By Jeb Wright
The Story of Grand Funk Railroad is unique as it includes being the underdog, taking on the music world, overcoming success, being on top of the world, being ripped off, being sued, surviving it all and then having one of their biggest hits. Then breaking up, reuniting, having a key member quit, carrying on and still being alive and well nearly 50 years down the rock and roll road.
These cats from Flint, Michigan never drank the Kool Aid—or the water. They never believed they were rock stars. No, they stayed grounded, but unfortunately, they stayed naïve, as manager and friend Terry Knight took them for a financial ride that almost ruined them. They stayed together, as an American band with a solid work ethic should, and they succeeded despite being ripped off.
Classic Rock Revisited caught up with founding member and drummer Don Brewer to discuss the band’s rise to the top, as well as their upcoming 50 years as a band. GFR proves to be a hard working rock and roll machine that may have even went pop for the money, but not for the reasons one may assume. As Don states, they were not greedy, they were needy!
Jeb: Before we start talking music, let’s get political. You’re from Flint, Michigan.
Don: I feel so sorry for the folks there. Somebody totally screwed up. They were trying to save a few bucks. They switched over from getting their water out of Detroit, out of the Detroit River, of all places. To save money, they decided to use the Flint River. It was full of all of these corrosive materials, and that wasn’t necessarily the problem, until it got into the pipes in the old houses. All of the lead started coming out of the pipes in the house. It is a mess. I have no idea; you know what…. some people ought to hang for that.
Jeb: The Midwest part of this country has been hurt so much by the government and the economy it is horrible. Flint used to be a thriving place and it just sucks to see the world changing to this degree.
Don: They were totally dependent on AC Spark Plugs and General Motors. Those companies left twenty some years ago. They discovered it was cheaper to ship the jobs to Mexico because of the unions. That’s what happened.
Jeb: Thank God for music. It is now 2016 and Grand Funk is still on tour. People are still interested in the band. Looking back, did you ever think this GFR machine would last like this?
Don: No. When you’re in your early 20s you can’t really see past 40. You look at 40 year old people and go, “I never want to be that old.” You don’t think about what you will be doing when you’re 67 years old. By golly, here I am at 67 and I am still playing and still enjoying it and having a good time. I would have never dreamed I would be doing this.
Jeb: What is life like as a 67 year old man still playing rock and roll?
Don: I get such a kick out of getting up on stage and seeing grandparents, parents and kids and grandkids all in the audience. They are all singing along to “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “I’m Your Captain” and “We’re an American Band” and they all have big smiles on their faces. I am like “Pinch me. Is this real?” It is amazing the effect we had on entire generations of folks. It gives me a chill every time I see that.
Jeb: I discovered Grand Funk Railroad. I am more of the Kiss age group in terms of discovering music. There is something with Grand Funk’s music that has lasting power. It may not be the flavor of the month, but it has stood the test of time.
Don: It definitely has. I think the music is very uplifting. It has something about it that people can identify with. To me, it is honest rock and roll.
Jeb: Everyone thinks of the funk in Grand Funk. But you guys rock, are pop, have that funky stuff; you’re danceable and at times you’re even kind of angry.
Don: Oh sure. Well, I still think the music, itself, makes you move. It has feel and it has soul. When I say it is honest I mean it is not overdubbed out the back door. I think that is what people hear, I really do. I think the vocals are right there all of the time. That’s why it stands the test of time.
Jeb: Back in those days you would have little pockets of the country that would have a music scene. Michigan had Alice Cooper, Iggy Bob, the MC5, Grand Funk, Bob Seger and Ted Nugent all going strong.
Don: Of course, you can’t leave Nugent out [laughter]. There was definitely a music scene around Michigan. We were on the outside of it. Most of it was Detroit and Ann Arbor and the bands there were making it big. We were that little old band up in Flint. We really had to struggle with that as we came out of there because a lot of the folks down there had a little bit of snobbery and would say, “That’s just that band from Flint.” It gave us a little bit of a boost to go, “We’ll show you guys. We will go out and kick your ass.” We did.
