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Jerry Klein, music promoter, columnist and unabashed liberal, has died

Jerry Klein
Jerry Klein

Jerry Klein, a music promoter, activist and writer who in the 1990s became Charlotte’s unabashed liberal voice on radio, died Friday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 66.

Klein squeezed a lot into his life.

He ran a music store and helped start the Charlotte Jazz Society. As a music promoter, he brought to town the likes of Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis and Joan Baez.

He wrote columns for Creative Loafing and reviewed concerts for the Observer.

And for three years he was Charlotte’s lonely radio liberal, hosting his own show on WBT (1110 AM), where he bashed conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and the “reactionary boobs” who followed him. When he was fired in 1997, management said his outspoken liberalism had scared off advertisers and listeners.

“What it boils down to is that Charlotte is just not ready for Jerry,” a station official said at the time.

That wouldn’t surprise friend Becca Thompson.

“You either loved Jerry Klein or couldn’t stand him,” she said Friday. “There was no neutral in-between. .. . He evoked strong feelings and had the gift of stirring your emotions.”

In the late 1990s, Thompson brought him on as director of programming at the then-new Great Aunt Stella Center, a former uptown church converted into a clearinghouse for music, forums and other community events. She calls the bearded and burly Klein a “quintessential hippie.”

“But it was all about doing the most good for the most people,” she said. “And I think we did that at Stella.”

Klein, who once ran a music store called New World Records, was a promoter who brought concerts to town when there were still few of them. He did the same at the Stella center.

“Jerry loved the music almost more than he loved the business of the music,” said friend Larry Farber, senior partner at East Coast Entertainment. “Music was his passion.”

But politics was close behind.

At South Mecklenburg High School in the 1960s, he wrote what he later called “radical, left-wing” editorials and columns for the student newspaper. Later, he wrote often about politics for Creative Loafing newspaper. An outspoken liberal, he segued to radio, first with three minutes in the mornings on WBT and later with his own late-night show.

After leaving WBT, and after Great Aunt Stella closed in 2001, Klein moved to Washington, D.C., to reconnect with a high school sweetheart. They married shortly after. There he worked for an AM radio station, where he later said he was known as the “pet liberal.” He left the job in 2009.

Two years later he was was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, then non-alcohol-related fatty acid cirrhosis of the liver. A short time later he found his wife, Lois, dead in their home.

Klein returned to Charlotte in 2013. Though still ailing, he began writing again. In 2014 he wrote a piece for Loafing headlined, “Back from the Dead — Again.” In it he recounted his health issues and his recovery 20 years before from cocaine addition.

“Seems to be a pattern forming here,” he wrote. “Every couple of decades.”

Friends will remember Klein Saturday at 3 p.m. with a “Celebration of Life” at The Great Aunt Stella Center. Performers will include Thomas Moore, John Tosco and Scott Swimmer. Friends say it will be appropriate.

“I’ll always remember him for his music before I’ll remember him for his politics,” said WBT host John Hancock. “Jerry and I were exact opposites on religion. We were exact opposites on politics. But we were good friends. We found common ground in music.”

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill