Larry McKinley, who has spent over 50 years intimately involved in the music business, is the recipient of the 2005 OffBeat Lifetime Achievement Award for Music Business. Larry’s career has centered in the broadcast industry and more specifically local radio. Many people in the Crescent City grew up listening to Larry and his sidekick Frank F. Frank. Whether it was his 1960s Saturday afternoon show which brought mainstream cutting edge jazz to his listeners, or his other earlier programs that heavily featured local R&B artists, Larry’s influence is definitely felt in New Orleans. As a partner with Joe Banashak in 1959, he put together one of the first locally owned recording companies, Minit, and later Instant Records. They released such New Orleans R&B standards as Jesse Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Do,” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law” and Benny Spellman’s “Lipstick Traces”/“Fortune Teller.”
As a concert promoter, Larry McKinley was responsible for bringing many great artists such as Cannonball Adderley, Hugh Masekela, Roberta Flack, and Hank Crawford to the city. He also promoted the evening concerts at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. McKinley has brought a sense of class to all of his endeavors and continues to be involved in various aspects of the music and television business.
Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, McKinley was exposed to the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billy Eckstine, and the comedy of Dusty Fletcher, Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham due to his frequent visits to the stage shows at the Regal Theater, a long-time center for the performing arts in that city’s African-American community. McKinley attended Roosevelt University and the Columbia School of Broadcasting in Chicago where he majored in Speech, Drama and Communications with thoughts of being an actor or television announcer.
He first arrived in New Orleans in September of 1954 with an internship at local radio station WMRY (now WYLD) and a promise to his mother that he would be back in Chicago the following January. His January return moved to June when McKinley spent his first Christmas in short sleeves and, after his first Mardi Gras the following March, he had been seduced by the city’s charms. But it was after another event that McKinley decided to call New Orleans his home. McKinley recently remembered the incident: “I did everything at WMRY. I broadcast gospel, basketball and football play-by-play for Southern and Dillard Universities, but it was when Dr. Martin Luther King came to the city and I covered his speech: then I was really hooked, I felt like I was a part of history.”
At this time New Orleans radio was ruled by legendary New Orleans disc jockeys. McKinley remarked: “Most of the [radio] personalities had nicknames like Okey Dokie from WBOK and Ernie the Whip at WMRY and they asked me who I was going to call myself and I said, ‘Larry McKinley.’ Okey Dokie was the number one deejay in the city and he took me around everywhere showing me how the radio business worked. I became Program Director almost immediately as I was the only one working full-time at the station.”
Early on, McKinley introduced a new side to his listening audience when Frank F. Frank made his first appearance. “Every morning at 6:15, I was on from six until ten, there was a one-line commercial: ‘It’s 6:15, Holsum Sunbeam Bread Time.’ The night before Ernie the Whip and Okey Dokie kept me up all night long. I come in, I’m tore down, so to set the scene at the radio station, they had a set of drums, sometimes a band would play and use them. So this morning, instead of me saying ‘Hungry for a sandwich of Holsum Sunbeam Bread,’ I said ‘Hungry! Make a sandwich with Holsum Bread!’ I’m trying to keep myself awake so next I got up and started beating on the drums and raised hell all that morning. So people started calling in asking, who is that? I said Frank. Frank who? I said Frank F. Frank and he speaks his mind. So the next day I go back to the same old line of Sunbeam Bread and people started calling up: ‘Where’s that Frank guy?’ From then on Frank was on there. ‘Frank was a bottle baby.’ Later people would say ‘I know you’re the same person because when you talk Frank doesn’t talk, and vice versa.’ I said ‘When I talk he’s listening and when he talks I’m listening.’ So I taped Frank’s voice and we had a conversation where we both talked to each other at the same time. I had ’em then.”
In this personality driven radio market, the announcers picked all of the music for their shows and entertained their audiences with diverse play lists centered in rhythm and blues but branching out to blues and straight ahead jazz. McKinley promoted local music concerts and also had a Sunday show at the Gladstone Hotel on Dryades Street where he did interviews, remembering that one time he interviewed Willie Mays when the black major leaguers did a barnstorming tour.