We left the Michigan area and made it big in the south in Atlanta and all throughout the south. We were playing all of these hippie places all over the south. Pretty soon we had two Gold albums. People were now going, “Oh, they are that Michigan band.” We were no longer that little old band from Flint anymore. We were a Detroit band, which we were not.
Jeb: Was it fierce determination that made it happen?
Don: We just went out there and we kicked butt. That is what we were all about. We’d get up on stage as a trio and just smash it. We didn’t really care what anybody thought about it. It was just a matter of connecting with the audience and getting them on their feet and having a good time. It is really the same practice that we do today.
Jeb: You play drums with the Bob Seger Band as well. I saw you on the last Bob Seger tour and there were about 750 people on stage, give or take... You came up as a trio in the formative years of GFR, and now there are maybe five on stage. What do you prefer?
Don: In a trio you play with random abandon because you want to fill up all of that air. You play with a lot of volume and a lot of energy so you can fill up all of those spaces. I think all of those situations are different.
I really like a five-piece band that works really well for me, especially when you’ve got three or four people that can sing. You can cover all of the stuff that you can do on the recordings. You’ve got the stuff and the talent on stage to do that. A trio, that’s a whole different animal. You have to gear all of the music to that trio thing. It is limited in some ways and in other ways it is very free because you’re trying to fill up a lot of space.
Jeb: How did you three end up together?
Don: Mark [Farner] and I had been in a couple of bands, The Pack and Terry Knight, previously before Grand Funk. Mel [Schacher] would show up at our shows. He was a fan of The Pack. He got in with Question Mark and the Mysterians and started playing with them.
It really all came down to… this is funny. Mark and I, with The Pack, had gone off to Boston to try to make it big in Boston. We ended up being broke. The agent wasn’t getting us enough work. Management actually ended up confiscating our equipment because we owned them money.
They took our equipment to this storage place in Bay City. Mark and I had gone to try to retrieve our equipment from the management company. That is where we heard Question Mark and the Mysterians as they were playing in the back of the place. They were managed by the same company.
Mark and I peeked around the corner and there was Mel playing with that band. Farner goes, “Let’s get that kid. I know that kid. I went to school with him.” We had been talking about making a trio. That is where we drafted Mel from. We were trying to get our equipment back from these crooks and we ran into Mel. That is how we got it going.
Jeb: How did you get on the big show in Atlanta as a new band?
Don: That was a favor of a favor to a friend kind of a thing. We had just come up with this new format for Grand Funk Railroad. In Michigan, even though we just changed our name, everyone thought of us as The Pack. No one was taking us seriously in Michigan. We weren’t getting any work.
We didn’t want to be a cover band, we wanted to play all original stuff. The agent was telling us that to play the clubs we had to play cover stuff and we said no. The agent got a call from a guy who knew a guy at the first Atlanta Pop Festival who told him that he could get us on the bill as an opening act if he could just get us there. He said that we would not make any money, but if we could get down there we could play. That is how we ended up at the Atlanta Pop Festival. We just showed up.
We were on first. We smoked it out there and the audience was primed to see something new and the two things just happened all at once.
They asked us back. We had umpteen thousand people on their feet so they said, “Come back tomorrow.” They put us on third the next day instead of first. The next day we got on even further. By the second and third day we were the talk of the whole festival. “You’ve got to see Grand Funk Railroad” was what they were all saying. There were hundreds of thousands of people there and the word of mouth spread through the south and that is how we got all of our gigs.
This was 1969, we hadn’t released any albums yet. We were just a live band. Capital Records was kind of like thinking about taking a look at us. The word of mouth thing really just took off.
Jeb: You came out with a huge media blitz. You had the big billboard. It was a modern marketing approach that a lot of bands utilized in that time period.
