Don Brewer is a drummer/vocalist and a founding member of the legendary American rock band Grand Funk Railroad. When he was a youngster in a small town right outside Flint Michigan, Don always wanted to play the drums. When he found out that the drum section in school was all girls, he got right down to business. His first band was called The Red Devils - and after a few member and name changes, it morphed into Terry Knight and the Pack. They put out a few records and had regional success. Don and guitarist Mark Farner decided to break from "the Pack" and brought in bassist Mel Schacher from Question Mark and the Mysterians - and Grand Funk Railroad was born. They went to the woodshed and worked out a high energy repertoire of material as a three piece powerhouse. Shortly thereafter, they got their first break. They were invited to perform at The Atlanta Pop Festival and received a standing ovation after their opening act set. Promoters took notice and started booking GFR all throughout the south which eventually lead to a record deal from Capitol Records. Their first three studio records, "On Time", "Grand Funk", and "Closer to Home" became gold and platinum. With the success of their smash hit, "Closer to Home/I'm Your Captain" - GFR began to perform at major stadiums and arenas throughout America and Europe. They sold out Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles. After a management shakeup, Don wrote a song that would soon become an American anthem, "We're an American Band" - and it proceeded to become the number one song in the country. Don and the boys had a few more hits in them such as "Locomotion" and "Walk Like a Man" - before they decided to go their separate ways. At this time, Don would hook up with an old Flint, Michigan buddy and do numerous tours with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet band. After a couple of brief reunions with Mark Farner, Don and Mel welcomed Bruce Kulick, Max Carl, and Tim Cashion as Grand Funk Railroad members. This has been the lineup for over 17 years now. I recently spoke with Don about his amazing career.
R.V.B. - Hello Don... Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island New York. I understand that it's pretty hot down there in Florida.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me about your animal rescue work?
D.B. - My wife and I have been involved in a place called "Safe Harbor" down here in Jupiter Florida, for quite a number of years. It dates back to when my wife was in radio. We currently have 2 cats that my wife rescued around 2 years ago. They were "preemie's" from a feral cat colony. They were very small... about the size of your thumb. She has raised them from that point on. We've been doing things like this for a number of years.
R.V.B. - I see that you also have a place in the mountains in North Carolina?
D.B. - Yes. We're going to be going there in the near future.
R.V.B. - Did you ever run into those guys on the cover of the "Survival" album up there in the mountains?
D.B. - Hahaha... No I haven't seen them up there.
R.V.B. - You've had a nice successful career so far. Was there any event that made you decide to become a drummer?
D.B. - I always wanted to get into the drums when I was a kid. I actually started out playing clarinet in the school band. I did some guitar stuff for a while. It was by happenstance really. I was in the junior high band and I had worked my way to the first chair. I hated it so much that I ended up being the last chair. The instructor was asking for male volunteers to play the bass drum. At that time, all that was in the drum section were girls. I thought "That's a no brainer"... hahaha. I decided I was going to become a drummer because there was nothing but girls in the drum section.
R.V.B. - I'm sure the girl factor helped things along.
D.B. - There was always that girl factor being in a band.
R.V.B. - After you started as a bass drummer, how long did it take you to get a kit?
D.B. - My dad was totally into it. He was a former drummer in swing bands back in the depression. He was a school teacher that played drums on the weekends for beer. When he found out I was playing drums, he immediately went out and got a kit for me. We used to sit in the basement and listen to records. He would show me what a guy was doing and how to play a kit.
R.V.B. - What was it like in Flint as a teenager?
D.B. - I grew up right outside Flint in a little town called Swartz Creek. It was pretty much a small industrial town back then... a General Motors union town. It had AC spark plugs and Fischer body. Everyone had some affiliation with the factory. Everybody's father worked in the factory. It's kind of sad what has happened to the town now. It fell on hard times when the factory's moved to Mexico.
R.V.B. - I gather you networked yourself around, like most young musicians do, and found other guys to play in bands together?
