Grand Funk Railroad: An American Band in Canada
By David DeRocco
Don Brewer calls Jupiter his home now. But he’s still got plenty of fond memories of the days when his band ruled the Earth.
After more than four decades as the drummer, sometime lead singer and #1-hit songwriter for the enduring classic rock juggernaut known as GRAND FUNK RAILROAD, the Jupiter, Florida resident is still rocking his way around the world with the band he co-founded as a 19-year-old. The rigors of the road, however, aren’t quite as rigorous as they were in the old days on tour.
“We’re weekend warriors now,” said Brewer, in Niagara Falls for a show April 30th at Fallsview Casino’s Avalon Ballroom. “We go out and play on the weekends, play and fly home. And certainly the technology makes it easier – the keyboard technology, the amplifiers, the P.A. systems, the lighting systems. Way back in the day you had to bring everything with you. Now you can get state-of-the-art technology wherever you go. We call for it in our rider and we have it there. We have a backline company that drives in from Indianapolis on the east coast and Las Vegas on the west coast and brings our gear to us. We do all fly dates, no busses. I hate busses!”
The days of buses and endless tours are over, but Brewer and his band mates are still on the road wringing every last ounce of enjoyment they can out of Grand Funk Railroad, a band loved by super-fan Homer Simpson for “the wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner, the bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher and the competent drum work of Don Brewer.” The various incarnations of Grand Funk have accumulated 13 gold and 10 platinum records over a career that began in 1969, selling in excess of 25 million records on the strength of hits like the Brewer-penned #1 hit “We’re An American Band,” along with “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home,” “Locomotion” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” And while his primary motivation for forming a band has changed, his appreciation for the career he’s forged as a result certainly has not diminished.
“When we started the band all I was interested in was chasing girls,” laughed Brewer, who joins Mel Schacher as the two remaining original members in an “American band” that now features lead vocalist Max Carl (of 38 Special), former Kiss lead guitarist Bruce Kulick, and keyboardist Tim Cashion (Bob Seger, Robert Palmer). “I loved music. From the very first time I saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show doing “Blue Suede Shoes” I was hooked on rock and roll. I’ve been doing this since I was 19. I never dreamed I’d be 67 and still doing it. I’m very fortunate.”
Grand Funk Railroad’s fortunes were at their highest in the early 70s, when a string of hit singles and albums landed them in some rarified company: at one point, the band equalled the Beatles attendance record by selling out New York City’s famed Shea Stadium in just 72 hours, an experience still fondly etched in Brewer’s memory.
“It was certainly a rock and roll fantasy. We flew over Shea Stadium first in helicopters. We got picked up on the Upper East Side of New York City, we set down behind the stage and a limousine picked us up to bring us to the stage. It was totally sold out. The real weird part of that was nobody was on the field. They wouldn’t allow anyone on the field or up in front of the stage because it was a sacred baseball stadium. At that time they didn’t come out and put down a whole new floor. The audience was totally removed, just in the grandstands. It was so loud. I remember seeing people bouncing up and down on the bleachers, and the tiers of the bleachers were bouncing so much they looked like they were going to collapse. It was just incredible, and out of body experience.”
Like many rock bands of the era unprepared for both the fame and the fallout, the highest highs for Grand Funk Railroad were often tempered by some very low lows. Personnel changes, including the off-and-on relationship with singer Mark Farner, critical backlash, corrupt management and contractual obligations to record companies took their toll. While Brewer counts his blessing for Grand Funk’s success, he’s well aware of the curses that success sometimes brings.
“We’ve got this Grand Funk black cloud that’s followed us around forever, whether it’s been with attorneys or managers or the IRS or the people in the band. There’s always been this black cloud, people coming after us like we’re got gazillions of dollars. Silly stuff like that. It’s always been a struggle to kind of keep things on the straight and narrow and make people go away. T hat’s the curse. But I suppose everybody that is somebody has a certain amount of that, it comes with the territory.”
Despite the many personnel changes, the current incarnation of Grand Funk Railroad has Brewer happy to playing and once again bringing Grand Funk’s music to new generations of fans.
“We’ve got a bunch of great guys, we love getting together, we love playing together, we have similar likes and dislikes. They’re just extremely talented people. You’ve got Max Carl from 38 Special, probably one of the last great blue eyed soul singers on the planet. He understands R&B and Grand Funk is this R&B/rock combination. It’s perfect. Bruce Kulick, I’ve known him since the 80s. I was playing with Michael Bolton and he was playing with Bob Seger and again, he’s just a well-rounded talented guitar player. Tim Cashion was with Robert Palmer and Bob Seger. They all grew up on Grand Funk. They love to play it, it’s a joy to play it. And that’s what we bring to the stage, this energy that’s always been there. It’s an energetic have-fun kind of show.”
Although Grand Funk Railroad’s legacy with classic rock fans is secured, the band’s yet to be immortalized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite a multi-million selling career that’s edging close to 50 years. Grand Funk is listed at #146 on the website “Not in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame,” and Brewer says he’s happier to be in the company of bands on that list than the watered down list of artists in the Cleveland hall.
“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s not my favourite institution. It’s controlled by Rolling Stone magazine. And most of the acts, the vast majority that get in there were at one time Rolling Stone darlings. And that’s what it is. It’s this real kinda snobby approach to what gets in there. I mean, my God they’ve got Madonna in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Really? I prefer being on the other list.”
Grand Funk Railroad is “coming to your town to help you party down” Saturday, April 30th. For details, visit https://www.fallsviewcasinoresort.com/entertainment/event/grand-funk-railroad.