From a young age, Meredith “Mick” McClain relished the spotlight.
When an elementary school teacher announced plans for a talent show, McClain volunteered before he even knew what talent he would show off. Thinking on his feet, he scrawled the word “yo-yo” on the sign-up sheet, said Laura Kennedy-Bell, his sister.
“He always wanted to be up in front of people performing,” Kennedy-Bell said. “He said, ‘I want to impress the girls.’ ”
He went on to wow audiences as a career musician, playing piano at Minneapolis supper clubs, Catskill resorts and with well-known national acts.
McClain, 78, died in New York on Oct. 20 after having several strokes in recent years.
McClain was born in 1939 and grew up in Minneapolis. He started taking piano lessons at age 12 at the urging of a neighbor, who received a $1 discount on her son’s lesson if she lined up two customers in one afternoon.
Smart and outgoing, he began appearing occasionally on Toby Prin’s Talent Show on WCCO, where he played piano and drew cartoons. Kennedy-Bell remembers him sketching a coconut that became a monkey when turned upside down.
At 19, McClain’s family moved to California, but he stayed behind to pursue his music. He played jazz in several Minneapolis clubs, including Freddie’s and the White House, before he was able to drink.
McClain married Mollie Nesheim in 1961, and they had two sons, Kevin and Brian. He was a kind and funny father, son Brian McClain recalls, but he discouraged his children from picking up an instrument.
“He deliberately kept the kids away from it,” Brian McClain said. “He didn’t think it was a good career path.”
Brian McClain remembers that his father “always dressed marvelously,” donning tuxedos because he was often on his way to a fancy club.
Mick McClain moved the family to New York in 1971. Turned off by New York City, he began playing and leading bands at various Catskill resorts. He picked up jokes from comedians visiting the resorts and retold them with glee, Kennedy-Bell said: “He had a joke for every occasion.”
Career highlights include playing twice with Jay and the Americans at Madison Square Garden and performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with drummer Buddy Rich and his orchestra in 1970.
He was offered a gig with Frankie Valli on his “Grease” tour but turned it down, Brian McClain said. He said his dad realized that touring was tough on families and marriages, and life on the road meant he couldn’t work out or eat right. Playing at resorts allowed him to remain close to his family and beloved wife, Mollie.
Mollie had a stroke fairly young, and Mick McClain became her nurse, turning down shows because of her health.
“Talk about a devoted husband,” Brian McClain said. “He took care of her for 25 years.”
Mick McClain spent most of his last two 20 years in Afton, New York. Mollie died about two years ago.
Just before he had a stroke that resulted in his placement in a nursing home, Mick McClain overheard a woman lamenting how warm her dog was in their house, which lacked air conditioning. He gave her $250 to buy an air conditioner. “He was a very, very honorable, moral person,” Brian McClain said.