Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
Email: email@example.com | Twitter: @DMassaWWL
Larry McKinley, an influential radio personality, music promoter and pivotal figure in the history of the city’s rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll scene, as well as the longtime voice of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, has died. He was 85.
His daughter, advertising and public relations executive Glenda McKinley English, said in a statement that her father died of complications from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). He had been living in Baton Rouge since losing his home in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina's levee failures.
McKinley had been a fixture on New Orleans radio waves as far back as 1953, on WMRY, which later became WYLD-AM. He was also the co-founder of Minit Records, which produced many hits in the golden era of New Orleans early rhythm and blues.
The label came about when promoter Joe Banashak approached McKinley, who was managing singer Ernie K-Doe at the time, and was looking for a record deal for his young client. He joined Banashak to form Minit in 1959, and soon the duo had signed a young man named Allen Toussaint as a songwriter, producer and arranger.
From then, Minit’s string of 1960s hits grew and grew. Its biggest was Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” which went to number one on the charts in 1961 and spawned a string of popular K-Doe songs. Other hits included Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart” as well as Benny Spellman’s “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” and “Fortune Teller,” among dozens of local and regional favorites.
In a 2008 Times-Picayune profile, McKinley explained how he was approached by Banashak about starting the label.
"He said, 'You're playing records and I'm selling them,' " McKinley told writer Dave Walker, adding that it made perfect sense for two to join forces. Each man put up $650, enough to pay for the cost of a recording session and press 1,000 records. McKinley was an important part of the effort, since he wasn’t just playing records, as Banashak said, he was one of the most popular disc jockeys on the air at the time.
“He was the hottest jock in New Orleans (at WYLD) then. If he played your record there was a pretty good chance it was going to take off,” singer Tommy Ridgley told Jeff Hannusch for his 2001 book The Sound of New Orleans: A Legacy of Rhythm and Blues.”
A native of Chicago, McKinley came to New Orleans in September 1954 for an internship at radio station WMRY from Columbia College of Broadcasting in Chicago.
During his tenure, he developed the popular "Larry and Frank" show where he played the straight man to his "co-host" Frank F. Frank (known for "frankly" speaking his mind). What the listening audience didn't know is he was also the voice of Frank.
In addition to the Minit success and his radio career, McKinley worked as a concert promoter, booking local shows by R&B superstars, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.
McKinley’s days as a record producer would end amid the payola scandal that hit the recording industry in the mid-1960s. He was forced to divest his interests in the record companies he co-owned with Banashak.
Even after leaving the recording business, as a mover and shaker on the local and national music scene, McKinley was an obvious choice to join the first board of the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970. Even now, more than 60 years after his broadcasting career began in New Orleans, McKinley’s rich baritone voice can still be heard thanks to Jazz Fest, which still uses his recorded voice to announce rules and regulations to festival goers.
“The voice is as much a part of the Jazzfest sonic wash as saxophone honks, gospel wails and moans of deferred pleasure at the first annual bite of crawfish beignet,” wrote Dave Walker in his Times-Picayune profile titled “The Voice in the Box,” since McKinley’s voice emanates from speakers placed in empty ice chests at the Fair Grounds gates.
“It's one of the first and last things you hear during your day at Jazzfest, welcoming you into the Fair Grounds and warning you of this unabashedly intemperate gathering's many prohibitions. “
McKinley also recorded promos and commercials for the festival over the years and presided as master of ceremonies at the fest's Foundation Gala for many years.
McKinley also became active in the local civil rights movement and helped lead the fundraising drive for the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on S. Claiborne Ave. while hosting a show on WNNR-AM in the 1970s. He also served as that station's program director.
McKinley later became involved in politics and public relations for various groups and clients, including many non-profits. He and longtime friend Eddie Sapir, the former City Councilman, recorded interview shows that were broadcast for many years on cable access television. Many of the guests were some of McKinley’s early success stories from the recording and radio business.
McKinley was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, the New Orleans Broadcasting Hall of Fame (organized by the Greater New Orleans Broadcasters Association) in 1993, and awarded an OffBeat Magazine Best of the Beat Award in 2005.
He is survived by four daughters: Melody McKinley Watters, Joy McKinley Chancellor, Glenda McKinley English and Dana McKinley Landburg, as well as six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.