Don Brewer Grand Funk RR Interview
Grand Funk Railroad, one of the biggest acts from the 1970s, will be playing the Hard Rock Rocksino on January 20th, 2018. This interview originally was conducted when they were a part of the 2017 Moondog Coronation Ball which was held this past March.
Don Brewer, original drummer and co-lead singer of Grand Funk, recently spoke with us to discuss his career, his views on the Rock Hall and his 2017 appearance in Cleveland.
Greg Drugan: Hi Don, how are you?
Don Brewer: Good! How are you doing?
GD: Great! I’m calling from Cleveland and Grand Funk is going to be playing the Moondog Coronation Ball next week. You have played the Moondog concert in the past; what is the vibe like playing this show?
DB: It’s great! The place is packed and everybody’s there for a great celebration of rock n’ roll! We played there a couple of years ago with The Turtles and Paul Revere and the Raiders and it was a lot of fun.
GD: You guys are on the bill with Tommy James and Three Dog Night this year; have you ever played with those guys before?
DB: Yeah! We’ve done shows the Three Dog before and I think we’ve done at least one show with Tommy James.
GD: Is there going to be a jam session at the end or is each band just going to play their own set?
DB: You never know what might happen but the plans right now is that each band is going to do their own show.
GD: Do you have any memories of playing in Cleveland back in the ‘70s? Do you have any good Swingo’s stories?
DB: (laughs) Never stayed at Swingo’s! The band prior to Grand Funk, Terry Knight and the Pack, used to play the Upbeat show, which was a famous television show out of Cleveland. We used to go down there every weekend, it seems like, and play that show and we kinda built our following in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and the Michigan area because that’s where that television show reached.
I remember playing the Upbeat show with James Brown and that was a treat! He brought his whole band and back then everything was done live on TV shows. We recorded our first six albums in Cleveland at Cleveland Recording right there on Euclid. We used to stay at The Versailles Hotel which was right across the street from the television station.
GD: That’s excellent, I had no idea about that. Looking back on your career, what or who inspired you to be a drummer?
DB: Well, my dad was a former drummer and I got into playing drums. I played clarinet and I played guitar a little bit. When I was in school, I was in the clarinet section and I hated it! The instructor was looking for male volunteers to go back in the drum section because it was all girls, and he needed a guy to carry the base drum. I threw up my hand and was like “Yeah, that sounds like me, all girls in the drum section, I’ll be back there!”
So I went home and told my dad that I was playing drums and he loved the idea. He went out and bought a drum kit. We’d sit in the basement and listen to records and he would show me how the guy was playing. So that’s how I learned to play the drums.
GD: That’s a great memory. Do you remember the first concert you ever saw?
DB: The first concert I ever saw, I took a date to see James Brown at the IMA Auditorium in downtown Flint, Michigan and we were the only white couple there! It was awesome! I loved it and that was the first real concert that I saw. Then not too long after that, at the same place, I saw Jimi Hendrix. He had just become a headliner and it was just a great show.
GD: There was a lot of great music coming out of Michigan in the ‘60s and ‘70s, what made you go to the rock scene instead of punk or Motown?
DB: When we were coming up, it was all rock. It was the end of the '60s and the music that was popular at the start of the ‘60s was very “poppy.” You had The Beatles and The Stones and that music was very “poppy.” Then you get into ‘67 and the hippie movement and everything became very hard and psychedelic and acid rock and hard rock. Cream, Hendrix, Blue Cheer all of those trios were starting to cook back then and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to be a power trio so Mark Farner and I enlisted Mel Schacher to play bass and we started taking all of our original material from the two or three former bands and geared it to be a more hard rock sound. That’s where Grand Funk came from. It’s really R&B flavored music where we pumped it up on steroids and cranked up the volume and that’s Grand Funk!
GD: What was it like working with Todd Rundgren as a producer, he was kinda doing his own thing but then he was also producing albums in the ‘70s?
