Letter from the Editor

Monday, July 17, 2006

His Forte: smiles

One of the "keeper" pictures on my desktop is a shot of Ron Brown playing the bass guitar at the Iowa Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction concert a couple of summers ago.

If there is such a thing as a look of bliss, he has it on.

The music may live forever, as they say, but musicians do not.

In the photo, he strikes the classic bass player pose, knee cocked forward at a devil-may-care angle, ax slung low on a bony hip, lips pursed in sheer "feel" for the song, and chin no doubt nodding along the beat. It still makes me smile. The fact that he at that stage was a middle ager with the long locks long since history, glasses to see the strings, and wearing the Dad's official uniform of Hawaiian shirt and dress khaki shorts, matters not a bit.

When word came to us this week that he had passed away after a massive stroke, I broke out that picture, and cranked up Credence's "Green River." Gonna miss this guy.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who didn't like Ron Brown, who managed the Pilot's advertising department for a few years, and led the local Elks Club. And, as I recall, you would be just as hard pressed to find anybody he didn't like.

"So-and-so? Oh yeah, he's just a hell of a nice guy..."

He was about as laid back as a person could get and not be asleep. He had a way of capturing the humor in life that you couldn't help but grin at. A gentle guy who asked you how you are and really wanted to know. Nobody stayed a stranger to him for long. He loved and lived for his family, his weekends boating at the lakes, and I think he had just about found what he had looked for in life. We were shocked and saddened by the news.

I had worked with Ron for a couple of years before I ever knew he was a rock star. One day I read the list of names proposed for the music Hall of Fame up at Okoboji and grabbed the phone.

"Hey! Are you THAT Ron Brown?"

"Well, I was..." he laughed.

In 1966, as a lanky teenager from Omaha with, yes, lots of hair, Ron helped form up The Fortes' - one of the best groups to come out of the midwest in that era. The band played on until 1978, rolling with the musical punches, Ron even adapting to playing the sax for a spell. The Hall of Fame records that they "were a dynamic band, featuring four lead singers... their vocal compliment was uncompromised in their harmony and blend. They possessed an amount of talent and versatility unmatched by many groups of that time."

In fact, they were good enough to share the stage with The Beach Boys, 3 Dog Night, Tommy James and the Shondells, Sonny & Cher, The Rip Chords and other stars. They were among the most popular draws at the best halls in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois, including the Cobblestone in Storm Lake and The Roof Garden in Okoboji.

When Ron got the news about the induction, he said, he jumped on the phone and was surprised to find how enthusiastic his fellow Fortes' were. They not only came back for the ceremony, but 26 years after hanging up their instruments, and 18 years since they'd all seen each other, they decided to play a live set for the crowd.

And they tore the place down. So good that offers started to come in to play gigs again. Life plays those funny full circles on you now and then.

I'm sorry to say that I never heard Ron play. As we always do, I assumed there would always be another show, one more chance.

And now, like his friend and bandmate Al Smith, who passed away young from a heart condition many years ago, the music has faded to memories.

But good memories they are, of a soft-spoken family man from Storm Lake and later Okoboji, with a quick smile and a kind word for anyone and everyone.

And if there is that rock 'n' roll heaven that they talk about, I hope they don't mind flowered shirts and pleated shorts, because Ron Brown still rocks.