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Ronnie King, co-founder of the Stampeders.Supplied

In 1973, at the height of his fame as the bassist of the tight-harmony Canadian rock trio the Stampeders, Ronnie King already envisioned his future outside the music industry. “I’d like to get a television show of my own,” he told The Globe and Mail, adding that he was a comedian at heart. “Basically, I’m just naturally geared to try and make jokes out of everything.”

At that time, with the country’s music industry in its infancy, anticipating the long-term success of any rock band was a mug’s game. There was no shame in a backup plan, and with the Stampeders’ own humble origins in mind, Mr. King had no real reason to count on anything.

The Calgary bandmates had left their hometown in 1966 to make a go of it in Toronto. Back then they were a six-piece, arriving in the big city packed into a broken, belching limousine with a U-Haul trailer behind. On stage, they wore bright-yellow denim outfits with black cowboy hats and boots. In a Toronto music scene busy converting to flower power and coffee-house hippie-folk, the Albertans were a puzzling, visually dated curiosity.

“They were eye-catchingly square,” veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc recalled.

By the spring of 1971, the group had dropped half its members and its fish-out-of-water wardrobe. The resulting signature Stampeders trio of Mr. King, singer-guitarist Rich Dodson and drummer Kim Berly opened up for Anne Murray’s debut shows at Toronto’s Massey Hall. On the Stampeders’ set list was an unreleased song with a strummed banjo likeability, a hummable melody, and lyrics about city lights and an urban lady.

“I knew it was going to be a hit,” said Mr. LeBlanc, in the audience that night. “Using a banjo on a pop record was unheard of.”

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Ronnie King holds 'most promising group' award from 16 Magazine in 1971.Supplied

The song was Sweet City Woman, written and sang by Mr. Dodson. It reached No. 8 on the U.S. Billboard pop chart on Oct. 23, 1971, slotted between Donny Osmond’s Go Away Little Girl and Isaac Hayes’s Theme From Shaft. It changed the band’s fortunes almost immediately and made them a household name in Canada.

The change in status came so quickly that the Stampeders were still playing high-school gigs in Ontario when Sweet City Woman broke in the United States. Driving home one night on a deserted highway, the band listened to its song on the fading signal of WABC in New York.

“We heard their jingle, and the announcer came on, saying, ‘Hey, brand-new band from Canada right here,’” Mr. King remembered in Dave Bidini’s book On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventures in Canadian Rock. “We stopped the car, ran around like idiots, and jumped on the hood, yelling, ‘Ahhh! We’re top 20 in New York!’ ”

Mr. King, a born entertainer on and off the stage who enthusiastically embraced the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, had cancer and died of pneumonia on March 4, at Peter Lougheed Hospital in Calgary. He was 76.

“He was a fun-loving guy,” Mr. Berly said. In concert, Mr. King was a showman and an aggressive, dynamic bass player, according to his rhythm section partner. “A rock trio has to be loud, and Ronnie led the way in that department.”

He wrote and sang some of the Stampeders’ domestic hits, including Me and My Stone, Sweet Love Bandit and the autobiographical Playin’ in the Band, with the line, “I could have been a gambler.” In fact, he was a devoted card player.

The Stampeders broke apart in the late 1970s, but reunited after CTV television-show host Dini Petty finagled a surprise on-air reunion of the trio in 1991. A Stampeders tour this spring was to be Mr. King’s final bow. The concerts will go ahead as scheduled, but as a tribute to the bassist.

On the strength of Sweet City Woman, the Stampeders won the Juno Award for Vocal Instrumental Group of the Year in 1972, presented at Toronto’s Inn on the Park. Though the band members were staying in that hotel, they jumped in a limo for the half-minute ride around the building in order to arrive in style at the ballroom’s side entrance.

Literally and figuratively, the Stampeders had arrived.

A wild, packed gig around that time at Toronto’s Ontario Place ended with the three musicians being swarmed. Singer-songwriter Ian Thomas, who would later have a career-making hit himself with Painted Ladies, produced the concert for CBC Radio. At the end of the concert he covered the Stampeders with a blanket in the back of his car and spirited them away. “It was fascinating to see,” Mr. Thomas said.

The band went to Los Angeles for a performance at the legendary Whisky a Go Go and appearances on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Dating Game. On the latter show, Mr. King didn’t win the date – Mr. Dodson was the Stampeder chosen by the comely contestant – but that wasn’t the norm.