Don: I won’t give Terry Knight a whole lot of credit, but I’ve got to give him credit for that. He’s really a Barnum and Bailey type of guy. He knew that billboard in Times Square had been used for music stuff before, like for the Rolling Stones. It had never been used to the magnitude to where we took it. They used to use a little corner of it for an album cover or something like that but we used the entire billboard.
Terry got Capitol to pay for it—actually we ended up paying for it, but Capitol put up the money to do it. It has never been done like that before. It came out of our royalties to buy that space, but it was really huge marketing back then.
Jeb: As you learned, the record company bills the band back for everything.
Don: Oh sure!
Jeb: Tell me about how it felt, at a young age, that you sold out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles.
Don: We never really thought about it that much. It was a nice thing to hang your hat on, you know. From the time period between the Beatles playing there and when we played there they got their ticket selling process together and they could sell tickets faster. It really wasn’t anything more than that.
When the Beatles played there nobody knew how to sell tickets for shows of that magnitude, as shows like that were not happening. By the time we played there, other bands had played there between the time they played there and we did. We did sell out faster than the Beatles, no doubt about it. But look how fast things sell out now. They sell out instantaneously and what is it due to? Technology.
Jeb: Once you got Mel, success came fast. Things really took off. As a wiser and older guy, do you ever look back and wonder how you survived?
Don: You know, I really don’t. We were good. We were not only good, we were lucky that we didn’t get pulled into the New York / L.A. trip where we moved into one of those big towns and get sucked into the heavy drugs and all of that kind of stuff. We stayed in Flint. We kind of kept grounded about what was going on.
When we were working with Terry, we were on a salary. We didn’t have a hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars. All of that money was supposedly being put away for our future and we were drawing a salary. We weren’t living like megalomaniac rock stars back then. I think that really helped us keep grounded.
Jeb: I heard you tried to coax Peter Frampton to join Grand Funk.
Don: Absolutely! We just did a Rock Legends Cruise with Peter. I brought it up in our interview and he brought it up in one of his interviews. He said, “Grand Funk asked me to be in their band.” It is true.
When we were separating from Terry Knight and the crooked attorneys, rock music and rock radio was changing from being the FM underground thing with seven minute songs, where you could play anything you wanted to and it would get on the radio… it changed. FM was becoming the hit radio and we needed to follow that trend. I spoke with Mark and Mel and we had done a tour with Humble Pie and we heard that Frampton was no longer with them and that he was looking for something else.
We called him and asked him if he wanted to join the band. We wanted another voice, another singer/songwriter and that sort of thing. We were on a mission to take this down another road and to try for another success. Terry Knight had taken all of our money and we were broke.
Jeb: That is amazing that you were ripped off so badly.
Don: We were broke and we were being sued on top of it. We had no idea what was going to be the outcome of that lawsuit. We were totally blind, but we were very motivated.
Jeb: I can see that.
Don: Absolutely. A lot of fans back then, when we started coming out with “Locomotion” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” and even “American Band” didn’t like this pop stuff. It was a big change from before. They were going, “What’s going on with my band?” They thought we were selling out. In a way we were selling out. It wasn’t because we were greedy, it was because we were needy!
Jeb: Did the industry bullshit get to where it was too much to continue with the three of you?
Don: By 1976 it did. That, plus internal conflicts in the band over the direction we should go… disco music had come along. We’d been chewed up and spit out in the Hollywood music machine. It was totally unknown where anything was going at that point.
We signed contracts with Capitol in 1969 and again in 1973. Those contracts required us to do two albums and two tours a year. We had to be in the studio or on the road. Now you look at the bands that made it big in the ‘80s and they were putting out an album every five years, and in some cases it seemed every ten years. They were spending as much time as they wanted in the studio. We never had that luxury. We had to get in the studio and wham out an album and get back on the road.
It was tough and it was grueling. It took its toll on us. When we got to 1976 it was like, “I’ve had enough.”
Jeb: It was a big deal when you guys got back together in the Nineties when you did the orchestra tour and Paul Schaeffer was there.
