describe your radio show(s)?
A: On 99.1-The Sound, it’s all about the music, both new and old. I try to attach myself to it by adding either commentary or facts without getting in the way. I think listeners can tell when I really like a song or artist. People, generally, like DJs who sound involved and passionate.
Q: Who is your greatest broadcasting influence?
A: Paul Harvey, and Johnny Carson, who both understood the art of communication. And both appreciated the quality of words, over the quantity.
Q: What was the first concert you attended?
A: 1967…James Brown at the Mosque in Richmond.
Q: How many concerts do you attend every year, on average?
A: Probably 40. I see lots of musicians at the annual Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival in Nashville and the Triple A radio conference in Boulder, Colorado.
Q: Of all you have attended in your life, which moved you the most?
A: That’s a tough one. Paul McCartney, who I’ve seen eight times, at Fenway Park in Boston in 2016. His artistry, songwriting and performing skills are unmatched. The music, which sounded fresh, took me back to when all my troubles seemed so far away. It was a love fest. I sang, danced, cried, laughed and reflected. On an emotional level, “Springsteen on Broadway” hit me in the gut. I tell people that after seeing it, I was born again to run.
Q: What is your earliest memory of radio?
A: I used to lie in bed late at night with a tiny earpiece listening to faraway AM stations like WABC in New York City or WKBW in Buffalo, New York.
Q: Do you play any musical instruments?
A: No, though I did take guitar lessons as a teenager.
Q: How many different music-related projects are you involved in?
A: At 99.1-The Sound, I serve as the music director, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. as host. I also handle the 3 to 7 p.m. shift on Classic Rock 92.3. I write the “On the Town” column in the Coast and operate an award-winning mobile DJ Service (johnharperdj.com). At last count, I had played over 1,300 weddings and about 500 parties — birthday, Christmas, retirement, class reunions.... It surprises people that I know so much about dance music.
Q: Musicians usually play for those “moments” when everything clicks. I’d imagine that would apply to what you do, as well. Do you have a favorite moment, be it in writing, broadcasting or as a mobile DJ?
A: Another tough question. Interviewing Graham Nash on radio and Ringo Starr for the Virginian-Pilot were highlights. Making someone’s wedding day special also is deeply satisfying.
Q: Was there a specific person that motivated you to pursue broadcasting?
A: Paul Randall, a DJ who worked at WLEE in Richmond. He served as a mentor.
Q: How did you get into writing about music?
A: I started in 1994 at the Coast and the Virginian-Pilot. I was out of radio and looking for a creative outlet. David Loomis, who was the editor of the Coast, took me under his wing. The late Ron Speer was also a major influence. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with so many talented and generous editors, writers and photographers. I’m like a sponge.
Q: What is your favorite 5-year musical era? Why?
A: 1965-1970. The quality was mind-blowing and compelling music was coming from many camps – the British Invasion, Motown, Memphis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia. There was a lot of experimenting. The music was the message, reflecting what was going on in the country. In addition to The Beatles, other songwriters and musicians — Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Webb, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Laura Nyro, among them — were at the height of their powers. For me it’s all about good melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Groups like the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rascals, the Bryds and the Doors made some terrific records. I think 1967 was the greatest year in pop music.
Q: Do you listen to new music and if so, what?
A: As the music director at 99.1-The Sound, I’m always listening for songs with a sense of purpose. We’re all about “music discovery.” So, yes, my ears are always open to new sounds. Current favorites include Jason Isbell, Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Portugal the Man, Florence and the Machine, the Black Keys, Kurt Vile, Kings of Leon, Leon Bridges, Lumineers and Death Cab for Cutie.
Q: McCartney or Lennon?
A: McCartney. But Lennon and Harrison are right there.
Q: Do you have any hobbies that aren’t music-related?
A: I play a lot of tennis.
Q: Your favorite album?
A: The “White Album” by The Beatles. The variety of sounds and styles is mind-blowing, from “Blackbird” to “Helter Skelter” to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” John Lennon’s “Julia” was the inspiration for my daughter’s (Julie) name.
Q: Your favorite song?
A: Depends on the day, but probably “The Long and Winding Road.” Again, it’s a sentimental thing. “God Only Knows” and “Like a Rolling Stone” are in the conversation. And any number of Jimmy Webb, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Burt Bacharach-Hal David tunes.
Q: Your 5 Desert Island albums?
A: “White Album,” The Beatles; “Madman Across the Water,” Elton John; “Tapestry,” Carole King; “Songs in the Key of Life,” Stevie Wonder; “Aja,” Steely Dan.
Q: What’s been your greatest musical experience?
A: Funny I should ask? It happened in July. I visited London, including Abbey Road, and Liverpool, the birthplace of The Beatles. It was healing and inspirational. If I had a “bucket list,” that trip was at the top.