Ron McClain probably looked like he was on the losing end of a wrestling match when he started playing the stand-up bass in seventh grade, but he never really thought about it that way. “It always just fascinated me, and I sing bass,” the 63-year-old Des Moines native says.
He did the school band thing all the way through high school, but his love of music was truly inspirational. “I started traveling with a spiritual music organization called True Friends,” he says. His voice was just as instrumental as his bass playing. Switching to an electric bass, McClain spent a handful of years in the late 1950s traveling throughout Iowa performing with the six-piece, Gospel-oriented group. True Friends eventually disbanded, as many of the members were quite a bit older and were forced to call it quits.
For a brief while, he hooked up with Jimmy Pryor and a few others to create the Soul Gospel group, The Mighty Revelators.
Gravitating to reproducing some of the more popular sounds of the day, McClain became one of the founding members of The Soul Brothers. “We were together for about nine or 10 years back when Center Street was in its heyday,” he recalls. Despite its current appearances, the length of Center Street that runs just north of downtown was quite a hot spot. “We did house gigs for The Collins Club, 790 and a place called the San Francisco Lounge, and a lot of private parties, too,” he says. “The highlight was the opportunity I got to play with The Whispers [known for their hits “And The Beat Goes On” and “Rock Steady”]. “Their bass player had been drafted and they needed a fill-in, and I eventually went to Omaha and Denver to play with them, but then I had to come home and work.”
Taking a chance, McClain headed west in 1968. His destination: Costa Mesa, California. Although he found a few gigs, he kept working for his daily bread until he developed a chronic case of homesickness. “I came back in 1971,” he says. “I didn’t care for California. I love Des Moines. It’s laid back here. When I got back, I started looking at other things for a career. I took a few short courses at Drake and met a professor who helped me discover that my strong points were in conflict and resolution.”
For the past 30 years, McClain has been working for the local chapter of the Teamsters Union, an organization over which he now presides. “I became the first minority to hold an executive position on the board here in Iowa.” With a job like that, there isn’t much time left for anything else. “Music was more of a hobby for me,” he says. “One that I loved.” Despite the fact that he hasn’t touched a bass in nearly three decades – in fact, he doesn’t even own one – McClain has managed to keep up his deep seductive croon, which will come in handy when sitting in with his friends.
Concerning his induction to the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame: “I’m greatly honored,” he says. “It’s kind of ironic though. Back in the day, this town used to have all the top entertainers coming through on Center Street. It was kind of forgotten because a lot of that history wasn’t taken down.”
– Sarah Hankel
As published in the Des Moines CityView · 1/16/2002
www.dmcityview.com – reprinted with permission
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