Catching up with Gary McKee, former WQXI/94Q host

Gary McKee outside Joey D's last week. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com
Caption
Gary McKee outside Joey D's last week. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

In the 1970s and 1980s, Atlanta was much a smaller city and had far fewer radio stations.

So any given radio personality had far more impact on the broad populace than anyone today could wield.

Gary McKee was the man during that period. He hosted the top morning show on the top pop station in town 94Q (along with 790/WQXI) for nearly two decades, from 1971 to 1989. At times, he would pull in 20 percent of listeners in town at any one time, ratings unheard of today.

"He just owned the market," said Dennis Winslow, mid-day host at 94Q from 1975 to 1981. "We'd do promotions and draw 5,000 people to a happy hour. He had the hip morning show everyone had to listen to."

Reg Griffin, a former radio host himself, said he grew up listening to McKee, who called himself the "Morning Mouth of the South." Decades later, Griffin recalled regular lines from his morning crew ("There's a lobster loose in here!" and "Better slow that car down...don't come driving down through here like you crazy!") He remembers buying and listening to McKee cast member Willis' album packed with songs such as "Buford Triangle" and "PBRs and Peanuts."

McKee "was transparent, so you felt like you knew him personally. We wanted him to succeed. In the 70s and 80s, he commanded Atlanta radio like Johnny Carson commanded national television," Griffin wrote. "He was simulcast on AM and FM, which was unheard of at the time. He inspired me and many others like me to go to smaller stations in Conyers and Covington and get behind a microphone...all trying to be Gary McKee."

McKee left Atlanta radio in 1998 at age 54 and has been a happily retired man in East Cobb ever since. I recently caught up with him at Joey D's Oak Room not far from Perimeter Mall for lunch to see how he's doing.

"I miss the paycheck," he said. "But I don't really miss the radio - unlike a lot of jocks."

He was able to leave at such a young age because he was smart with his money.

"I was known as a cheapskate," he said. At his peak, every two weeks, he recalled getting paychecks of $17,000, which would still be considered a huge paycheck in 2014. He'd take $3,000 to live off of. The rest went into savings and investment. Do the math and you can see why he was able to retire when he did.

He split his savings between aggressive and conservative options: lots of bonds and annuities, some stocks. "I'm basically still working with that money," he said.

Gary McKee, Yetta Levitt and Bob Carr (Willis the Guard) during their heyday at 94Q. CREDIT: AJC file photo
Caption
Gary McKee, Yetta Levitt and Bob Carr (Willis the Guard) during their heyday at 94Q. CREDIT: AJC file photo

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Yetta Levitt, Willis the Guard (real name: Bob Carr) and Red Neckerson were among his supporting cast at 94Q and they clicked. He loved radio. Fans loved him. He was on billboards. He did specials on TV. He was on top of the world. "I couldn't wait to get to work every day," he said.

With a theater background, the Illinois native decided to play a character on air that "was a little salty, a bit of a wise ass." Behind the scenes, he said he demanded a good product from his staff. "People who didn't commit themselves didn't work with me long," he said.

Here's a sampling of his show from 1972 when he was on 790/WQXI, courtesy of airchexx.com.

Here's more from 1973:

And these are highlights from 1974 to 1976, which includes quite a bit of Willis singing songs and playing characters. (Rich Simpson did the Rev. Billy Graham Cracker character.)

Here's an aircheck from McKee's show in 1986:

Over time, one by one, his cast members left. And once he met his future wife Anita in 1988, his life changed. Radio was no longer his primary passion. She was.

"It's not a matter of the audience accepting you. It's you accepting the audience," he said. "I stopped doing that. I just fell head over heels in love. She's a knockout. So out of my class."

Gary McKee when he was on AM 750 WSB. CREDIT: AJC file photo
Caption
Gary McKee when he was on AM 750 WSB. CREDIT: AJC file photo

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

They had three kids over six years. 94Q became Star 94. Steve McCoy took over Star's morning show, eventually joined by Vikki Locke. In the meantime, McKee found gigs at WSB, then B98.5, then Z93, with diminishing returns as 99X's Morning X, Fox 97's Randy & Spiff show and Steve & Vikki became toasts of the town and increased competition splintered the audience.

