Scottish drummer best known for The Sensational Alex Harvey Band

Born: March 10, 1950;

Died: January 19, 2019

TED McKenna, who has died aged 68, was a Scottish drummer and later college lecturer whose time with an extensive repertoire of classic groups earned him a position amid the great rock drummers of the late 20th century, even as the personal testimony of many who have commented since his death paints a picture of a warm and down to earth individual. Among the many acts he played with, the one which made his reputation and has undoubtedly maintained it most over the years is The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

In 1972 McKenna was the drummer for a Glasgow-based prog rock group named Tear Gas, who had released a self-titled debut album the previous year, when the band hooked up with well-known local singer Alex Harvey. Then in his late thirties, Harvey had already made a name for himself as the energetic and charismatic lead singer of his own skiffle and later blues and rock ‘n’ roll groups, among other projects, but it was in conjunction with Tear Gas that his wider legend was sealed.

The group – which also included McKenna’s cousin Hugh on keyboards, as well as guitarist Zal Cleminson and bassist Chris Glen – became Harvey’s backing group-of-sorts, his Sensational Band, and together they pioneered a sound which was richly rooted in the styles of the time, while offering an edge which was uniquely theirs. With Cleminson’s face daubed in white makeup reminiscent of Batman’s nemesis the Joker, and the perennially nautical-shirted Harvey’s unique style as a singer blending the baroque, good-time impudence of a circus ringmaster with a hint of Gorbals menace, the quintet co-opted elements of prog, glam and classic rock.

McKenna’s crashing, powerful drum fills were a key element of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s two big hits, their woozy cover of Tom Jones's Delilah (1975) and the insurrectionary Boston Tea Party (1976). Together they released eight albums between 1972 and 1978 (although 1977’s Fourplay was oddly billed as "SAHB (without Alex)", as Harvey had briefly left the group). They then split, and Harvey died tragically young of heart failure in 1982.

Together with Cleminson and Glen, McKenna reformed briefly as the Party Boys in 1992 with a succession of guest singers, before recruiting Neil McKenna and more replacement singers in 1993 and then during the 2000s for further gigs as SAHB. These reformations resulted in two new live albums, before the band split for good in 2008. Today they are regarded in British rock lore as an enduringly unique if overtly cultish success story of their era, although in Scotland they are widely acknowledged as one of the greatest groups the country has produced.

In 1976, prior to The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s split, McKenna began drumming with Irish blues guitarist and songwriter Rory Gallagher, and was part of Gallagher’s core three-piece band for his albums Photo-Finish (1978), Top Priority (1979) and the live record Stage Struck (1980). He left Gallagher’s group in 1981, and further gigs as a session player included the albums Greg Lake (1981) and Manoeuvres (1983) with King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Greg Lake, both of which involved a great deal of input from the guitarist Gary Moore.

From the 1980s onwards, McKenna’s recorded career happened outwith the bright spotlight once afforded him by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, although the list of names he has worked is impressive. In 1975 he played on fellow Scot and Nazareth singer Dan McCafferty’s self-titled solo album; in the early 1980s he joined his old SAHB comrade Glen as the rhythm section of the Michael Schenker Group alongside the former Scorpions and UFO guitarist, playing hard rock on 1982’s Assault Attack and 1983’s Built to Destroy (in recent years, McKenna, Glen and Schenker had been touring again as Michael Schenker Fest); in 1990 he drummed on sometime Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan’s solo album Naked Thunder; and he also played with John Martyn and as the touring drummer for the soul group Womack & Womack.

Born in Lennoxtown in 1950 and raised in Coatbridge, where he went to St Patrick’s High School, Edward ‘Ted’ McKenna was taught music by the Glasgow big band player Lester Penman. He cited his earliest influence as a drummer as the syncopated sound of Fred Astaire’s dancing feet, as well as Sandy Nelson, the Shadows’ Tony Meehan and Brian Bennett, and the Hollies’ Bobby Elliot. From 1996 to 2011 he taught Applied Arts and Music Performance & Promotion, having gained his teaching qualifications at Dundee University.

"When you told people you drummed in The Sensational Alex Harvey Band that made them sit up and take notice,” he said in interview in 2008, offering as musical advice, "one of the most important things for anyone starting out is to learn how to play with other musicians. You should also listen to as many kinds of music as possible because you've got to be versatile.”

Following McKenna’s death while undergoing hernia surgery, the singer Fish said of him:“He was a beautiful man who could drift from the comic to the serious, abound with stories and anecdotes… with never a bad word to say about anyone.”