McLean attended high school in the Chicago area, where he served as student body president and performed in the school’s production of The Music Man. He is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and was the only Latter-day Saint in his graduating class.
McLean served an LDS mission in South Africa. After returning from his mission he formed a band. They went around at the bottom of the club circuit, but never made a break. While a student at Brigham Young University (BYU) he took a music theory class in which he received a C and was told that he did not have what it would take to make it in music professionally.
After this McLean went to the University of Utah. He took a weekly composition class with Merrill Bradshaw. He made some professional progress writing music for local commercials in Salt Lake City.
McLean finally quit college after his wife, Lynne, was in an auto accident. His first significant professional break through came from writing commercials for the LDS Church’s “Homefront” campaign. He took a job as producer for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1976. McLean would work with the Choir until 1993.