The Beat Goes On: A Stage IV Cancer Diagnosis Won't Stop Ken McCray

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Jeff Gallo and Ken McCray performing in Superjam. - Screenshot from Superjam promotional video.
Screenshot from Superjam promotional video.
Jeff Gallo and Ken McCray performing in Superjam.

Jeff Gallo and Ken McCray are sitting in a Starbucks in south city, sipping coffee as they reminisce about the bands in which they have played together over the years. Gallo wears a Faust Beer trucker hat and a white shirt that doesn't quite cover the giant "Missouri Route 55 South" tattoo that stretches across his forearm. Across from him, McCray wears a light blue Superman T-shirt. He has bright blue eyes and cleanly cut blonde hair. He looks strong and healthy.

At a glance, you would have no idea that he's been battling cancer for the past three and a half years.

See also: Best Drummer St. Louis 2014 - Ken McCray

McCray has been on chemotherapy and other invasive treatments for practically the whole time that he has been playing with Gallo in Superjam, a well-regarded local cover band. Despite his illness, the drummer has only missed two shows. One of them was on the weekend that the surgeons cut out his colon cancer, leaving him under sedation. The other time, he had a blood clot in his leg that swelled up so much that he couldn't use his foot pedal. He still drove out to the show to give his fill-in some pointers.

"He was still there, scowling," remembers Gallo with a smile.

"That is one thing I'm actually kind of proud of," says McCray. "Even on my sickest days -- the days when I feel like I'm literally going to throw up in my lap -- I'm still playing the show. That's kind of selfish. I do it for myself. At the end of the night it's like, I did it. That's one for me. Fuck you cancer. I did it."

McCray grew up down the street from Benton Park and started playing drums professionally at age fourteen. With the exception of a four-year stint in the Navy, he has lived in St. Louis his entire life, and has been performing in bands around town for more than 25 years. In addition to Superjam, he is the drummer for Tilts, a local hard-rock band with two LPs and a national following. His chops are formidable -- in 2014, Riverfront Times even selected McCray as the best drummer in St. Louis.

"He's just one of the absolute best musicians at what he does, and everybody knows it," says Gallo, who plays bass in Superjam. "He's really in the upper echelon of musicians."

Superjam - Press photo via official website.
Press photo via official website.

Gallo first met McCray in 2008 when he auditioned to play bass in McCray's band, Shame Club. McCray had a different look back then -- about fifty pounds heavier than he is now, with a scruffy beard and long hair that he pulled back into a ponytail. Gallo says he was a little intimidated by McCray at first, but knew almost immediately that they were going to get along.

"When I went to audition for Shame Club, [guitarist] Andy White and I were sitting in the rehearsal space and Ken came in," Gallo remembers with a laugh. "Andy had his ashtray on Ken's kick drum and Ken says, 'Andy, are you fucking kidding me with the ashtray?' He totally went off on him. It was my first day and I was like, "This is going to work good,' because I'm used to that kind of shit. I'm used to bands arguing as soon as they walk in the door."

Gallo says that he only got the part in Shame Club because he had the coolest looking bass, but McCray reminds him that he nailed the audition.

In 2011, McCray started feeling a sharp pain in his abdomen when he ate or drank. He went to a doctor, who diagnosed him with diverticulitis and prescribed antibiotics. But the pain only got more severe; sometimes it was so bad that he would drop to the floor. He remembers playing a string of shows that year with Pay the Cobra, feeling so sick onstage that afterwards he would rush to the bathroom to throw up, or sit in front of a fan until the feeling passed.

On January 1, 2012, McCray joined Superjam, who by then had already earned a reputation as one of the strongest cover bands in town. Then, on January 12, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

If the doctors had run a colonoscopy when McCray first started complaining about the pain in his abdomen, they may have caught the cancer in its early stages. Unfortunately, the disease had already developed to stage IV and spread to his liver.

"I was so resentful of his doctors," Gallo says when McCray remembers receiving his diagnosis. "Like, why didn't they check that shit a year ago? Are you fucking kidding me?"

"There are times when I get a little bit upset by that," McCray adds, cutting Gallo off. "Sometimes I wonder, if they would have caught it a year earlier, would it have spread to my liver? If we caught it earlier, would I be in a different position right now? It was a little too easy to say, 'Its diverticulitis; take some antibiotics,' but whatever. That doesn't change what's happened. You have to deal with what you have."

The doctors started McCray on chemotherapy right away, and at first it seemed like it was working. His numbers were dropping, and the cancer went into remission. That summer, surgeons believed they had successfully removed the last of the colon cancer.

Still, the treatment was expensive, and not all of it was covered by McCray's health insurance. In that first year of treatment, Gallo suggested that Superjam play a benefit concert, but McCray said no.

"There are people who really need a benefit," McCray says of his initial hesitancy. "Up until recently, I didn't really feel like I needed one as much as someone else could need it. I just felt weird. It's hard taking money."

But then the cancer started to resist treatment, spreading to his lungs. His doctors were forced to shift their approach. Instead of trying to eradicate the disease, they would try to contain it.

McCray was devastated, but he didn't let the cancer keep him from playing music. In addition to continuing to perform with Superjam, in 2013, McCray and his bandmates from local rock quartet Tilts went into the studio to record their second album, Cuatro Hombres. The band only had a small window of time, and the days happened to line up with a particularly grueling week of chemotherapy, but McCray didn't miss a beat.

Tilts - Press photo by Bryan Sutter.
Press photo by Bryan Sutter.

"The record turned out great, but when I listen to it, all I can remember really is how I was feeling when we recorded the songs," says McCray. "On some of them my hands hurt so bad I could barely hold the sticks. I'm glad that people can hear the goodness out of it, but it was incredibly painful to record."

See also: Tilts' Spectacular Quatro Hombres LP: Review and Stream

It wasn't until a month ago, after he had to go to court because he couldn't pay a medical bill, that McCray finally gave in and agreed to let Gallo throw a benefit for him. Gallo has never organized an event like this before, but he says that planning has been easy because of how eager McCray's friends and family are to help.

"It just came together so effortlessly. If it came together so effortlessly, it must have been meant to be," Gallo says. "It really did lay itself out really quickly. Everybody wanted to help."

McCray still has some mixed feelings about accepting donations, but he has been touched by the overwhelming support that he has received from friends, family, and fans. He says that he is looking forward to the benefit, not because of the money, but because he will get to spend a full day giving waist hugs to his friends and loved ones.

"For us, coming from the cover band world, when we play a gig, we want a packed house," McCray says. "We want a lot of people there. Forget that it's a benefit, forget the auctions -- we just want a lot of people to show up to our gig. For me, its not about the money, it's about having my friends that I've never met and my friends that I've known my entire life all in one place."

"It's a fact that he's a badass," Rallo adds, "and people know it, so they're going to show up for him."

For more details on the show, visit event's Facebook page. The party will start at 2 p.m. and run into the night, with sets from Joe Dirt, Trixie Delight, and Jimmy Griffin, before Superjam closes out the bill. There will be a silent auction and raffles. All of the proceeds from the event will benefit McCray.

If you cannot attend but would like to donate, you can do so through McCray's crowd-funding project.

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