Ray McKinley: A Rhythm Maker’s Musical Journey

Ray McKinley, born June 18, 1910, in Fort Worth, Texas, was a legendary American musician and band leader whose rhythmic prowess left an indelible mark on the world of jazz and swing. His career spanned several decades, and his multifaceted talents as a drummer, vocalist, and bandleader contributed significantly to the evolution of big band music. McKinley’s early life was steeped in the rich musical traditions of the American South. Growing up in a musically inclined family, he developed an early affinity for rhythm and percussion. At the age of nine, he began his musical journey by taking up the drums, quickly showcasing a natural talent that would define his future.

Early Years

McKinley’s musical career began with a band in the Dallas-Fort Worth area called The Jolly Jazz Band. He left home when he was 15 and found work with Milt Shaw’s Detroiters and later the Smith Ballew band. It was with Smith Ballew that McKinley met trombonist and arranger Glenn Miller in 1929. The two formed a friendship that lasted until Miller’s death in 1944.

Ray’s first substantial opportunity came with the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, as both McKinley and Miller joined the band in 1934. Miller left for Ray Noble’s orchestra in December 1934, while McKinley remained. The Dorsey brothers split in 1935, with McKinley remaining with Jimmy Dorsey until 1939, when he joined Will Bradley’s band as drummer and co-leader. McKinley’s biggest hit with Bradley was “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar”, which he recorded in early 1940.

The War Years

McKinley and Bradley split in 1942, with McKinley forming his own group, but the band was short-lived when McKinley was drafted into the Army during World War II. McKinley soon after joined Major Glenn Miller’s Army Air Forces Orchestra (Miller’s civilian band was one of the most popular and successful big bands of the era). Miller’s Army Air Force orchestra was known for its smooth sound and meticulous arrangements, and McKinley’s dynamic drumming added a unique dimension to the ensemble, which he co-led with arranger Jerry Gray after Miller’s disappearance in December 1944.

Upon being discharged at the end of the war, McKinley formed a modern big band in 1946 that featured original compositions by legendary arranger Eddie Sauter. Sam Butera (who later started with Louis Prima) was also a member.

Post War Career

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the Ray McKinley Orchestra toured extensively, captivating audiences across the United States and beyond. McKinley’s commitment to innovation kept his ensemble relevant in an ever-changing musical landscape. The orchestra’s repertoire seamlessly blended swing, bebop, and traditional jazz, showcasing McKinley’s ability to adapt to evolving tastes and the band quickly gained popularity for its energetic performances and innovative arrangements, but with the band business in decline, by 1950 McKinley began evolving into a part-time leader and sometime radio and TV personality.

As a drummer, McKinley had a distinctive and influential style. His precise yet dynamic approach to percussion made him a sought-after session drummer for various recording projects. He collaborated with renowned artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra, leaving an indelible mark on some of the most iconic recordings of the mid-20th century. One of McKinley’s defining features as a bandleader was his commitment to blending traditional big band sounds with elements of bebop, a genre characterized by complex harmonies and intricate improvisation. This fusion of styles allowed McKinley to appeal to a broad audience while still pushing the boundaries of contemporary big band and swing jazz.

Return to Miller

In 1956, McKinley took on a new role as the leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, paying homage to his earlier years with the legendary group. His stewardship of the orchestra continued the legacy of Miller’s style of music, ensuring that a new generation of listeners could experience the magic of the swing era. Under McKinley’s direction, the Glenn Miller Orchestra continued to tour extensively, becoming ambassadors of the big band sound. Ray continued to lead the official Glenn Miller Orchestra until 1966.

As the second half of the 1960s unfolded, McKinley transitioned into other facets of the music industry. He explored opportunities in television and film, further showcasing his adaptabilities. Ray McKinley’s rhythmic innovations, both as a drummer and a bandleader, have left an indelible mark on the history of American music. McKinley’s ability to seamlessly blend traditional and contemporary sounds, coupled with his dynamic stage presence, cemented his status as a true maestro of the swing era.

Musical Legacy

In 1995, Ray McKinley’s remarkable journey in music came to an end as he passed away at the age of 85. However, his legacy lives on through the timeless recordings and performances that continue to inspire and delight audiences worldwide. Ray McKinley’s impact on the world of jazz and swing remains an enduring testament to his extraordinary talent and enduring passion for music.

The music of recording artist Ray McKinley can be heard on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Woody Herman’s mechanic.