The great tenor saxophonist Lester “Pres” Young preferred bassists who, in his words, played plenty of “deep sea divers.” Deep sea divers are low notes, bottom notes, notes with meaty, deep, resonant tones. Pres wanted the bass to anchor the rhythm section, not play on top of it. Ray McKinney’s playing fitted firmly within Pres’ philosophy, for McKinney was a strong section man with a lot of bottom to his sound.
Raymond Patterson McKinney was born in Detroit on March 28, 1931, the fourth of ten children born to Bessie and Clarence McKinney. The entire McKinney family was artistically gifted, and most of the children took music lessons from their mother. Ray started on the Ocarina and soon graduated to the piano. “My mother gave me piano lessons,” he recalls. “But I didn’t like her teaching methods. If I made a mistake, she’d rap me on the knuckles. I’d get off the piano bench after that. ‘Get back on that bench’, she’d say. I’d say, ‘no, I’m not gonna do it.’ And I wouldn’t. I was a hard headed little motherfucker.”
Ray declared his atheism at age eight. This greatly disturbed his mother, a devout Christian, but she was unable to change Ray’s mind. “I always went in my own direction,” he says. “I didn’t care about the punishment. Following the wheel of truth was more important to me than any punishment they could mete out.”