Ray McKinley

Photo of Ray McKinley

Drummer Ray McKinley had a successful career as a musician in the 1930s before forming an orchestra with trombonist Will Bradley in 1939. Together, the two leaders helped spark the boogie woogie craze of the early 1940s. McKinley broke with Bradley in 1942 and led his own band before ending up in the armed forces, where he performed with Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force orchestra. After the war, he put together a new band which managed to impress both critics and the public during the late 1940s.

McKinley got his start performing in local bands around the Dallas-Fort Worth area before moving to New York in the early 1930s. There he worked with Red Nichols and Milt Shaw, joining Smith Ballew in 1932 and forming a strong friendship with bandmate Glenn Miller. In 1934, both McKinley and Miller joined the Dorsey Brothers’ new band, which Miller helped form. Miller soon left but McKinley remained, and when Tommy split off to form his own group McKinley stayed with Jimmy.

With Will Bradley

In 1939, William Morris talent agent Willard Alexander recruited McKinley to co-lead a swing band with Bradley, a former bandmate during his days with Milt Shaw. Backed by a powerful publicity campaign, the duo’s orchestra debuted that year under Bradley’s name and soon had its first big hit with “Celery Stalks at Midnight.”

The band initially featured pianist Freddie Slack, who would later go on to lead his own orchestra. McKinley sang on upbeat and speciality numbers. Carlotta Dale and Larry Sothern were initial vocalists, with Sothern being replaced by Jimmy Valentine in January 1940. Dale remained through March 1940, when Jean Sawyer replaced her. Louise Tobin took over female vocalist duties in July, staying until September when she learned she was pregnant. Phyllis Myles replaced Tobin. Myles left at the end of the year, and Valentine left in early January 1941. Lynn Gardner and Terry Allen replaced them. The group recorded on the Vocalion label in September and October 1939 before switching to Columbia in November.

In 1940, Bradley and McKinley began to feature a boogie woogie sound in their arrangements. Initial success with the song “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” sparked a slew of similar recordings, such as “Bounce Me Brother, with a Solid Four” and “Scrub Me Mama, with a Boogie Beat.” The new style proved popular with the public, and the band quickly developed a niche following. By early 1942, however, Bradley had tired of boogie woogie and wanted to focus more on ballads. McKinley disagreed and left to form his own band.

New Bands and War Years

McKinley’s new orchestra debuted on April 21, 1942 at the Hotel Commodore in New York, featuring Lou Stein on piano and Dick Cathcart on trumpet. Imogene Lynn was female vocalist, with McKinley also singing. The band recorded on the Hit and Capitol labels and soon began to attract attention.

Unfortunately, McKinley felt the draft sneaking up on him near the end of the year, and he and most of his musicians decided to enlist together in the Marines as a non-combative unit. The orchestra played its last concert on December 6 and disbanded. The plan to enlist together was denied, however, and the men drifted into other branches of the service. McKinley contacted his old friend Miller, who helped him sign on as a member of his Army Air Force band. When Miller’s plane disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944, McKinley and arranger Jerry Gray took over as co-leaders of the orchestra. During his time with Miller’s orchestra McKinley also played with his own military outfit, the Swing Shift.

Soon after his discharge in November 1945 McKinley began putting together a new band, which recorded in January with Peggy Mann as vocalist. The orchestra didn’t make its public debut until February 1946 in New York, with Teddy Norman and Evelyn Stallings as vocalists. Eddie Sauter arranged, Peanuts Hucko played clarinet, and McKinley also sang. Ann Hathaway recorded with the band in March. Chris Adams replaced Stallings as vocalist in April.

The new orchestra proved better at ballads than it did at jazz tunes, with Down Beat complaining that it sounded like McKinley was using outdated arrangements on the latter. This changed by the end of the year, however, with Sauter contributing many original arrangements. At the first of 1947, Down Beat declared that McKinley’s orchestra played the “most interesting dance music in the biz.” The band recorded on Majestic until that label folded in fall 1947. They then moved to RCA Victor.

Norman remained as male vocalist through at least May 1947. McKinley used no dedicated male vocalists from that point onward. Adams left the band that April, replaced by Lynn Warren. Marcy Lutes took Warren’s place in October. She remained with the band through at least the end of the year.[1] Artie Malvin recorded with the band in late 1947 as a guest singer.

