Interview by Joseph Hett
Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad recently spoke with Music Recall Magazine. Check out MRM’s exclusive interview with Brewer below.
See Grand Funk Railroad this Sunday, September 6 in Darlington, SC at the Darlington Raceway for their pre-race concert before the Southern 500. Tickets are still available and can be purchased HERE!
MRM: Could you speak about your personal musical influences while growing up?
Brewer: It’s way too many to mention. I had influence from Motown and all of the R&B stuff coming around in the’60s. We always had a great love of the R&B. The bands we had prior to Grand Funk were Pop-R&B bands. And when we converted to Grand Funk Railroad in 1969, and Mark Farner and I enlisted Mel Schacher of Question Mark and the Mysterians to play bass with us. We took our R&B stuff and just cranked it up. Sort of what Cream and Hendrix were doing with the blues – we were doing that with R&B. And that’s what really became Grand Funk Railroad’s signature as far as music is concerned. This heavy R&B influenced music, and that’s what we did. Those were the influences that I think we all had.
MRM: How was a relatively unknown Grand Funk Railroad invited to open at the original Atlanta Pop Festival?
Brewer: That was just a favor of a favor kind of thing. We just had recently had become Grand Funk Railroad and, we were looking for gigs. We had been working with a guy out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he asked a friend who was working the Atlanta Pop Festival down in Byron, Georgia. He called his friend and said “Hey can you get my new band on your show?”And they said, “Well, if you can get those guys down here – we aren’t gonna pay them anything – you can get them down here so they can play opening day at the Atlanta Pop Festival as the opening act as the very first act to hit the stage at the Atlanta Pop Festival.” So we borrowed a van and rented a trailer and threw all of our stuff into it. We paid our way down. And it was a good thing because we walked onstage and nobody had ever heard of Grand Funk Railroad before. And by the end of the show they were giving us a standing ovation, and there must have been 130-thousand people in front of the stage. We were the talk of the whole festival about this new band called Grand Funk Railroad. And that’s what really got us going.
MRM: Is it true that Grand Funk Railroad upstaged Led Zeppelin and was to asked to leave the tour as their openers?
Brewer: Yeah, they only allowed us to play two shows with them. We played the beginning of the tour – we had the same booking agent Premier Talent. And, of course, we were the new band. Led Zepplein had already had a big hit album. So they were trying to put their new band with an established act and give us the exposure. Well, we went to Detroit and played Olympia Arena. And we just tore the place down as the opening act. And by the end of our show, before Led Zeppelin even hit the stage, their manager demanded that they pull the plug on us. And we played one more show after that, and that was it. They just didn’t like the fact that we were – I wouldn’t say we upstaging them. They were perfectly capable of following us. (Laughs) It was just simply that they just didn’t like that we were getting the audience going as well as we were. So, oh well… (Laughs)
MRM: Is it true that Grand Funk Railroad sold out Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles?
Brewer: That’s true. I like to say that it’s probably in the years after the Beatles played there and we played there that they got their ticket selling process together much better. I don’t really know why. I mean Grand Funk had really exploded in the New York area in 1969, 1970, 1971. We were huge in that area. We were THE new band to see. So it was a big deal when it was announced that we would play Shea Stadium, and the tickets sold out real quick.
MRM: How did you all end up posing nude for the inside cover of the “American Band” album?
Brewer: It was just a spur of the moment kind of a thing. We had a publicist, Lynn Goldsmith, who was working with us at the time. She had this vision of making us more pop celebrities, and it was her idea. We had finished recording the record, and we were at Mark Farner’s farm in Michigan. So, we posed sitting on bales of hay for that picture for that album. And you know it was very risqué for that time.
MRM: Speaking of “American Band,” I believe that the “hotel detective” lyric is the coolest, most unique lyrics in a song ever. Could you speak about writing that smash hit?
Brewer: You know, it’s funny. We were in the process of separating from our manager, Terry Knight, at the time. And we were in the middle of all of these huge lawsuits. He was pursuing us to keep us off the road and keep us from using the name. And he had confiscated all of the money – we didn’t have any money. We were struggling for survival and going on the road again after the “Pheonix” record. And we were looking for new avenues. Radio was changing from being underground to being a hit format. So we enlisted Todd Rundgren to produce our next record. And in the process of touring and being on the road, I had these songs in my mind about “We’re coming to your town, We’ll help you party it down.” So I started these lyrics around that theme. I really didn’t have the tag for “We’re an American Band” until I finished the song, and I couldn’t find a tag for it. And then it just dawned on me that “we’re an American band.” And it sang well, and it fit right in. It was the last piece of the puzzle for putting that song together.
MRM: You went to law school?
Brewer: I did. For a short amount of time. I consider myself a law school dropout. (Laughs) I was studying business law, and I went to Nova University which was at that time located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
MRM: Did you all receive new fans thanks to that infamous “Simpsons” episode?
Brewer: Yeah, I think so. It was great with me. They contacted me and wanted to use a song that I co-wrote, “Shinin’ On” in an episode with “The Simpsons.” They put the part of a script in there where Homer was going to take his kids to Lollapalooza or some place. And on the way he was playing the radio, and “Shinin’ On” came on the radio. And he started telling his kids about Grand Funk Railroad. It was a wonderful endorsement by Homer Simpson of Grand Funk Railroad. (Laughs) And I was very pleased.
MRM: What are your thoughts on Grand Funk Railroad not being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Brewer: It’s a political situation. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is controlled by Rolling Stone Magazine, and most of the people that are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were at one time or another Rolling Stone Magazine darlings. And we were never their darlings. And if you’ll look at a lot of the other bands that aren’t in there – that’s a similar situation. So there are a lot of people that haven’t been brought into the Hall of Fame that should be there. And I think there are a lot of people in there that shouldn’t be. So, it’s just politics, and I really don’t think one way or another about it.
MRM: Can you tell us about the current formation of the band?
Brewer: We’ve got myself and Mel Schacher, founding members of Grand Funk, along with a great all-star cast. We’ve got Max Carl from 38 Special. Max is the guy that sang and wrote 38 Special’s biggest hit, “Second Chance.” Also, he is formerly of the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. I like to say that he’s probably one of the last blue-eyed soul singers on the planet, and we are lucky to have him. We’ve also got Tim Cashion from Bob Seger’s band. He plays keyboard and sings back-up with us. And Bruce Kulick who played with KISS for 12 years when they took their makeup off. Bruce is an old friend of ours since back in the ‘80s. He’s playing lead guitar for us. And it’s just a great band, great line-up for us. And we’ve been touring with this particular band since 2000 – 15 years going on 16 years with this band.
MRM: Are you all still tearing down hotels while on tour?
Brewer: (Laughs) Not quite. (Laughs) No, I think that’s in our past.
MRM: What kind of set can fans expect on Sunday, September 6 before the Southern 500 in Darlington, SC when Grand Funk Railroad rolls into town?
Brewer: We’re going to do the hits. We’re actually going with a shorter set than normal. They only want about 45 minutes. It’s gonna have to be a condensed set. It will be “Footstompin’ Music,” “Rock And Roll Soul,” “Shinin’ On,” ‘Loco-Motion,” “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home,” “We’re An American Band,” as well as a couple other things. It’s gonna be all the hits.