D.B. - I was always into Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other rock and rollers. I saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show and I loved rock and roll. A guy I knew called Bob Caldwell had an older brother Stan Caldwell that would play at lunch time. They had a little rockabilly thing... it was kind of crossover country/rock stuff. It was just totally blowing me away that there were these guys in a band. It was like "Wow, listen to that!" I immediately wanted to start a band. I put together my first band when I was around 13 years old called "The Red Devils"... that became "The Jazz Masters". That in turn became "The Pack", and then "Terry Knight and the Pack"... which became "Grand Funk Railroad"... one thing led to another. It was a time period where there was the Vietnam war and other things going on. The music was changing from being pop stuff in the early 60's to the much heavier rock in the late 60's. I kind of followed that trend.
R.V.B. - Things happened quick once Grand Funk formed. Prior to that, where you getting your chops up on cover tunes and mixing originals in?
D.B. - Not a lot of originals. When we did the Terry Knight and the Pack thing we did some because Terry was a songwriter. It was still mostly covers. It was top 40 stuff... dance band stuff. We used to go out and play the sock hops and teen night spots. We were doing Rolling Stones, Beatles, Motown, and Wilson Picket.
R.V.B. - Once Grand Funk formed, how did you get invited to the Atlanta Pop Festival so quickly?
D.B. - It was really a favor to an agent we had. Jeep Holland was an agent down in Ann Arbor Michigan. We had just re-formed from being Terry Night and the Pack. The band had gone defunct. Mark Farner and I had enlisted Mel Schacher from Question Mark and the Mysterian's and we put together this band called "Grand Funk Railroad". It was taken after the railroad in Michigan "Grand Trunk & Western Railroad". We put this band together and nobody had a clue who we were. We re-worked all of the music we were doing of Terry Knight and the Pack. We did it in more of a Cream/Hendrix trio style format. We were looking for work... we couldn't get work. Nobody knew who we were. Jeep Holland got a call from a friend of his who was working the 1st Atlanta Pop Festival. "Jeep" was telling him about the new band that he had and he said "If you can get them down here... we won't pay them anything and we're not going to give you any expense money... just get them down here and we'll put em' on". Hahaha... that's what it was. We borrowed a van and rented a trailer and off to Atlanta we went. That was a groundbreaking event for Grand Funk Railroad. The opening day we walked on stage as the opening act with 30,000 people out in front of the stage. Nobody had a clue who we were but by the end of the show we received a standing ovation. They asked us back for the next day and that's where we really became somebody... was at the Atlanta Pop Festival.
D.B. - It was amazing. It was a rock and roll moment... a rock and roll fantasy... wow! look at this thing. It snowballed after that. He kept getting more offers for festivals. We did the Texas International festival. We got a lot of offers through the south. Much of the word of mouth took place in the south. "You have to see this band Grand Fund Railroad, who tore it up at the Atlanta Pop Festival". We started playing in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas... it just kind of moved through the south. That's really what got us going.
R.V.B. - Did you stick around to see the other acts at the Atlanta Pop festival?
D.B. - Yeah. We stuck around and saw Johnny Winter play and that was smoking... Pacific Gas & Electric and Janis Joplin. Led Zeppelin came on a little later but I didn't stick around to see them.
R.V.B. - Did you get a recording contract right away?
D.B. - It took us a few months. We started playing the "hippie" ballroom places through the south and that peaked Capitol's interest to give us a contract after that.
R.V.B. - When you got back home, did you start writing material?
D.B. - We had a lot of material already. We had a lot of stuff that we re-worked from earlier days. We were doing some covers, but yes - we did go into the rehearsal hall and get it ready to go into record. At that time, you didn't spend a lot of time in the recording studio. It was a couple of days doing tracks... a day doing overdubs... and you were out of there. You really had to have your stuff together. If there were mistakes on it or it wasn't perfect, it didn't matter. Getting it on tape was the most important thing.
