Born and raised in Milwaukee, Samuel McClain grew up in a blended family. While money was short, his life was enriched with a great love for music and undying encouragement from his mother. Samuel started playing the piano when he was seven years old. His mother recognized his gift as he quickly picked up songs and played them by ear, so she bought him a keyboard. By the time he was 13 years old, Samuel was playing music professionally.
“I started out playing in St. Leo Catholic Church. My first music teacher was my grandmother, Evangelist Cleo Bost. She passed away in 2008. She’s a former Black Excellence honoree, so I’m grateful to follow in her footsteps as one of this year’s honorees,” he said.
Samuel said that after attending Pius XI, Mesmer and Custer High Schools, he eventually earned his GED from MATC. He also attended the Conservatory of Music for two years, but since he was self-taught and had been playing for so many years, to him the investment in time and money wasn’t sufficient enough to justify continuing.
“By the time I was in high school, I was making enough money to help my mother and stepfather with the bills. Guys that I went to school with were working at fast food restaurants, making minimum wage, but I was able to help sustain our large family. My mother, Tina Bost, had seven kids—six boys and one girl—and she was good at taking a little bit of nothing and turning it into a whole bunch of something. I was glad I could provide some financial relief. In addition to helping my family out, I just love making music, so it wasn’t like I was working,” he said.
Samuel has been an active, long-time member of Milwaukee’s music scene. Known for his versatility, energy, and stage presence, he has performed for numerous bands, including The Eddie Butts Band and The North Coast Orchestra. In addition to his busy performing schedule, he leads the popular rhythm and blues band, Keepin’ It Clean. The unique joy he brings to each performance makes him an especially memorable performer.
Samuel said there are many individuals who recognized and encouraged his talent, including his grandmother and especially his mother. He also credits individuals who were well known in Milwaukee’s music scene like Chris Tillman, Thomas Watley, Eddie Butts and Duchie Rodgers, with helping him.
“Chris (Tillman) is my godfather and a wellknown piano player who helped me a lot. There were many individuals that gave me their time and attention, but my mother was one of the most important people who encouraged me. She’s my backbone. She pushed me hard once she learned that I wanted to be a musician. She challenged me. She would give me a bunch of music and tell me to learn it; it started out with simple things, and rhythm and blues that my father had me listen to. Eventually my mother would give music by such greats as Beethoven, Mozart, Herbie Hancock; but her main lady was Chaka Khan. That’s all she played at home.
“Father Mike Bertram, of St. Francis of Assisi, also encouraged me, along with the All Saints Gospel Choir. Father Mike is a good man and he looked out for me. When I was an arrogant, 20-something, he really helped me see that my ministry is bigger than me,” he said.
The motivation, energy and determination to succeed behind Samuel’s professional success has a name—it’s Edith McClain—Samuel’s daughter.
“My mother has always been my rock, but Edith is the reason I work so hard. I became a father when I was 22 years old and there was no more time for hanging out. I had to buckle down and raise my daughter. My father left our family when I was four years old, and he was in and out of my life. I didn’t want to be like that. While I wanted to be a musician, I knew I couldn’t be on the road all the time, so I had to prioritize. God has blessed me to be able to pursue my love of music full time. I’ve been able to help my mother and provide for my daughter. She is my number one focus. If I wasn’t playing a gig, she was not eating, so I had to work. My siblings have been a great support team for me, but my mother and daughter are the reason I became the man that I am today. I’m happy and proud of the decisions I’ve made in life,” he said.
Samuel hasn’t forgotten those whose shoulders he stands on and spends great time and care helping young Black artists in Milwaukee.
“Being a musician isn’t easy, and it can be especially difficult for Black musicians. Sometimes, unfortunately, we don’t want to share our knowledge, and other times there are young artists that only want to play R&B. I talk to them and tell them to branch out with their musical genre; we (as Black musicians) have the gift to do so. There’s lots of talent coming out of Milwaukee and I try to keep it real with them. I tell the Black artists that if they want to make it, they have to give it 110 percent,” he said.
Young artists would do well to heed Samuel’s advice. He’s been able to earn a living as a musician for more than 30 years. He has faced and overcome every challenge he’s encountered, crediting his mother for his tenacity. He’s also gone outside his comfort zone to play all genres of music, including country & western.
“The only thing that can stop me from doing anything is me. I just learn to adapt. There’s a difference between being a legend and an entertainer. I want to be a legend; someone that is known for paving the way for others. Music is a hard business. I don’t want to be a selfish musician; if someone has potential and is willing to do the work, I want to help them. At the same time, I expect them to pay it forward by teaching the next generation,” he said.