Tony Hillier

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Issue #20 November 2012: KEN’S THE REAL McCOY


Musicians are invariably the first to rally around the flag for a just cause or when someone requires assistance. That especially applies when a member of their own profession is facing their hour of need.

On hearing about Tablelands’ musician Ken McKay’s struggle with lung cancer and ensuing financial difficulties, the local music community’s reaction has been swift and unequivocal.

As a result, Entertainment Cairns proprietor Ray Elias’s proposal to stage a benefit concert in aid of Ken’s battle has elicited a bill that will bring together at Atherton’s Barron Valley Hotel on Thursday, November 22nd (7pm-late) a selection of the region’s finest players.

The objective of this stellar cast is not only to raise much-needed funds for a revered colleague, but also to pay tribute to a distinguished career that has touched many lives and inspired a raft of singer-songwriters.

Your correspondent is among that number. When I settled here in the Far North back in the mid-‘80s, Ken’s occasional visits to the Cairns Folk Club from his home on the Walsh River were looked forward to with great anticipation. I can recall with some clarity the excitement generated when he introduced a great new number at a songwriting festival the club staged at St Monica’s Hall in Lake St. Even in a high-calibre field that included entries from the likes of Iain McLennan, who was taking a sabbatical from Mondo Rock, and Max Sharam, who went on to hit the national charts a few years later with ‘Coma’, Ken’s song, ‘Bartalumba Bay’, stood out. That and other outstanding country and reggae orientated compositions such as ‘Gloria’, a moving tribute to a beloved sister, later featured on Ken’s outstanding 1995 CD, The Real McCoy.

Ken McKayChris Young, daughter Lisa Young and Ken McKay

Some younger readers might be surprised to hear that Ken McKay was no stranger to chart success himself. Back in 1973 when there was no national chart per se, and Ken was in a duo with Ian Stuart, a band-mate in Ross Ryan’s backing group, he enjoyed a smash hit in Queensland and Western Australia with a song he wrote called ‘Hey Billy’. A serious social commentary prompted by a photo Ken had spotted in Time magazine, ‘Hey Billy’ also charted in South Australia and Tasmania. Later, ‘This is Home’ — another song taken from the same Stuart & McKay record on the Atlantic label LP, Playin’ Up — charted in the same states.

By a strange quirk of fate while Ken was nudging the big time around the country, a musician brother that he didn’t even know existed was tasting success as understudy for the title role in the hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Connecting with his sibling, Chris Young, has brought great joy to Ken.

With Young among those participating at the benefit concert at Atherton, it is worth recounting the extraordinary story of how they came to find each other. The catalyst was well known bass player, Phil Rigg. Bumping into Chris at a pub gig in Brisbane, the bass player was struck by the pianist’s resemblance to Ken, one of his FNQ colleagues. He opined: “I think you must have a brother up in Cairns — you should get in touch with him.”

Young, who had been adopted as a baby, was aware that he had a sibling but had no inkling who he was, where he lived or what he did. Ken McKay, on the other hand, had no idea that he even had a brother.

The first thing Ken knew about this familial matter was when he received a message from a Cairns-based musician whom Young had contacted after meeting Rigg, to the effect: “I’ve just been on the phone to your brother and he wants you to call him’.” While McKay was insistent that he didn’t have a brother, curiosity eventually got the better of him, so he phoned the Brisbane number.

Both Chris and Ken recall their opening conversation as though it happened yesterday. Ken says Chris told him that he had been adopted and that his natural parents were McKays. Chris remembers that they got on like a house on fire: “I felt very relaxed and comfortable talking to him. In the end Ken said: ‘Well, look even if it turns out that we’re not brothers, at least we’re brothers in music.’”

The upshot of the phone call was that they decided to exchange photographs. “When we got them we were both blown away,” says Ken, adding “we didn’t look exactly alike, but there was a definite aura.” Chris was more emphatic: “I can remember going down to the letter box and seeing these photos and saying to myself: ‘I don’t remember being there’. Then it suddenly hit me: ‘This isn’t me!’”

By now they were both convinced they were indeed brothers, but decided they had to make it official, so Chris contacted the Department of Family Services in Sydney. “They rang me three weeks later and said: ‘Congratulations, you’ve found your blood brother.’”

The moment they came face-to-face is etched in their memories. “We stood and looked at each other for a solid minute I suppose,” says Chris. “In that time it was like the roots of who I am came up from the depths of his soul, through his eyes, into my eyes and filled me up from my feet to the top of my head. Then we just laughed ‘til our jaws were sore.”

It took a while for the brothers to get together musically, but eventually they cultivated family ties as a duo and also in a band with Ken’s drummer son Leo, aka Lenny. The band, known as Bridge, did a handful of gigs in FNQ in 2006, one in celebration of Ken’s 60th birthday. They have since written a musical based on their remarkable story called Blood Music, featuring 14 of their original songs and some written specifically for the show. The premiere performance in Atherton was rapturously received by a full house.

The musical also featured the aforementioned Leo/Lenny, a good songwriter in his own right who has inherited his father’s broad spectrum of musical taste. Lenny first played with his Dad in the ‘nineties band Fathers & Sons, with a friend and his offspring. At the tribute concert on the 22nd, he’ll be performing a selection of his father’s songs as a member of the Ken McKay Specials, an ad hoc band that will also contain his uncle, Chris Young, and such outstanding local musicians as guitarist Gary Dozier, pianist/accordionist Kirk Steel and singer Dennis Rose. Jane Modric, who performed with McKay in the band Cat’s Whiskers, will come out of retirement to perform one of Ken's songs, ‘Unexpected’.

Lenny McKay will also be leading his own band, Krittrz, at the Barron Valley Hotel. Carmel McKay, Lenny’s mother and Ken’s ex-wife, will be performing with her current partner, ex-Hot Ice member Ken Devine, in Klockwork. Other former members of Hot Ice will perform as the Hit Fanatics. Two of Cairns’ best-loved bands, Mangrove Jack and the Swinging Alley Catz, will also be doing sets on the night. The Jack’s long-time bass ace, Gary Ward, is coming up from Brisbane for the gig. Gary Steel is hoping to make it from Sydney. Brother Kirk Steel’s talents will also be on display in Los Trios, along with his partner Gail Betts. Sunbirds Belinda Butler and Shari Williams and singer-songwriter Jacynta-Lee will also be donating their services to what promises to be a truly memorable evening.

Here's a link to one of Ken's more recent songs: Christmas Time Up North. Ken wrote this song in 2005 at the Walsh River, where the land stays dry, "West of the Great Divide" until the wet season brings relief. He uses the phrase "The Reign of Charity" (not "rain") which is the play on words he enjoys using in some of his songs.

Tickets ($20) can be booked online at The link will also access donation details by bank transfer. All proceeds will go directly to Ken McKay. By purchasing a ticket to the concert or/and making a donation you’ll be saluting one of the region’s finest singer-songwriters and at the same time giving a great bloke a helping hand in his hour of need. Apart from suffering the side effects of the drugs and radiation treatment in his battle against lung cancer, Ken and his family are currently stretched to the limit financially.

A selection of Ken McKay's music will be aired during Tony Hillier's 'World of Music' segment on ABC Radio Far North on Wednesday November 21 (4:45 - 5:00pm).

Tony Hillier