In 1959 WMRY station changed its call letters to WYLD. McKinley remarked, “We wanted to be WILD but the letters were already assigned to a station in Boston so we went with the next best thing WYLD with the initial logo being a roaring lion’s head.” In the same year McKinley got together with record distributor Joe Banashak and they put up $250 apiece to start one of the first locally owned record companies, Minit Records. McKinley remembered how the label got its name: “There was a restaurant called Minit, so Joe happened to see the sign and that’s how it became Minit Records. A Hit a Minit was our slogan.” With the seed money they bought and released Boogie Jake, a Baton Rouge singer doing “Bad Luck and Trouble.” Using the profits from that release they started to record artists but quickly realized they needed a musician to run the sessions and approached a local pianist, Allen Toussaint. As they had no money they offered him stock in the fledgling company. A second label, Instant, was soon added.
The catalogue of these two local labels reads like a Who’s Who of New Orleans artists. New Orleans R&B classics by Chris Kenner, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe and Jessie Hill were all released in the first three years. During this time McKinley was asked by K-Doe to become his manager. McKinley remarked, “When I started the record company, I was DJ’ing and doing [promoting] concerts and K-Doe said ‘Be my manager.’ I wasn’t going on the road with him, I was just making sure his records were being played as we had a network of deejays in other cities, no money changed hands, we just did favors for one another. When his first record came out under his real name Ernie Kador, the deejays from the other cities asked me ‘How do you pronounce his name—Kadoo, Kador?’ I told them don’t you worry—when the next record comes out everyone is going to pronounce it the same way. I put his name on the label phonetically: K-Doe. I’m the one that named him K-Doe.”
During this time McKinley learned the ins and outs of the record business. “We had an organization of deejays called the National Association of Television and Radio Artists. We had national conventions. We had the power, if we got behind a record it would go. All we asked was that it had distribution. Don’t waste the airtime if you can’t get the record out to the people in a short time.”
The juke box operators and record shops were also very important in getting the music to the people. The Minit partners must have been doing something right as Imperial Record owner Lew Chudd, who became rich off the collaboration of Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, became interested in owning a piece of McKinley and Banashak’s company. McKinley sold his share of the labels in 1963.
McKinley continued as Program Director of WYLD, where his Saturday afternoon show became legendary for its jazz programming. In an interview, New Orleans writer and poet Kalamu Ya Salaam recalled McKinley’s show, “I can remember listening to a popular jazz show that used to come on the radio in New Orleans on Saturday afternoons, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., Larry McKinley’s This Is Jazz. This is back in the mid-’60s, ’62 to ’64 primarily. Larry played all the hip artists—Miles, Ellington, Blakey, Horace Silver, but he also played the avant-garde. I heard Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy and Trane from the early Impulse days. I can remember being on the picket line with a portable radio in my pocket.”
At this time, McKinley married singer Margie Joseph and produced some of her early recordings. He stayed with WYLD until 1971 and then went on the road to manage his wife’s career. In 1975, he came back to do radio again on WNNR but also started working on other community projects. He helped raise money for the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on Claiborne, secured band uniforms for local marching bands and worked to get the city’s first African-American mayor, Dutch Morial, elected. McKinley was on the first Jazz and Heritage Board. He also promoted night concerts at the first Jazz Fest and has continued doing public relations work for the Jazz and Heritage Foundation. McKinley has also been the Master of Ceremonies for the Zulu Lundi Gras Festivities for a number of years. Today finds McKinley doing public relations, producing commercials, and hosting a cable interview show with Councilman-at-Large Eddie Sapir.
Like other recipients of OffBeat’s Best Of The Beat Lifetime Achievement Award for Music Business including Cosimo Matassa, Stan Lewis, Floyd Soileau and last year Jim Russell, Larry McKinley has spent years in the music business in the city. He will always be thought of as a pioneering radio man who came from outside of the city and has left a marked impact on the music of New Orleans.