DB: You know we looked for Todd. We had just split with our former manager Terry Knight, this was 1972, and we found out he was ripping us off and taking all the money and leaving us broke. Radio was changing, we had six huge albums as a power trio, doing seven minute songs, it didn’t matter how long the songs were, but radio changed in 1972. FM radio went from being underground to more of a hit format and we needed to start making hit records. We loved what Todd was doing with his recordings so we enlisted Todd to be our producer and help us create a new sound. “We’re an American Band,” “The Locomotion” all of that came from working with Todd.
GD: People always mention the Shea Stadium gig as one of your great performances. Do you have any other memorable shows or and funny stage mishaps throughout your career?
DB: (laughs) The one that stands out to me the most was right around the same time as Shea Stadium, we were touring around the world and we had gone to Japan. We played this show in Japan at a baseball stadium and it happened in the middle of a typhoon. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a typhoon, but the wind was blowing fifty miles per hour, the rain was just gushing down and the stadium was absolutely packed with kids and nobody left and we played the show in the middle of a typhoon. It’s legendary in Japan today that Grand Funk played in a typhoon.
GD: That’s crazy, but awesome. You have played drums on a couple of Bob Seger tours over the years. How did that come about? Was it the Michigan connection?
DB: Yeah, I’ve known the guys in the Silver Bullet Band going back forty-some years. Craig Frost is in the Silver Bullet Band and has been since the early ‘80s. They were looking for a drummer and Grand Funk had gone on a hiatus in ‘81-'82 and Craig gave me call to see if I wanted to do an audition with the Silver Bullet Band and I got the gig. I’ve been touring with them pretty much ever since. The only tour I didn’t do with them was in the ‘90s. It’s kinda been a second gig for the past forty years.
GD: When you decided to put Grand Funk Railroad back together, how did you decided on Bruce Kulick, Max Carl to be in the band?
DB: Mel and I were debating, Mark had left the band and we were debating on what we wanted to do. We felt if we could find the right guys, we will go ahead and put out another rendition of Grand Funk and go out on the road. I happened to be doing a drum clinic for Peavey drums and I happened to run into a guy who knew Max Carl. I listened to Max’s records and I realized that he was probably one of the last blue-eyed soul singers on the planet and he would be a perfect fit for Grand Funk. We got on the phone and convinced him to come out and rehearse with Mel and I and we’ve been going ever since and that was in 2000.
Bruce, I’ve known since I was playing with Bob Seger in the early ‘80s. Bruce was playing, this was before his KISS days, he was playing with Michael Bolton and Michael Bolton was an opening act on the Bob Seger tour. We were looking for a guitar player and I found Bruce on the internet, so I sent him an email. He got back to me and we hooked him up too.
GD: I believe Grand Funk Railroad has been overlooked and is a band worthy of induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I can’t think of a bigger band in the '70s; what are views on the Hall of Fame?
DB: The what?
GD: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
DB: What was that? Never heard of it! (laughs) I don’t know. There was a time, many, many years ago when our fans were petitioning the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to get Grand Funk inducted. It never happened and I don’t know what the problem is. I know that they are controlled by Rolling Stone magazine and most of the bands, at one time, were Rolling Stone magazine darlings. They just hated us because of our Terry Knight affiliation. Terry hated them and they hated Terry. We just got off on the wrong foot and it’s been that way ever since. It seems like they are a little more open to putting in bands that they used to hate, like KISS. I think that they are running out of great talent to put in the Hall of Fame. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t but I don’t lose sleep over it.
GD: I understand. I agree that they are finally letting in bands that have waited a long time to get in like Yes and Journey that are getting in this year. Hopefully one day soon, you guys will get in.
GD: If the day comes, would you be willing to play with Mark Farner again?
DB: Well, you know, we will just take it one day at a time. We’ll see what happens.
GD: Very good. Are there any bands out there today that you find interesting?
DB: I don’t hear a lot of new music. I think the last band that I was really impressed with was Train. I loved the stuff that they were doing but then they became poppy. I always appreciated their approach to music and I love their singer. I haven’t really heard anything since then that makes me go “hey, listen to that.” Well, Kings of Leon is also good. I can’t listen to a whole album but there are certain songs where I think “Yeah, they’ve got it.”
GD: Don thank you again, I wish you the best and I look forward to seeing you here in Cleveland!
DB: Sounds great! We look forward to doing it again!