A few years earlier, when the group first became a trio, Mr. King had been reluctant to switch from guitar to bass because he assumed guitarists got all the girls. “Eventually, though, I proved them all wrong,” he would say later. “You could still get chicks if you played bass.”

Although Mr. King presented publicly as a cutup, he suffered personal tragedies and professional disappointments. Two of his four children predeceased him. Because of touring and band commitments, he was not around his three children with his first wife as much as he would have liked in their formative years.

“Being a musician on the road, there would have been layers of guilt, and when he let his guard down you could see it,” Mr. Thomas said. “When he spoke of those kids, you could tell he had his heart on his shirt sleeves.”

According to Mr. Thomas, Mr. King’s comicality was his “salvation.” Mr. Berly agreed: “I think if he didn’t have his sense of humour, he would have been dead 20 years ago.”

As for some day being a TV entertainer, the plan came true when he and second wife, Cindy Van Sprang, produced a local television show in Calgary in the late 1980s. Guests included Crowbar frontman Kelly Jay and Calgary-born Three Dog Night drummer Floyd Sneed.

In 2004, the Stampeders were inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame at a Calgary ceremony. Mr. King called the hometown tribute the acknowledgment of a dream. “We wanted to be the Beatles,” he said. “For a while we had some Stampedermania.”

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Mr. King was a showman and an aggressive, dynamic bass player.Supplied

He was born Cornelis Van Sprang on Aug. 1, 1947, in Rotterdam, Netherlands. At seven years old, in the summer of 1955, he immigrated to Canada with his family. They sailed on the Groote Beer (The Big Bear) from Rotterdam to Halifax Harbour. He later recalled the seasickness involved with the seven-day trek across the Atlantic.

In Halifax, the family boarded a train to settle in Calgary. His mother, Hendrika Van Sprang (née Oliemuller), ran the household. His father, Emile Van Sprang, was a well-known barber for years. The walls of Emile’s Barber Shop were later adorned with photographs of his son and the Stampeders.

That would be the band, the Stampeders, not the Canadian Football League team. Mr. King did excel at the pigskin sport while attending Bowness High School, however. “The coach said he was very good and some day he could even play for the Calgary Stampeders,” said his sister, Johanna Potocki.

Off the field, he slicked back his hair and wore a leather jacket, Marlon Brando style. “He was the coolest dude ever,” Ms. Potocki attested.

The Stampeders’ beginnings reach back to 1964 with a Calgary band called the Rebounds. Later, a version of the Stampeders included Mr. King’s older brother Emile, who used the moniker Van Louis. The brothers felt their birth names were a bit of a mouthful for professional use. “They both wanted names that were strong and powerful and had some punch,” their sister said. Canadian record-industry pioneer Mel Shaw, who managed and produced the band’s records, took the Stampeders to Toronto.

The transplanted band’s first gig, in 1966, was in North Bay, Ont. Because the musicians were told it was a resort town, they had visions of women feeding the group with grapes at the pool. They were let down when the club turned out to be the Blue Spruce, a scrappy place well outside the “resort town” of North Bay. Fights broke out in the audience during that show and the next one too, at a dockside venue in Sault Ste. Marie where sailors duked it out.

“After a while,” Mr. King recounted in the book On a Cold Road, “two or three guys in the band went nuts.”

It was as a stripped-down three piece that the Stampeders had their first radio hit single, Carry Me, early in 1971. This was followed by Sweet City Woman and the release of their debut album Against the Grain. In all, the group had seven top 10 hits in Canada, including a cover of Ray Charles’s Hit the Road Jack, featuring Wolfman Jack.

By the time the band released the 1979 album Ballsy, Mr. King was the sole remaining original Stampeder. A number of reasons led to the band falling apart. “It was youthful egos, mostly,” Mr. Berly said. “We all wrote songs and we all were singers. The band was a democracy, and a democracy is a real tough thing to keep.”

The reunited trio’s first proper performance was at the Calgary Stampede in 1992. They released their final studio album of new material, Sure Beats Working, in 1998. The Stampeders continue to tour across the country at festivals and in small theatres to this day.

Mr. King leaves his daughters Teresa Butcher and Zoe Van Sprang; brother Emile Van Sprang; sister, Johanna Potocki; and ex-wife Cindy Van Sprang. His children Debi and Kevin Van Sprang predeceased him.

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