William McKinney is among the elite artists in black classical music to have an ensemble of immense historic importance named after him. Never mind that the image associated with McKinney's Cotton Pickers is not one that anyone is very happy about, the surname McKinney itself no doubt mingling down from some plantation owner. While this is the name forever linked with the cotton-picking band, much of the credit for quality music in the outfit's set list goes to Don Redman and Benny Carter, both acknowledged geniuses of the jazz arranging discipline. McKinney had the good sense to hire them, however, having stepped over from a combination of drummer and bandleader to management duties. He only stayed in the music business for a couple of decades, most of which was spent running bands, not playing in them.
McKinney was born in Kentucky near the end of the 19th century and served in the Army during the first World War. His earliest playing activities were as a circus drummer. Once he quit moving around to the extent that job called for, McKinney became associated with the music scene in Ohio, leading Springfield's snazzy-sounding Synco Septet. Perhaps wary of alliteration, the group changed its name to the Synco Jazz Band. This was the group that eventually evolved into McKinney's Cotton Pickers, undertaking tours that went way beyond the perimeters of typical territory bands. This band's territory was the entire United States; thus, there were periods when the group was based out of California, Kansas City, Minneapolis and so on.
Cuba Austin, a drummer and not an addition to the prior list of locales, took over McKinney's rhythmic assignment long before the sinking of "Synco" in the combo's name. In the early '30s there were several different bands touring as McKinney's Cotton Pickers--far from approving of such chaos regarding his franchise, McKinney was actually apparently chilling out during this period. In early 1935 he presented his own, supposedly legitimate version of the group at a Boston venue. Until he retired from music in the '40s he fluctuated between business managing and full-out management leadership of bands operating under his name. McKinney also ran the Cosy Cafe venue in Detroit in the late '30s. His final decade as a working man was spent in a Detroit auto factory.