By late 1948, Jean Friley had become female vocalist. The wife of the band’s star trombonist, Vern Friley, Jean had formerly been one of the Clark Sisters. In April 1949, McKinley put together a vocal group comprised of both Frileys, Dave Pittman, and sax player Dean Kincaide. Jean left the band in July 1949 due to pregnancy. Dale Nunnally took her place.

Later Career

In August 1950, McKinley disbanded to take a much needed vacation, unsure if he would reorganize. It would be December 1951 before he did. He continued to perform and record over the next few years on the Decca and Dot labels. In 1956, McKinley was asked by Glenn Miller’s widow to lead a new Miller orchestra. McKinley accepted and for the next ten years he toured with the Miller band, recording for RCA Victor and Epic. He also served as the orchestra leader on the Be Our Guest television program in 1960.

McKinley retired in 1966, turning the reigns of Miller’s band over to Buddy DeFranco. Despite his retirement, McKinley kept active in the music world, playing with small groups, making a few recordings, and performing at nostalgia events, including with DeFranco’s Miller band. In the mid-1970s, he moved to Florida, where he continued to play locally. Ray McKinley passed away in 1995 at age 84.


  1. Down Beat reported that Warren joined in late October 1947. Recordings by Lutes are said to have occurred in September however, though recording dates are often guesswork. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Night Club Reviews: Famous Door, New York.” Billboard 16 Mar. 1940: 20.
  3. Flynn, Ed. “Flashes From Flynn.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1940: 4.
  4. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 7 Sep. 1940: 14.
  5. “Returning.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1940: 20.
  6. “Bradley Gets Sparrow.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1940: 1.
  7. “Vocalist with Band.” The Tuscaloosa News 19 Jan. 1941: 7.
  8. Radio Guide. The Milwaukee Sentinel 27 Apr. 1941: 9-C.
  9. Gum, Coburn. “On the Records.” St. Petersburg Times 1 Jun. 1941.
  10. “Lovely Lynn.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1941: 4.
  11. “Separate Band for Will and Ray.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1942: 9.
  12. Dexter, Dave Jr. “Ray McKinley, Will Bradley Part!” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 1.
  13. Hess, Jack. “Ray McKinley Spills Plans After Bradley Split-up.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1942: 6.
  14. “McKinley Shapes Up Band.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1942: 5.
  15. “On the Stand: Ray McKinley.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 20.
  16. “—and Who's the Gate Behind the Phone?” Down Beat 1 May 1942: 1.
  17. “McKinley Band Bows in Gotham.” Down Beat 1 May 1942: 1.
  18. “McKinley Has Tuba, and Band That Comes On.” Down Beat 15 May 1942: 2.
  19. “McKinley Band Joins Marines.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1943: 1.
  20. “Marine Chiefs Nix McKinley Deal for Band.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1943: 7.
  21. “McKinley Visits Coast Friends.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1945: 3.
  22. “Ray McKinley Sets Lineup.” Down Beat 11 Feb. 1946: 2.
  23. “Enthusiastic Crowd Greets Ray McKinley.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1946: 3.
  24. “McKinley Changes.” Down Beat 22 Apr. 1946: 1.
  25. “McKinley Ork Plays Most Interesting Dance Music In Biz.” Down Beat 29 Jan. 1947: 8.
  26. “Lynn Warren Joins McKinley.” Down Beat 7 May 1947: 1.
  27. “Beat Discovery Joins McKinley.” Down Beat 5 Nov. 1947: 1.
  28. “Music As Written: New York.” Billboard 21 Aug. 1948: 21.
  29. “Ex-Clark.” Down Beat 3 Nov. 1948: 6.
  30. “McKinley Kindles Spirit In His Band.” Down Beat 17 Nov. 1948: 2.
  31. “McKinley Makes Sax, Trumpet Change.” Down Beat 8 Apr. 1949: 2.
  32. “Sidemen Switches.” Down Beat 29 Jul. 1949: 4.
  33. “McKinley Vacations; May Not Reorganize.” Down Beat 6 Oct. 1950: 1.
  34. “Ray McKinley Reorganizes.” Down Beat 25 Jan. 1952: 3.