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Retro Redux: In The Footsteps Of Glenn Miller

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I guess it's just how things work sometimes, but it's not unusual for talented musicians to sometimes be more remembered for their association with a big name than for their own abilities. A case could be made that Ray McKinley's history with Glenn Miller fits that profile. The two were good friends whose paths often crossed during their careers, and after Miller's tragic death in a World War II plane crash McKinley would spend parts of two decades leading his buddy's 'ghost' band.

The Texas-born McKinley was a skilled drummer and a passable vocalist, and as he built his career in the early big band era his likable personality and sense of humor helped him make a lot of friends along the way. While still in his teens, he landed a job with the Smith Ballew band and soon made the rmcacquaintance of another young musician, a very good trombonist named Glenn Miller.

Both McKinley and Miller eventually moved on to the Dorsey Brothers band, and McKinley stayed on when the brothers split and it became just the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. By then Glenn had started down the path that would lead to having his own band and within a few years McKinley would again join his buddy, but he had a few stops to make along the way.

In 1939 McKinley left Dorsey and joined the Will Bradley band as co-leader, although the band kept its original name. The band became very popular and had hits with a number of songs, including "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar," and several other fast-paced boogie-woogie style tunes. But Bradley was not happy playing that kind of music and the band eventually broke up, with the co-leaders going their separate ways.

McKinley spent part of the war years attempting to find some traction as the leader of his own band, but eventually joined his buddy Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Orchestra. After Miller's death he became one of the leaders of the band, but in the post-war years again tried to make a success of leading his own group. His orchestra did hang around for a while and generated some solid music, including good versions of jazz standards such as "Stardust" and "Harlem Nocturne." Unfortunately, the band tried to incorporate everything from bop to dixieland in its music, and that lack of focus might have contributed to its eventual failure.

In the 1950s McKinley latched on as the director of old friend Miller's reconstituted orchestra and it proved to be the longest-lasting job in his career, continuing for over a decade as the band made many successful appearances and sold a lot of records. It would be his last full-time position, and he enjoyed a long retirement that ended in his death at age 84 in 1995.

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