Biographical / Historical
Ray McKinley was born on June 18, 1910 in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of Flora Newell McKinley and Raymond Harris McKinley, Sr. McKinley, Jr. entertained himself at an early age by "drumming" on whatever was available, and he received his first drum set at age nine from a family friend. His performing career had begun even earlier, at age six, with a snare drum solo for several thousand at the Elks Circus in the North Fort Worth Coliseum. At twelve he started playing professionally with local bands and orchestras. In an April, 1986 article in
, McKinley commented, "I wasn't that terrific, but everyone thought I was" (see Subseries 2B: Newsclippings and Magazine Articles). Whether deserved or not, his reputation was good enough that when the Jimmy Joy Orchestra came to town and was strapped for a substitute drummer, twelve-year-old McKinley got the job.
McKinley left town for the first time on a tour with the Duncan-Marin band in 1926. While performing in a Chicago nightclub, he was caught in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out and shot in the leg. During his convalescence, he wandered the clubs and listened in on sets. He met "Benny Pollack, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others" (Ray McKinley, see Subseries 2F: Biographical Materials). He left the Duncan-Marin group in 1927 for the Beasley Smith orchestra, and joined the Tracy-Brown Orchestra in 1929. He played with Milt Shaw's Detroiters for a time in 1930, followed by a stint with Dave Bernie's band. With Bernie, he made two trips to England, "where he acquired a set of neckties and a Southern accent" (McKinley, Biographical Materials).
Glenn Miller asked McKinley to join him in Smith Ballew's band in 1932, and Miller later placed McKinley and four others with the Dorsey Brothers' Orchestra. When the Dorseys split, McKinley stayed with Jimmy Dorsey, although he was heavily recruited by other band leaders, including Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. He became known as a vocalist as well as drummer in Jimmy Dorsey's band, and had Bing Crosby name him "one of the ten best vocalists in the country" (
American Band Leaders
, July, 1942). In 1939, at the suggestion of booking agent Willard Alexander, McKinley joined forces with Will Bradley (formerly Wilber Schwitsenberg) to form the "Will Bradley Orchestra featuring Ray McKinley." With McKinley on vocals and drums, the band's several hits included
Beat Me Daddy
Eight to the Bar
Down the Road Apiece
Celery Stalks at Midnight.
McKinley left in 1942 to form his own group, The Ray McKinley Orchestra. The band was very well-recieved, but broke up after only 8 months due to external factors including the outbreak of the second World War. McKinley placed many of his players with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra just before he was drafted.
McKinley's old association with Glenn Miller paid off when Glenn took him on for his famous Army Air Force Band. McKinley says that Glenn Miller's band "was one of the two best musical organizations I had anything to do with as a player" (
). The Glenn Miller Band was sent to England in June, 1944. After Miller disappeared in 1944, McKinley fronted the band until its return to the United States in 1945. At this point, McKinley handed the reins to Tex Benecke and formed a new Ray McKinley Orchestra.
McKinley's new orchestra enjoyed great success, partially due to its young talent, including that of arrangers Eddie Sauter and Deane Kincaide. McKinley's showmanship and skills as leader, vocalist, and drummer also earned the band many fans. Some of their hits included
Red Silk Stockings and Green Perfume
You Came a Long Way From St. Louis
Unfortunately, the group's inception coincided with the end of the big band era. McKinley adjusted the size and style of the band in attempts to satisfy public demand, but he finally disbanded the group when he suffered an attack of amoebic dysentery in 1951.
After his recovery, McKinley freelanced with different bands and in radio and television, mostly accepting appearances that kept him near his home in Connecticut. His last extended stint with any band came in 1956, when Willard Alexander persuaded the Glenn Miller Estate to sponsor a New Glenn Miller Orchestra with McKinley as its leader. The band played arrangements of old Miller favorites from the original music as well as more contemporary hits. This orchestra, like McKinley's earlier ones, was very successful, performing on television and travelling all over the world. In 1966, McKinley tired of the road and "retired". For the next thirty years, McKinley again stayed close to home, playing "gigs" with various bands, working as a musical consultant for Walt Disney World in 1971, and doing some television and recordings.
McKinley is remembered as a loving family man, screwball showman, and dedicated musician. In January, 1950,
said that McKinley was "known in the trade as a 'drummer's drummer'--just about the highest accolade one can receive." Many of his fellow musicians attest that his clean, energetic style of drumming provided the drive behind many of the bands he played with, while his technical skill and sense of humor produced the exciting solos that made him popular with the public. According to drummer Cliff Leeman, "Unlike many of the highly technical, showman drummers, McKinley combined elements of showmanship and thoughtful, feeling performance. He never ignored his timekeeping duties" (
). Both on the drums and as band leader, McKinley was a bit of a clown. For instance, the "vocal" in
Celery Stalks at Midnight
originated when McKinley, for no particular reason, "instead of playing a two bar solo on the drums...just yelled out, 'Celery Stalks along the highway!'" (McKinley,
Big Band Jump Newsletter
). Still, despite his antics and the fun he obviously had while on the stand, McKinley was deadly serious about music. His thoughts on drumming are evidence of this: "Once you have the techniques down and combine them with an inherent sense of rhythim--I believe you have to be born with it--you're well on your way to becoming a good drummer. If you don't have that bone-deep rhythmic sense, or 'feel', you should be doing something else. That may sound autocratic. But that's the way it is, as far as I'm concerned"(
McKinley was married in 1937 but divorced by 1942. He then married ballet dancer Gretchen Havemann in 1943, a few months into his tenure with the Glenn Miller Band. On April 7, 1949, they had daughter for whom Gretchen coined the name Jawn. A loving, happy couple, he and Gretchen celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1993. In 1983, he and Gretchen began spending half of their year in a home in Florida and half in Canada. He died in 1995.