Radio personality and music promoter Larry McKinley dies at 85

Larry McKinley Show caption
Larry McKinley

Larry McKinley, an influential New Orleans radio personality and music promoter as well as the longtime voice of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, died Sunday at his home in Baton Rouge. He was 85.

His daughter, advertising and public relations executive Glenda McKinley English, said her father — who was widely regarded as a pivotal figure in the history of the city’s rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll scene — died of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

McKinley had been a fixture on local airwaves as far back as 1953, starting on WMRY, which later became WYLD-AM. He also was the co-founder of Minit Records, which produced many hits in the golden era of New Orleans 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. The biggest was Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” which went to No. 1 on the charts in 1961 and spawned a string of popular K-Doe songs. Other hits included Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and 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.

Singer Irma Thomas recalled Monday that McKinley’s influence was felt even before he partnered with Banashak to form the Minit label.

“Local musicians got lots of airplay back then,” Thomas said. “If you were a local 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.”

Other singers also recalled getting a career boost from McKinley’s airplay.

“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 writer Jeff Hannusch for his 2001 book “The Sound of New Orleans: A Legacy of Rhythm and Blues.”

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.

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. He expected to stay no more than a year. 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 many in the listening audience didn’t know was that 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 was an active, early supporter of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and joined the festival’s first board of directors in 1970. His rich baritone voice can still be heard at the festival in recorded messages announcing rules and regulations to arriving festival-goers and bidding them goodbye as they leave. He also recorded promos and commercials for the festival over the years and presided as master of ceremonies at the festival’s Foundation Gala.

McKinley also became active in the local civil rights movement and helped lead the fundraising drive for the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on South Claiborne Avenue 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 nonprofit groups.

He was among the first inductees into the New Orleans Broadcasting Hall of Fame, organized by the Greater New Orleans Broadcasters Association in 1993, and was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

He is survived by four daughters, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.