OBITUARY : Ray McKinley

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The Independent Online
Glenn Miller was worth a million dollars a year while he was alive (an estimate had it that during the early years of the Second World War one out of every three coins put into juke boxes was for a Miller record). In financial terms the best was yet to come for Miller's dramatic disappearance in a small aircraft over the English Channel on 15 December 1944 unlocked the riches of Croesus for those who ran the "graveyard" bands which to this day play his music. Miller bands still abound, their leaders often squabbling over which is the "official" one. The best of them, most faithful to the original music, was the one led by Ray McKinley.

"Glenn Miller should have lived. His music should have died" is a tenet of the New York jazz musician's philosophy. For in truth, as you will know if you have been driven mad by the unceasing performances of the Miller hit "In The Mood" during the VE celebrations, Miller's music, skilled for the time, was carefully aimed at an audience with a low threshold of pain as far as activity of the intellect was concerned. It is a stagnant music without inspiration, to be repeated remorselessly without variation. It should be hell for the musicians who have to play it.

The sections in Miller's band were so closely knit and precise that there was rarely any feeling for swing. McKinley loosened the music up a bit when his band played it. But not much. "You've got to have that individual Miller sound in everything you do," McKinley said. "The people come to hear 'Little Brown Jug' or 'Moonlight Serenade' as it was, without changes. The arrangements don't need updating. I think that's where the others missed the boat. What we are doing is marketing a product that's familiar." Ironically, Buddy de Franco, the clarinettist who succeeded McKinley as leader of the Miller graveyard band, had been fired by Tommy Dorsey for changing a solo from the original one he had played on a Dorsey hit record.

"It's not artistic to play the same solo all the time," he told Dorsey. "Who d'you think you are, Count Basie?" Dorsey snarled. "Go and be artistic on someone else's band. You're fired."

Miller and McKinley first met in Chicago (where Mc-Kinley was almost crippled when a gangster's stray bullet smashed his leg as he played in a night club). An expert and tasteful drummer, McKinley, when he enlisted in the army, was Miller's first choice for the US Army Air Force Band which he formed and later brought to Europe in July 1944. This was the band shown at an open-air concert in London in the film The Glenn Miller Story (1953). As the audience cowered when an air raid began, the band played on unflinchingly until the raid was over. The audience gave Miller, in the person of the uncoordinated James Stewart, a standing ovation. The truth was that when Miller arrived in London and realised that the city was still vulnerable to German attack he insisted that he and the band were billeted outside the target area. Comfortably ensconced near Bedford, the band were swept by panic when a wayward V1 doodlebug staggered at the outer limits of its range and fell back on a nearby building.

Miller's band was split into sections to make small groups. McKinley led the group known as the Swing Shift, which included Mel Powell, one of the best of all jazz pianists, the clarinettist Peanuts Hucko and the bassist Trigger Alpert. The group broadcast regularly on the BBC's channels for the services. After Miller's death, McKinley shared the leadership of the main dance band with Jerry Gray until he left to form his own band.

McKinley had joined the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1934. When the brothers fell out the following year he stayed with Jimmy Dorsey until 1939 when McKinley left to form a band with the trombonist Will Bradley. This band caught the current fad for boogie-woogie, polishing an ersatz version of the music with its pianist Freddie Slack.

Hit records soon came their way - "Down the Road A Piece", "Beat Me Daddy With A Solid Four" and "Celery Stalks At Midnight", most of them characterised by McKinley's easy singing. Ersatz yes, but a lot of the fans who listened went on to become enthusiasts for the real jazz.

After leading an excellent band from 1946 to 1950, much of whose library was written by Eddie Sauter, McKinley worked as a freelance singer and entertainer on television and radio before re-forming the "official" Glenn Miller Band. This soon made money, and toured the world between 1956 and 1966, visiting Britain in 1958. To catch the kids, McKinley tried half- heartedly at one point to rewrite some of the Miller arrangements in a rock 'n' roll setting.

Eventually tired of constant touring, McKinley returned to New York to lead big and small bands in the city for four years. In 1973 he took over the leadership of another Miller graveyard band from Tex Beneke, one of the original Miller saxophonists, and led it until 1978 when he retired from the field. He visited Britain again in 1985 for a television show with two of his Glenn Miller colleagues, the trumpeter Zeke Zarchy and Peanuts Hucko.

Raymond Frederick McKinley, drummer, vocalist and bandleader: born Fort Worth, Texas 8 June 1910; died Largo, Florida 7 May 1995.