'He was larger than life': Friends, family fondly remember life-long rock and roller Ronnie King of the Stampeders

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The first time Kim Berly saw his future bandmate Ronnie King was on a low-budget Calgary TV show in the early 1960s. King was garishly dressed in a fluorescent jacket and playing guitar, already looking like the rock star he would eventually become. It was a colourful first impression.

This was a few years before the teenagers would meet in person and form what would become The Stampeders. Berly figures he was in his mid-teens when he first saw King – who was likely going by his birth name Cornelis van Sprang – on TV playing in an act called the Paint Brushes. It was on the local cable show, which was hosted by Mel Shaw. Shaw was an enterprising mover and shaker in the Calgary music scene who would eventually manage the Stampeders and lead them to great success. At the time, though, he had taken over management of the Paint Brushes. Part of the makeover included outfitting them in getups that may have passed as groovy back in the early 1960s.

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“He got them these florescent yellow and orange jackets … very striking,” says Berly. “He had some big straw hats left over from one of his previous bands. He was the guy who would manage the band and he ran the Saturday afternoon TV show, The Guys and Dolls dance show, which was an American Bandstand kind of thing. There would always be a house band.”

“(Ronnie) was a good-looking guy. He had a funky tooth because somebody had knocked out his front tooth, so he had an ill-fitted plate. But he was good-looking and full of energy and had that big smile.”

It was his first glimpse of King, who would eventually join Berly and others in a rock band called the Rebounds in the mid-1960s. The then six-piece act, which at that point included King’s brother Van Louis, changed their name to The Stampeders and made a hasty escape to Toronto in 1966. It was the beginning of Berly’s 59-year friendship with his bandmate that lasted until the end of King’s life earlier this month. He died of cancer on March 4 at Peter Lougheed Hospital at the age of 76.

By all accounts, King enthusiastically embraced the life of a rock and roller. The Stampeders enjoyed the highs and lows of the music industry. They hit it big in 1971 as a three-piece act that also featured singer-guitarist Rich Dodson. Dodson’s song Sweet City Woman put them on the charts in Canada and the U.S. before internal tensions and a changing musical landscape led to a breakup in 1979. They reunited in 1992.

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Born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1947, King was the middle child of five. His family moved to Calgary in 1955, which is where King would return after the Stampeders first broke up in 1980. Youngest sister Joanne Potocki was 12 years younger than King and only six when the band moved to Toronto. She remembers Ronnie and older brother Emile, who later became Van Louis (the van Sprang brothers adopted monikers because they thought the family name was a bit of a mouthful), were always playing in bands.

But when Carry Me and Sweet City Woman became big hits in the early 1970s, she realized she had a bonafide rock star for a brother: A Calgary boy made good.

“I brought the album, Against the Grain, to my Grade 6 classroom for show-and-tell,” she says. “We had one of those little square record players and the teacher let us play The Stampeders all afternoon. (Ronnie) made me the coolest person of all. Anywhere we would go, the Stampeders would come on and people would say ‘Really? The Stampeders? That’s your brother?’ It was always fun. When I was in Grade 7 and Grade 8, it was all about who got to come to the concerts when they came to town to play at the Jubilee Auditorium. I would be traipsing in with 10 girlfriends in tow and taking them all backstage. Everybody was just so awestruck. It was cool to be able to do that my whole entire life.”

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Stories about how heavily King indulged in the more hedonistic side of the rock ‘n’ roll dream vary depending on who is telling the tale. But everyone agrees it was King – once dubbed “the Keith Richards of the Stampeders” – who was the life of the party. He was the clown of the band, always cracking jokes and refusing to take himself too seriously. Even in those gruelling pre-fame years working the Ontario bar circuit, King was determined to enjoy himself.

“That’s when Ronnie became Ronnie,” says Berly, who is working on a book about the history of the Stampeders. “He was playing six nights a week in Ontario bars and he was having the time of his life. Ronnie would be broke by Wednesday and needed an advance.”

In those early years, the Stampeders were a six-piece. But by 1968, three of the members – including King’s brother Van Louis – left one by one after suffering burnout due to the rigours of the bar circuit. It was in a club in Hamilton, Ont., when Van Louis sat down with his younger brother, Berly and Dodson to tell them what he had assumed would be heartbreaking news: He was leaving the band. King’s response was typical.

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“There was this moment of silence and then Ronnie just dropped this long, mournful fart and then we all broke into laughter, including Van,” Berly says. “That was the note he left on.”