Don: The Bosnia concerts. That was a big deal and we wanted it to be a big deal. We were trying to do a comeback and we wanted to do something special. One of the things we always wanted to do, that we never had the money to do, or were allowed to do, was to play with an orchestra. We put it together and those were a great series of concerts.
Jeb: Was that planned to be a one-time thing or did you think the three of you could be back for good?
Don: When we first got back together in 1996, it was an experiment to try that. When we got into 1997 and 1998 we were no longer experimenting. We were out there to do it. We had no idea how long it would last. We weren’t thinking it would be a twenty year project or anything. We were just feeling our way along. We were letting it do what it did.
Jeb: When you were left on your own, Farner-less… Mark was a huge part of this band…
Don: We had no idea what we were going to do at that point. Mel and I tried repeatedly to get Mark to continue to tour. He refused, and refused and refused. We had to say, “Mark, we want to continue. If we have to replace you then we will.” He still said, “No.” Mel and I talked it over and we said, “If we can find the right guys then we will continue on.”
We were very lucky. We didn’t hold auditions and go through endless people trying to find the right guys. I called people I knew in the business, one being Bruce Kulick. He immediately jumped on the bandwagon.
I found Max Carl through a friend of mine who was working at Peavey. I listened to his solo records and he was the blue-eyed soul singer, and that is Grand Funk. I contacted Max and we flew him up and the pieces just got together.
We wanted to have a keyboard guy who could sing so I called the people I knew at Seger’s organization and they recommended Tim Cashion and we got him. We tried it out down here in West Palm Beach for a radio station that was doing some sort of marketing test. I suppose they wanted to see how many people they could get out to the concert. We did that as our first date and it was like, “Okay, this works. Let’s go.”
Jeb: I love Bruce as he was with Kiss. I had no idea he was a huge Grand Funk Railroad fan.
Don: Bruce… I knew him when he was playing with Michael Bolton. Bruce is not necessarily a heavy metal-head guitar player that everybody thinks he is. He can play a lot of stuff. He has a love of R&B music. He’s got a pocket.
Jeb: This might be unfair to say, but it is getting close to the 50 year mark. Are you thinking of doing anything big to celebrate?
Don: We’ve still got three years, so that is a lot of time to think about it. We are not planning that far ahead.
Jeb: I am 49 and getting ready to turn 50 and it is freaking me out. I can’t imagine being in a band for 50 years!
Don: [Laughter] Neither can I.
Jeb: I can’t let you go without mentioning your time with Bob Seger as I am a huge fan. What is Bob like to work with?
Don: Bob is a terrific guy. He’s partly reclusive, but he’s a real sweetheart. He is a Michigan guy through and through. I’ve known Bob going back to when we were playing The Riviera Terrace in Flint and at all of the sock hops. We were playing there and he was playing as Bob Seger and the Herd. We knew each other back then.
Over the course of the years our paths would cross. Craig Frost came with us and then he went with Seger. I knew all of those guys. It’s just kind of like one thing led to another. I first started touring with them in 1980, I think it was. It might have been 1983. I did again in 1986-87. I have been now been touring with them since 2006. It is kind of like my second home. They are a great bunch of guys. They really are.
Jeb: You’re great in the studio, but you’re a live drummer.
Don: I love to play live, that’s my thing. Being in the studio is work for me. It is. You try to get everybody to go towards some perfect result. The expectation is huge. When you’re playing live then you’re in the moment. That’s what I love.
Jeb: Last one: Did you play bongos on a Frank Zappa song?
Don: I did! I just happened to be in Los Angeles. I was kind of the designated guy who was there listening to Frank do the mixes on the Grand Funk record Good Singin’ Good Playin’. I was out in L.A. because I would go into the studio at the end of the day and listen to the mixes and say, “That sounds fucking great” and so forth and so on.
Frank was working on a project. I was there and Frank said, “I’ve got this song. Want to go to the beach with me and play bongos on it?” I said, “Sure” and that was it. I loved working with Frank. I really had a great time. I loved meeting his family and hanging out with him. It was a terrific time.
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