Dave McKenna: Super Chops and a "Ray" that Silenced the Congregation

Jun 2, 2017

May 30 is the birthday of both Dave McKenna and Benny Goodman. Dave played with Benny on occasion, including a mid-fifties gig at Basin Street East. We've all heard about the terrifying "ray" that Benny would shoot in the direction of anyone disagreeable; well, I saw Dave dead aim one of his own the last time I saw him in person. It was his 70th birthday, May 30, 2000, a Sunday afternoon concert at the Congregational Church in Belchertown, Mass. (Speaking of churches, I also saw Dave play what he called "saloon piano" at the white clapboard Congregational in Harwich a couple of times, and attended a memorial concert for him at the former St. Ann's Catholic church in his birthplace of Woonsocket, R.I.)  As Dave was about to begin his second set at Belchertown, the emcee announced it was his birthday and asked the assembled to sing "Happy Birthday." But the 6'3" McKenna, whom New Yorker writer Whitney Balliett described as "tall, secret, stooped,and big boned," with an "eagle-lined" face and "long arms ending in banana fingers," shot us a ray that said, "Don't dare!" And no one did. At a post-concert reception, however, he was downright gracious as he talked about the Red Sox prospects for the season and accepted yet another expression of gratitude from yours truly for the countless nights he enthralled me with his music. Alas, Dave lived another eight years, but sidelined with arthritis, Belchertown was close to the last concert he ever gave.

Earlier I posted a feature on Dave and Tony Bennett at the Copley Plaza in Boston. Here he is with Marshall Wood, who’s been Bennett’s bassist for a couple of decades, playing "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most."