The Stampeders.
The Stampeders – Rich Dodson (left), Kim Berly and Ronnie King – brought their string of 1970s hits and more to Festival Hall in Pembroke. Photo by Submitted /Submitted

It was as a three-piece that the Stampeders eventually found success, thanks in large part to Dodson’s Sweet City Woman. It became a hit on both sides of the border in 1971. For a few heady years in the 1970s, The Stampeders enjoyed a rock-star life. In 1974, they helped Keith Moon celebrate his birthday in Los Angeles alongside Rod Stewart, Robert Redford and Ronnie Lane. They opened shows for the Beach Boys and The Eagles. In 1972, the Stampeders donned frilly shirts and large bowties to attend the Junos in Toronto. They would end up winning best group, best single for Sweet City Woman and best songwriter for Dodson. King loved to tell stories about that time in his life, says his ex-wife Cindy van Sprang, who knew him since the mid-1980s and married him in 1996. The marriage ended in 2003, but Cindy remained a close friend until his death. She says King has also written a memoir about his life that is currently in the editing stages. It will no doubt contain a number of wild tales, including the time when King and members of the J. Geils Band filled a hotel fountain with laundry soap in hopes of having it overflow with bubbles or the time he climbed four floors up the outside of a hotel so he could surprise his bandmates by entering through the balcony door.

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“In his youth, his was silly to the point of being reckless,” Cindy says.

But all good things must end and the Stampeders eventually dissolved in the late 1970s. The trio always operated as a democracy, with all three members writing and usually singing their own songs. King’s contributions included everything from the autobiographical Playin’ In the Band to the topical Then Came the White Man. In 1976, King wanted the band to evolve and added new members. This didn’t sit well with Dodson, who eventually quit. Berly quit shortly afterwards, not because of any real strife with King but because he wanted to step out from behind the drum kit and lead his own band, The Cry. By 1980, King was back in Calgary and began the second phase of his career. The Ronnie King Band were mainstays on the Calgary bar scene, including a stint where they played at least four nights a week at Dickens pub.

“When big stars came into town to make movies or play Stage West, they would always come to Dickens as word-of-mouth spread (of) that being the hotspot,” says Cindy, who also produced a local television show with King during that time that would feature guest appearances by notable Calgary musicians such as Three Dog Night’s Floyd Sneed and Crowbar’s Kelly Jay. “(The Supremes) Mary Wilson got up on stage to sing R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Blue Rodeo came by shortly after Try began a big hit.”

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In 1992, the Toronto-based Dini Petty Show did a “Where-are-they-now?” episode about the Stampeders that was to feature Berly, Dodson and manager Mel Shaw. Producers surprised the three by having King join them, which kickstarted what would become the lengthy third and final stage of the Stampeders career. They reunited and continued to tour for decades.

The Stampeders.
Stampeders and Anne Murray. cal

A father of four, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of five, King was only 16 when he had his first daughter, Debi. By the age of 33, he was a grandfather. When the Stampeders reunited, King and Cindy moved to Toronto but returned to Calgary in 1999, two years after the birth of their daughter Zoe. Cindy says King always regretted that his commitment to the band meant he was often not around when his first three children were growing up. With Zoe, who is also a singer, he became a doting, stay-at-home dad.

I remember him showing me the coolest picture of him and Elton John, as well as pictures of him with Anne Murray at the Junos in ’72,” says Zoe. “He also wrote a song for my elementary school and was able to perform it for me and my classmates when I was attending the school in the early 2000s. He was an incredible influence in my life and was always so encouraging and supportive of me. I’m so grateful that he introduced and involved me in so much of his creativity. It absolutely inspired me to create my own art and music as I grew up.”

King had looked forward to joining Berly and Dodson for a batch of Ontario shows in April. Due to health issues, it was meant to be King’s “final bow” as a Stampeder. Berly and Dodson plan to join bassist Dave Chabot for the tour, which will now be held as a celebration of King’s life.

The show must go on … Ronnie would have insisted, says Dodson.

“I lost a great friend. We were like brothers,” Dodson said in an email to Postmedia. “All my best Stampeder stories are Ronnie King stories. Yes, he was larger than life.”

Ronnie King
The Stampeders’ Ronnie King shown during the 2015 Edmonton Rock Music Festival in Edmonton in 2015. Ian Kucerak/Edmonton Sun/Postmedia Network Photo by Ian Kucerak /Ian Kucerak/Edmonton Sun

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