Larry McKinley, whose rumbling recorded baritone still greets music lovers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as they walk through the gates of the fairgrounds, is considered by many New Orleans residents to be one of the cultural and the city’s most influential politicians during his broadcast reign.
Starting as a New Orleans radio personality in the 1950s, the Chicago-born McKinley, who died nine years ago, became a nationally known music impresario. He took over the civil rights mantle as both broadcaster and behind-the-scenes operator, and is credited with many key accomplishments, not the least of which was helping elect the first black mayor of New Orleans.
Now his daughter, Glenda McKinley English, has acquired the Gentilly Boulevard site 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 of WNNR, which McKinley joined in 1975. He continued to work there when he changed his call sign to WBOK, which remains New Orleans’ go-to radio station for black cultural and political discussions.
‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could fly’
WBOK moved to a new studio at Xavier University after it was purchased three years ago by actor Wendell Pierce and a group of local businessmen.
Glenda said she often considered turning the old WBOK spot into a tribute to her father, but dismissed the idea as a dream.
“I kept walking by thinking it would be cool if I could have this building. But I was 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 clung to the building when he sold the radio station to the Pierce Consortium. He was about to sell him to a vet for over $800,000 but agreed to sell him 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 are taking shape and passers-by can see a large image of Larry McKinley behind the microphone of WWNR in its 1970s heyday in the window.
The foundations of McKinley’s reputation were laid in the early 1950s when he began broadcasting on WMRY-AM, which later changed its call letters to WYLD-AM, as listener-targeted radio stations African Americans were beginning 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 his first big hit with Ernie’s “Mother-In-Law”. K-Doe, 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”.
Great exhibition for locals
Warren Bell Jr., a longtime broadcaster and former director of news and politics at WBOK, remembered McKinley as someone who mentored budding artists and recalled people’s names. He credits McKinley with giving him his on-air nickname, “Ding Dong”, and helping him through every step of his career.
“I was 16 when I showed up at WYLD Radio studios on Tulane Avenue in 1967, where Larry was an established morning personality,” Bell recalled. “He greeted me and let me know he knew my dad, a jazz saxophonist who performed at various gigs where Larry had been the emcee.”
In addition to spinning records and setting the daily talk agenda, McKinley has promoted local concerts by national R&B superstars, including James Brown, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, many of which take place at the Municipal Auditorium. These shows have often allowed local artists to make themselves known as opening acts.
McKinley used his stature in the broadcasting and music world to help the nascent civil rights movement, usually shaking things up 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, while Hubbard was working for the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, then headed by Oretha Castle Haley, he remembers hearing McKinley.
“Larry called me one day and said, ‘Listen, man, I talked to Louis Armstrong and I need you to go to New York to get some input,'” Hubbard recounted. I said, ‘Larry, man, I don’t have the money to go to New York’ and he said, ‘No problem’, and he arranged for me to fly straight to LaGuardia next week” .
Hubbard said he spoke 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 cash on the condition he would never be named.
A decade later, McKinley was instrumental in electing Ernest “Dutch” Morial as New Orleans’ first African-American mayor.
Marc Morial, the son of Dutch Morial who served two terms as the city’s mayor until 2002, said McKinley helped black voters in 1977 overcome their doubts.
“Atlanta, Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark had all elected black mayors, but at the start of the campaign people were skeptical that New Orleans could or would elect an African American,” Morial said, recalling that it was only the previous year that the first black member of the city council had been elected.
“Larry’s voice helped create a sense of excitement and possibility and helped lock down the black community (for Morial Sr.’s campaign),” he said.
Bell said McKinley’s power on radio in the 1970s came from the innovative and fun approach to the cat that he and his sidekick, Gustave “Groovy Gus” Lewis, took on the air.
“These radio pioneers – who were both my mentors and then colleagues who treated me as an equal – intended to always feature guests and topics important to the advancement of this city’s black community,” Bell said.
Participation in Gentilly
Morial described McKinley as “a Renaissance man in communications” and said, “Glenda took that philosophy and put a stake in the ground at Gentilly.”
Glenda McKinley said she wanted a living and working space to preserve her father’s legacy and showcase the many other aspects of his life.
The McKinley Studio will be a commercial space that will also offer mentorships to students and aspiring communications entrepreneurs, she said. It will carry 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 his communications business.
Glenda McKinley said she felt lucky to have gotten the support she needed to turn her dream into a 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 will end up as a footnote in the history of someone else,” she said.