Making the music spin in New Orleans
9th May 2016 · 0 Comments
By Michael Patrick Welch
As the Civil Rights struggle raged on through the 40s, 50s and 60s, New Orleans radio finally started to become as Black as the city’s music. Black DJs and writers began working themselves into the system, and playing the R&B, gospel and other important Black art that would end up putting New Orleans on the commercial music map.
In the first of a series on famous and important Black New Orleans DJs, Louisiana Weekly profiles two deceased pioneers who worked to put New Orleans radio directly in the hands of its citizenry.
The life of artist, Dillard University teacher and DJ Vernon “Dr. Daddy-O” Winslow reads like a tragicomic screenplay. Winslow is considered to have racially integrated radio in New Orleans, Louisiana between 1948 and 1950, and later introduced Black culture to broadcast audiences as the first Black DJ in the city—though not without a difficult struggle, working his way past the palace guards.
Determined to break into a business that didn’t (yet) want him, Winslow mailed scripts he’d written to local radio station WJMR. Unable to ignore the high quality of Winslow’s writing, the station hired him—but then wouldn’t let him on air.
Black folks had made enough progress by then that Black culture was starting to catch on with white audiences, especially the music. Radio stations suddenly wanted Blackness, but not actual Black radio celebrities. And so, like some long-lost Richard Pryor movie, the station’s owner made Winslow teach white disc jockey Duke Thiele to fake an African-American accent and dialect on air—not unlike modern-day conservative radio hosts Walton and Johnson. Daddy-O christened this very popular racial Frankenstein he’d created, “Poppa Stoppa.”
“I wrote the monologue, the jive about music,” Winslow recalled to United Press International In 1987, at the age of 76. “Other stations were too dignified to play rhythm and blues.”
Despite how distasteful this all may sound, Winslow seemed to realize the end game would make it worth it: more Blackness on the air, one way or another. And with the wheels greased and New Orleans wanting more, Winslow eventually found his way onto the air: in 1950, a Jackson beer brewery hired Winslow in the public relations department of Fitzgerald Advertising Agency on the radio station WWEZ, where he invented his persona, Dr. Daddy-O, who would go on to set the standard for Black radio DJs to follow.
Best known today as “the voice of Jazz Fest,” Larry McKinley continues to welcome visitors to the Fairgrounds every year—but only via recorded message, since his death in 2013.
But McKinley played a much more important role in New Orleans’ culture as the co-founder of Minit Records in 1960. At Minit, McKinley had the insight to hire young in-house producer and arranger, Allen Toussaint. Along with founder Joe Banashak, the Minit Records crew brought New Orleans its first No. 1 hit, with “Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K-Doe, whom McKinley also managed in the 1950s.
With Toussaint behind the boards, the label went on to help break Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, even Ike and Tina Turner.
When the label finally folded for financial reasons, McKinley moved on to host several radio shows for WNNR AM, as well as WMRY FM, which later became today’s Black-owned and operated station, WYLD.
McKinley followed the station from its beginnings in the French Quarter, through its move to the Louisiana Life Insurance Building on Dryades Street, then to 2906 Tulane Avenue, where it remained as a landmark from 1957 to 1988. After McKinley’s death, Interurban Broadcasting Group purchased the station’s AM and FM stations, and eventually moved it to the renovated McDonogh #30 schoolhouse at 2228 Gravier Street.
During his time on New Orleans’ airwaves, McKinley helped break famous singles from Ray Charles, Jesse Hill, Irma, Chris Kenner and more. In 1989 McKinley was inducted into the AFTRA Hall of Fame for his work in the radio industry, and in 2010 he made it into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
McKinley used his knowledge and connections to also promote New Orleans concerts by the hottest Black acts of the day, from James Brown to Sam Cooke to Aretha Franklin and the Four Tops. He also influenced the Jazz and Heritage Festival as a board member (for just one year) and then as part of its marketing team.
Still, to many he will forever be the smooth, disembodied voice that floats out of the Jazz Fest speakers, giving directions, welcoming attendees and listing prohibited items.
“One time I was in Philadelphia at the airport,” McKinley told UPI almost 20 years ago. “I was waiting for a plane, and at one of the kiosks I made an order. And so a young lady was standing right behind me… And when I placed my order, she looked at me and said, ‘Are you from New Orleans?’”
“I said, ‘Yeah.’
“She says… ‘I recognize that voice’.”
This article originally published in the May 9, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.