McKee admits he wasn't nearly as happy about radio in his final years. "You can be a good celebrity or a good dad," he said. "I don't know if you can be both."

He said he enjoyed his final run with Z93 at first but management changed and he soon found himself wanting to leave. " I was a charred remnant, dead as leftover snapper,"  McKee wrote in an email back in 2007 to me when I last wrote an update about him. He decided to depart after his two-year contract was up, ending his run with a big charity promotion, a "swan song," so to speak.

In September, 1998, McKee tried to raise $930,000 for an ambulance for Children's at Scottish Rite Pediatric Hospital by spending a month on a billboard at Peachtree Battle shopping center, the type of crazy stunt hardly anybody does anymore. He raised an impressive $280,000 even while expressing frustration on the air when he fell short of the goal.

If anything, it convinced him to leave radio.

"It gave me a lot of time to think, to ride it out and put together a decision, " McKee said at the time to former AJC radio reporter Miriam Longino that year. "On the board, I got an evaluation of what I'm doing in my life and decided it was time to take a break and play."

In retirement, he has been able to spend quality time with his children and play plenty of golf. He goes to Hilton Head, S.C. every so often. He scuba dives in the Caribbean. He does yard work. He helps his wife out with her decorating and landscape design business.

Longtime Atlanta deejay Gary McKee with his family from 1996. left to right with ages at the time: Case McKee, 8, wife Anita McKee, Parker McKee, 6, and his daughter, Cassidy McKee , 2 1/2. (AJC Staff Photo/Eric Williams)
Caption
Longtime Atlanta deejay Gary McKee with his family from 1996. left to right with ages at the time: Case McKee, 8, wife Anita McKee, Parker McKee, 6, and his daughter, Cassidy McKee , 2 1/2. (AJC Staff Photo/Eric Williams)

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

McKee was hit with one major tragedy in 2004: he lost his oldest son Case in a firearm accident, a teen at the time. He recounted it back in 2007: "He snuck a secured pistol to his room, was twirling it and it discharged. Case, Parker and I hunted and shot many times and he knew better, but that doesn't help, does it? At fifteen, kids wrestle with invincibility, we all did; but must remember, some lose."

To this day, he checks the obituaries of the AJC and whenever he sees a kid around Case's age, he'll send the parents a note so they know they aren't alone. He feels the pain of loss every day, something that will never go away.

But his family has kept him strong. He said many marriages crumble over such awful events. He and Anita - along with his other kids Parker and Cassidy - have endured together. (Parker and Cassidy both attend Kennesaw State University.)

"I value life," he said. "I work out four days a week. I have a young wife. I have to keep up!" (Anita is now 54.)

McKee has never totally written off radio. He said he has considered offers in the past (though he wouldn't say where and what) but has never found anything compelling enough to say yes. Now that he's an empty nester, he said he might be more open to the idea of working regularly again.

Talk radio would be appealing, he said. He follows the news closely, providing his very sharp conservative opinions about politics on his Facebook page.

"I'm not a Tea Party guy," he said. "I'm more a Reagan conservative."

He doesn't listen much to local radio anymore, save for Scott Slade in the mornings on WSB. He prefers music on Siriux/XM. (He didn't know Cadillac Jack was morning host on Kicks or the fact Vikki Locke had left B98.5 last year.)

Longtime Atlanta deejay 'Willard' (right front) poses with his new co-workers (clockwise from him) Marcia Shipley, Art Mehring & Gary McKee at the Z93 studios in 1996. (PHIL SKINNER /AJC staff).
Caption
Longtime Atlanta deejay 'Willard' (right front) poses with his new co-workers (clockwise from him) Marcia Shipley, Art Mehring & Gary McKee at the Z93 studios in 1996. (PHIL SKINNER /AJC staff).

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

About the Author

ajc.com