R.V.B. - One of your earlier albums happens to be one of my favorite albums - the "red" album. Were those songs some of the stuff that you had already or were you creating new stuff by that time? Where was that recorded?
D.B. - The first 6 or 7 albums were recorded in Cleveland, at Cleveland Recording. "Inside Looking Out" was on that and we had been doing that live since the inception of Grand Funk Railroad. We didn't put it on the first record so we put it on the second record. Most of the songs on the first two records "On Time" and "Grand Funk", had been created prior to making the albums. Mark was a prolific songwriter. He was always coming up with ideas... we were always jamming at rehearsals. We would jam on things for days and we put pieces together... come up with a bridge... come up with the chorus... until it made sense. We were constantly working on material. That's how all of that stuff was made.
R.V.B. - Obviously your live performances and studio work produced serious momentum. You played in England to hundreds and thousands of people and the famous Shea Stadium show sold out so quickly. Talk about being on top of the world!
D.B. - This was after the first three albums... "On Time", "Grand Funk", and "Closer to Home". By that time, we had taken off all over the world. We were playing arenas and outdoor places. Shea Stadium was a fantasy come true. Around the same time, we played a baseball stadium in Tokyo in the middle of a typhoon. That was an incredible show. Going to Japan was like going to a different planet. It was truly a rock and roll experience and it was overwhelming. We just kind of resigned ourselves to let Terry Knight handle everything... let the attorneys handle everything. They were supposed to be putting everything away for us. We were 19/20 years old at the time. We didn't know what we were doing with money - or anything else. We were just drawing salaries and supposedly everything was being taken care of for us. We were living the rock and roll dream.
R.V.B. - Apparently it wasn't. You guys didn't worry about the length of a song because "Closer to Home/I'm Your Captain" was a pretty long song. It wasn't really radio length and it kind of broke the barrier.
D.B. - At that time you had FM underground radio ruling the airwaves. They weren't concerned with commercial stuff. They would play anything they wanted. It didn't matter if it was 10 minutes long or 3 minutes long. They actually didn't like the 3 minute long commercial stuff... they were kind of against it. You were really free to create whatever you wanted to. If you did release it as a single for AM radio at that time, they would do an edit and get it down to close to under 4 minutes as you could. You didn't concern yourself with writing hit material. You did what you wanted to and the more off the wall - at that time - the better.
R.V.B. - A band with success has to re-invent itself.
D.B. - That's where we found ourselves in 1972. FM radio was starting to change. It became the new AM radio. They discovered there was a lot of money to be made. Consultants and record companies discovered radio was where it's at. They wanted everything to be under 4 minutes long. They wanted it to be commercial so that they could sell advertising and make money. After 1972 it was more difficult to have an underground FM hit... it wasn't going to happen. It wasn't going to get the airplay. You had to change... you had to go with the times and that's what we did.
R.V.B. - You brought on a keyboard player. Do you think that it altered your sound considerably?
D.B. - It majorly altered our sound but we were looking for a change. We had gone through leaving Terry Knight. We had gone through leaving the attorney's. We were broke and looking at the demise of underground FM radio. We were trying to be current and relevant. We had to make a change. We actually approached Peter Frampton before we got Craig Frost in the band. We asked Peter if he would join the band because we had a relationship with him when he was in Humble Pie. We had done a tour with Humble Pie in Europe. Peter had just started his solo career. He declined. He said "I really appreciate the offer but I'm doing this other thing." That would have been a terrific band. We turned from there and we wanted to make a change. We weren't going to be the 3 piece band that we were before. We got to get a little more commercial so we got an old friend of ours... Craig Frost... who had been in one of the versions of "The Pack". We asked Craig if he would join the band. It changed... we were out to make a change. We did not want to be the same band that we were before, that was under the heavy influence of Terry Knight. We wanted to be a different band.
R.V.B. - One of your best songs ever with Grand Funk - which was an number one single - was "We're an American Band". That's a classic rock and roll song about rock and roll life. Was it pretty easy to write the lyrics to that?
