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Larry McKinley, radio pioneer and cultural historian, dies

16th December 2013   ·   0 Comments

Larry McKinley, a charismatic and beloved radio personality, music promoter, and record business impresario, passed away at his home on Sunday, December 8, 2013, due to complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). He was 85.

Known as “Friendly” Larry McKinley, he was a key figure in the overlapping histories of New Orleans rhythm and blues/rock and roll and the city’s radio industry. His sonorous voice was well-known in New Orleans from his career as an radio announcer and, later, through his voiceover work on numerous television and radio advertisements, most notably those for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.



McKinley was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 13, 1927. After attending Columbia College of Broadcasting, he moved to New Orleans in September 1954 for an internship at radio station WMRY, which later changed its call letters to WYLD-AM. By the late 1950s, McKinley had emerged as one of the most popular and influential deejays in the city, in part due to the “Larry and Frank” show in which he played two characters using different voices. McKinley earned high respect in national circles for more than just his on-air repartee, as major record-labels came to seek his imprimatur before releasing new songs. The executives at Atlantic Records, for instance, felt that McKinley played a crucial role in the success of Ray Charles’s 1959 hit “What’d I Say,” which was the label’s best-selling song at the time. As a testament to his standing in the radio industry, McKinley was inducted into the charter class of the Black Radio Hall of Fame, founded in 1998 by legendary deejay Jack “The Rapper” Gibson.

In 1959, McKinley co-founded Minit Records at the behest of Joe Banashak, a local record-business veteran. He also promoted local concerts by national R&B superstars, including James Brown, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and The Jackson 5. New Orleans musicians often opened the shows, many of which took place at the Municipal Auditorium, giving homegrown performers a prime opportunity to broaden their exposure and ascend in the music business.

New Orleans music legend Irma Thomas told The Advocate last week that McKinliney’s impact on the local industry was felt long before he launched the record label. “Local musicians got lots of airplay back then,” Thomas explained. “If you were an entertainer and you had a record out, they would break the record for you, play it for the first time. And Larry McKinley used to do that a lot.”

In 1970, McKinley embarked on a long and productive relationship with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, serving on the board of the festival’s foundation, recording promos and commercials for the festival, and later presiding as master of ceremonies at the annual Foundation Gala. He returned to radio in 1975 to host a show on WNNR-AM and to serve as the station’s program director. He later became a leader in political and public relations campaigns for various candidates and clients. Along with longtime friend Judge Eddie Sapir, he hosted an interview show on local cable-access television. Many of their guests were former colleagues of McKinley’s from his early days in the industry.

In addition to his induction into the Black Radio Hall of Fame, McKinley was awarded an OffBeat Magazine Best of the Beat Music Business Award in 2005, and he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

“Today, I join the City of New Orleans and people throughout Louisiana and our country as we mourn the loss of Larry McKinley,” Sen. Mary Landrieu said Tuesday. “As we face the first Jazz & Heritage Festival year without Larry’s iconic voice, may we also reflect on the immense gratitude we have to this incredible visionary. Larry spent the last 50 years building a foundation for jazz and pop culture that will be an enduring example for many generations to come. Every man and woman’s voice heard on the airwaves of New Orleans since Larry’s debut stood on his shoulders. We are forever indebted to his lasting contributions to the city’s cultural economy. He will be truly missed.”

Larry McKinley is survived by his four daughters, Melody McKinley (Edward) Watters of New Orleans, Joy McKinley (Kenneth) Chancellor of New Orleans, Glenda McKinley English of New Orleans, and Dana McKinley (Lloyd) Landburg of New Bern, North Carolina; six grandchildren, Navis Hill Robinson, Blair Brown Zeigler, Shon Cockerham, Ernest McKinley English, Maya Sophia English, and Catilyn Ann-Marie Kelly; ten great-grandchildren; his long time companion Betty A. McLin; and a host of family, friends and admiring New Orleanians.

He is preceded in death by his father, the late Jesse McKinley; his mother, the late Ester Fontaine Jordan; and an only brother, the late Kenneth McKinley.

The public is invited to a memorial celebration on Monday, December 16, beginning at 6:00 p.m. at the Lawless Memorial Chapel at Dillard University, located at 2601 Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans.

Visitation will be held from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the same location.

A private burial will be held on Tuesday, December 17, 2013.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Larry McKinley’s name to the George and Joyce Wein Jazz and Heritage Education Center, 1205 N. Rampart St., New Orleans, LA 70116,

D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home is in charge of the funeral arrangements.

This article originally published in the December 16, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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