Grand Funk Railroad’s
Story by Bob Girouard
Photos by Craig Clingan
Listen to Don Brewer’s powerful drumming on FM staples like “I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home” and “Footstompin’ Music.” Now zero in on his he-man vocals on the number-one Grand Funk Railroad hits “We’re an American Band” and “The Loco-Motion.” You’d be forgiven for assuming that Brewer is the type of fella you might not want to meet in a dark alley. But truth be told, he’s one of the most congenial personalities in rock.
Perhaps it’s his roots in working-class Swartz Creek, Michigan, or simply the fact that he still retains a youthful passion for his instrument. Either way, Brewer’s work ethic perfectly represents Grand Funk Railroad’s reputation as “the people’s band,” earned largely due to singer/guitarist Mark Farner, bassist Mel Schacher, keyboardist Craig Frost, and Brewer’s remarkably energetic live performances. And the people sure paid back the band in kind, rewarding it with thirteen gold and ten platinum albums and worldwide sales in excess of 25 million copies.
And though it hit a wall in 1976, Grand Funk has never been far from fans’ hearts. Since re-forming in 1996, the group has been in a fairly constant state of activity, despite Farner’s 1998 exit. Brewer has even found time between Funky commitments to tour with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, which he’s done for the better part of the past thirty years, and in 2000 he confirmed his legendary status among our tribe by performing at the Modern Drummer Festival. Nearly twenty years later, the interest in Grand Funk remains strong, as evidenced by its full concert calendar, as well as by Audio Fidelity’s hybrid SACD reissues of the popular Shinin’ On and All the Girls in the World Beware!!! albums, both of which originally landed in 1974.
When you learn how Brewer got into the drums in the first place, the latter title begins to take on new meaning. “In junior high I played the clarinet, and I hated that,” Don recalls. “I actually worked myself up to first chair, then quickly down to last chair! One day the music instructor asked for volunteers to carry the bass drum in the [marching] drum section, which was all girls. Of course I immediately put my hand up. Are you kidding—it was a no-brainer!”
Brewer quickly developed his chops, as famously presented in the intro to the title track of Grand Funk’s 1973 blockbuster, We’re an American Band, which was produced by ’70s superstar Todd Rundgren. “That was done on a single pedal,” Brewer tells MD, “a Rogers Swiv-o-Matic. I broke several of those, and they were always being fixed by Mark Farner’s dad, who worked at General Motors. He would temper the metal rods, and then I’d switch the leather strap by blowtorching a car seatbelt to fit. So the ‘secret’ to the intro of ‘American Band’ is all about retooling the pedal!”
Despite his classic vocal performance on “American Band,” Brewer is quick to insist, “I was a drummer who sang, but a drummer first, not a bona fide vocalist. Playing and singing just came naturally to me. Plus Farner and I had a nice mix: I had the gruff thing, and he had this smooth R&B thing. That’s what Grand Funk really is, an R&B band pumped up on steroids.”
When the band members went back in the studio to record Shinin’ On, they once again enlisted Rundgren, but this time they went for a more commercial R&B flavor, which is reflected in the album’s title cut, the horn-section-adorned “To Get Back In,” the blistering “Little Johnny Hooker,” and a somewhat surprising remake of the Goffin-King classic “The Loco-Motion.” “We needed another hit,” Brewer recalls. “We’d come off of We’re an American Band, plus we’d gone through all this litigious crap with our manager, Terry Knight.
“We recorded the album at the Swamp, across the street from Mark’s farm,” Brewer continues. “[One day] we broke for dinner and went to McDonald’s, and when Mark walked back in he started belting out, ‘Everybody’s doin’ a brand-new dance now,’ and all of us cracked up. I mean, how silly is that: Grand Funk doing ‘The Loco-Motion’? ‘Hey, it just might work!’ Todd then did his magic, making it seem like a party was going on in the background. By the time we finished it, I think we all knew it was going to be a huge hit.”