D.B. - Actually yeah. I just took little snippets of what was going on out on the road with "up all night" - with Freddy King playing poker... "four young Chiquita's in Omaha", and "sweet, sweet Connie in Little Rock"... I took all of these things and put them together. I really didn't come up with a tag for the song until I had already written the song. I came up with the 3 or 4 chords that I knew on the guitar (haha) and put them all in the song. I came up with the verses... the bridge... the chorus, but it didn't have the final chorus tag line. I knew what I wanted to sing "Da da da da da da da" but I didn't have the words. It just dawned on me one day, that that's what we are... that's what we do, and boy did it sing well. I putzed it around with my little Martin acoustic guitar in my apartment in Norwood... in Flint Michigan... broke... and looking to find a way into hit FM radio, and that's what came out.
R.V.B. - It's very clever. You continued to write commercially popular songs and you guys had a hit with an old 60's dance song "Locomotion". Were you surprised at the success of that song?
D.B. - It was a Carole King song and it was originally done by Little Eva. She was Carole Kings maid. I don't know if a lot of people know that. She gave it to her maid and said "Here, you sing this song". That's what became the hit. It was really by happenstance that we came on that song. We were looking for a follow up hit single after "We're an American Band" and "Walk Like a Man"... along with the huge success of the album "We're an American Band". We we're doing a new album with Todd Rundgren called "Shining On". We pretty much had the album done but we felt we needed one more song that was a big follow up cover. By happenstance, Mark walked into the studio singing that song - "Everybody's doin' a brand new dance now". We just jumped all over it... Grand Funk Railroad doing the Locomotion. It's so off the wall... it's so silly... that it just might work. Todd put his seal on it by turning it into kind of a Beach Boys "Barbara Ann" party in the studio sound. We did this song and it's a version that everybody knows.
D.B. - Loved working with Frank Zappa. We had done a couple of records in between Todd and Frank... using a guy named Jimmy Ienner. He had done Three Dog Night and a lot of pop kind of stuff - and we found ourselves being way too poppy. We were trying to make the transition from rock radio to disco, which had just come in. We got lost in that whole thing. We figured, we can't do disco but we can do a little more R&B. We leaned heavily on the R&B with the influence of Jimmy Ienner. It was ok, and we got a great hit out of it... "Some Kind of Wonderful"... which is another cover from the Soul Brothers Six. That has stood the test of time as well. A lot of the other material just wasn't Grand Funkie' enough. When we parted ways with Jimmy Ienner, we were again looking for another avenue - another approach to what was going on in radio. Craig Frost - the keyboard player - and I had gone to see a Frank Zappa movie "200 Motels". We were sitting there watching the movie and all of a sudden Frank Zappa is talking about Grand Funk Railroad. We were going "Listen to this, Frank Zappa is talking about us. Let's call Frank and see if he wants to produce our next record". So we did, and he said yes... much to our amazement. We flew him out to Michigan and we did what I thought was a great album - "Good Singin' Good Playin'". It was a terrific attempt to keep the band going but it just didn't work. I loved working with Frank. I thought he was just an amazing talent. He had a great family. We loved meeting his family and hanging out with him out in LA. It was a terrific time period.
R.V.B. - He wound up playing on a track on your "Flint" record.
D.B. - Yes he did. I flew out to LA and took our tapes out there. He was gracious enough to put his guitar on a cut for us. At the same time, I played on one of his. I played bongos on "Lemme Take You To The Beach".
R.V.B. - So things take it's turn with a lot of bands. You have issues and you move on. How did you enjoy your years in the Silver Bullet Band?
