Drummer Ray McKinley got his start performing in local bands around the Dallas-Ft. 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, where he formed a strong friendship with bandmate Glenn Miller. In 1934, both McKinley and Miller joined the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, which Miller helped form. Miller soon left but McKinley remained, and when Tommy split off to form his own group McKinley stayed with Jimmy.
In 1939, William Morris talent agent Willard Alexander recruited McKinley to co-lead a swing band with trombonist Will Bradley, a former bandmate during his days with Milt Shaw. Backed by a powerful publicity campaign, the duo’s orchestra debuted in 1939 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. Sothern was replaced by Jimmy Valentine in January 1940. Dale remained through March 1940, replaced by Louise Tobin, who stayed through at least July and was replaced by Phyllis Myles. Myles left at the end of the year, and Valentine left in early January 1941. Lynn Gardner and Terry Allen replaced them. The group’s first recordings in 1939 were on the Vocalion and Okeh labels. Subsequent releases were on Columbia.
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.
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 the female vocalist. The band recorded on the Hit and Capitol labels and began to attract much 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 band 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 help 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 his orchestra. During his time with Miller’s orchestra he also recorded with his own military outfit, the Swing Shift.
Upon his discharge in 1945, McKinley formed a new group which made its debut the following year. Billed as “The Most Versatile Band in the Land,” the new orchestra proved a critical and popular success. Eddie Sauter and later Deane Kincaide arranged. Peanuts Hucko played clarinet. Other musicians at various times included Sam Butera, Joe Farrante, Mundell Lowe, and Buddy Morrow. Vocalists were Christine Adams, Jean Friley, Ann Hathaway, Marcie Lutes, Artie Malvin, Teddy Norman, Dale Nunally, and Lynn Warren. The band recorded on Majestic until 1947 when they signed to RCA Victor, where they stayed until 1950.
McKinley disbanded his orchestra in 1952 but 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 payed tribute to his old friend, touring and recording for RCA Victor and Epic. In 1966, McKinley decided to retire, turning the reigns of Miller’s band over to Buddy DeFranco.
Despite his retirement, McKinley still 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.
McKinley also served as the orchestra leader on the Be Our Guest television program in 1960.