Larry McKinley, whose recorded rumbling baritone still greets music lovers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as they walk through the Fairgrounds gates, is considered by many New Orleanians as one of the city’s most influential cultural and political figures during his broadcast reign.
Starting out as a New Orleans radio personality in the 1950s, the Chicago-born McKinley, who died nine years ago, went on to become a music impresario of national renown. He took up the civil rights baton as both a broadcaster and as a behind-the-scenes operator, and is credited with many key achievements, not least of which was helping to elect New Orleans’ first Black mayor.
Now, his daughter, Glenda McKinley English, has acquired the site on Gentilly Boulevard where Larry McKinley did much of his work as a broadcaster and political influencer. She is turning it into a studio and coworking space that will also serve as a tribute to her father.
The premises had been the location for WNNR, which McKinley joined in 1975. He continued to work there when it changed its call sign to WBOK, which remains the go-to radio station in New Orleans for Black cultural and political chat.
‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could fly’
WBOK moved to a new studio at Xavier University after it was bought three years ago by actor Wendell Pierce and a group of local businessmen.
Glenda said she often contemplated turning the old WBOK spot into an homage to her father but dismissed the idea as a dream.
“I kept driving by there and thinking it would be cool if I could get this building. But I was saying it like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could fly,” she said.
The catalyst came when she decided on a whim to call Danny Bakewell Sr., who had hung onto the building when he sold the radio station to the Pierce consortium. He was about to sell it to a veterinarian for more than $800,000 but agreed to sell it to Glenda McKinley English for $150,000 less on one condition.
“He said, ‘I really want to sell it to you, but just promise me you’ll do what you say you’re going to do,'” she said.
The 5,000 square foot premises is taking shape and passersby can see on the window a large image of Larry McKinley behind the mic at WWNR from his 1970s heyday.
The foundation for McKinley’s reputation was laid in the early 1950s when he started broadcasting on WMRY-AM, which later changed its call letters to WYLD-AM, as radio stations catering to African American listeners started to emerge.
McKinley’s status grew when he co-founded Minit Records in 1959. The label hired Allen Toussaint to be its lead producer and in the early 1960s had its first major hit with Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law,” written and produced by Toussaint. Many classics followed, including Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining” and “I Done Got Over,” and Aaron Neville’s “Over You.”
Big time exposure for locals
Warren Bell Jr., a longtime broadcaster and former news and politics director at WBOK, remembered McKinley as someone who mentored aspiring artists and recalled people’s names. He credits McKinley with giving him his on-air moniker, “Ding Dong,” and helping him at every step of his career.
“I was 16 years old when I showed up at the WYLD Radio studios on Tulane Avenue in 1967, where Larry was a well established morning drive personality,” Bell recalls. “He welcomed me and let me know that he knew my father, a jazz saxophonist who performed at various concerts where Larry had been the Master of Ceremonies.”
As well as spinning discs and setting the daily talk agenda, McKinley promoted local concerts by national R&B superstars, including James Brown, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, many taking place at the Municipal Auditorium. Those shows often allowed local artists big-time exposure as opening acts.
McKinley used his stature in the broadcast and music world to aid the burgeoning civil rights movement, typically making things happen behind the scenes, according to New Orleans civil rights activist and businessman Don Hubbard.
Don’t end up in a pine box
In the late 1960s when Hubbard was working for the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, then run by Oretha Castle Haley, he remembers hearing from McKinley.
“Larry gave me a call one day and said, “Look, man, I’ve been talking to Louis Armstrong and I need you to go to New York to get a contribution’,” Hubbard recounted. “I said, ‘Larry, man, I don’t have any money to go to New York’ and he said, ‘No problem’, and he made the arrangements for me to fly direct to LaGuardia the next week.”
Hubbard said he chatted with Armstrong for several hours about some of the recent tragedies in the civil rights battle before the famed trumpeter handed him a briefcase with money on the condition he never be named.
A decade later, McKinley was instrumental in getting Ernest “Dutch” Morial elected as the first African American mayor of New Orleans.
Marc Morial, Dutch Morial’s son who served two terms as the city’s mayor through 2002, said McKinley helped the Black electorate of 1977 overcome their doubts.
“Atlanta, Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark had all elected Black mayors, but at the beginning of the campaign, people were skeptical that New Orleans could or would elect an African American,” said Morial, recalling that it was only the previous year that the first Black City Council member had been elected.
“Larry’s voice helped to create the sense of enthusiasm and possibility and helped lock up the Black community (for Morial Sr.’s campaign),” he said.
Bell said that McKinley’s power on radio during the 1970s came from the innovative and fun approach to chat that he and his sidekick, Gustave “Groovy Gus” Lewis, took on air.
“These radio pioneers — both of whom were my mentors, then colleagues who treated me like an equal — were intentional about always featuring guests and topics of importance to the advancement of this city’s Black community,” said Bell.
A stake in Gentilly
Morial described McKinley as “a Renaissance Man in communications” and said, “Glenda has taken that ethos and put a stake in the ground in Gentilly.”
Glenda McKinley said she wants a living, working space to preserve her father’s legacy and highlight the many other aspects of his life.
The McKinley Studio will be a commercial space that also offers mentorships to students and aspiring communications entrepreneurs, she said. It will carry on the McKinley name in communications, with Glenda’s son Ernest McKinley English being the third-generation McKinley to work in the building, as artistic director of her communications firm.
Glenda McKinley said she feels fortunate to have gotten the support to turn her dream into reality.
“If you don’t take the time to tell the story and preserve the legacy — and my father’s is one of many in the city — then it is going to end up as a footnote in someone else’s story,” she said.