D.B. - I've had a long lasting relationship with those guys. Grand Funk met its demise in 1976. We tried a brief reunion in the early 1980's and it just didn't work. I got a call from the Seger camp, asking me "Would I be interested in coming up and playing with the Silver Bullet Band?". I started working with those guys in 1982. I did a couple of tours in the 80's. I didn't do the tour that they did in the 90's because I had reunited with Grand Funk in 1996. Bob decided to go back out in 2006 and I've been touring with those guys ever since. Craig Frost has been with them for a long time. I've known Bob from our days in "The Pack" back in Mount Holly... playing all the teen dance places around Michigan. I've known those guys about as long as I've been on Grand Funk. It's a Michigan connection thing.
R.V.B. - Did you sing with them as well as play the drums?
D.B. - Backup. Bob had me do some cameo's lead stuff on some of the cover song he had been doing. Mostly backup stuff.
R.V.B. - Grand Funk reunited with the original lineup in the mid 90's... that's when I saw you guys. The concert that I went to was a seating venue and from the minute the first note was played, there was no sitting to be had.
D.B. - (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - You guys generated sheer excitement and it was magical. You guys had a very successful reunion.
D.B. - It was short lived. We did 96 and 97 and it kind of fell apart in 98. It was pretty good. It was certainly great on the east coast because of our Shea Stadium success. When we went out in the rest of the country it was hit or miss. There were good markets and not so good markets. It lasted for about 2 1/2 years.
R.V.B. - I guess the culmination was the Bosnia benefits that you did. That was a very good thing to do and it was very successful.
D.B. - It was very successful. We did three concerts... one in New York, one in Detroit, and one in Los Angeles... with an orchestra. Paul Schaefer conducted the orchestra in Detroit and New York. Someone else did it out in LA. It was a terrific experience.
R.V.B. You guys have had the current lineup for quite a while now.
R.V.B. - That is a long time. That's longer than the original lineup.
D.B. - Way longer.
R.V.B. - Where did you meet the 2 new gentleman?
D.B. - I met Bruce (Kulick) when I was working with Bob Seger. It must have been around 86. He was playing with Michael Bolton who was the opening act on the the tour. I was very impressed with his playing. Not only could he play the rock stuff but he could play the R&B stuff. He's just a terrific guitar player. My wife Sunny, has known him from back in the Michael Bolton days as well. When we were looking to put this new band together in 2000, Bruce was the first guy to come to my mind. At the time he was in between things so he came out to Michigan and we started working.
R.V.B. - He's a Long Island guy. Now what about Max (Carl)?
D.B. - I was working at the time with Peavey drums. The guy that actually created that drum kit "Steven Volpp", introduced me to Max. I checked out Max's past work. He's worked with 38 Special as well as Jack Mack and the Heartattack. He had this new stuff that he was doing with Big Dance, which was a total R&B Band. I realized that Max was probably one of the last blue eyed soul singers on the planet. He would be perfect for Grand Funk. He gets the rock R&B thing. So I called him up and perused him. We flew him out to Michigan and it was just kind of a magical thing. He knew exactly to do the material. He didn't need any coaching or anything.
R.V.B. - I understand you played on a few cruises?
D.B. - Well we did. We did our first rock legends cruise. We did 3 nights with Peter Frampton, Gregg Allman, America, and many other groups. It was just a huge success. I imagine we're due for another cruise next year.
R.V.B. - How are you enjoying Florida life? I went to the Stadium over by you to see a ballgame once.
D.B. - Roger Dean. Spring training is a big deal down here. I love it here. I've been here for 35 years. I've been her longer than I was in Michigan. I don't miss the summers... that's why my wife and I have a place in North Carolina. We go up there for the summer.
R.V.B. - What are you most proud of about your career?
D.B. - My daughter and my grandkids (Hahaha) She's an amazing girl. They're my pride and joy.
R.V.B. - It's great to enjoy your family. Thank you for taking this time with me. Good luck in the future and I hope you come back to New York this year.
D.B. - I know we'll be close. We'll be in Atlantic City. Thanks for your interest.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Don Brewer and Grand Funk visit this website www.grandfunkrailroad.com
Thanks to Anne Leighton
Photograph credit Lynn Goldsmith. Photo scan courtesy of Kenny Stevens -- email@example.com
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