I am fortunate to capture Don Brewer, during a rare free moment, by telephone. By this time the next day his elbows will be knee-deep in suds; he’ll be beautifying a sopping wet hound or chihuahua of some sort. Brewer, a founding member of high-energy 70s classic rock group, Grand Funk Railroad, enjoys volunteering at Safe Harbor, Jupiter, Florida’s dog shelter, which sponsors a celebrity dog wash annually. Brewer convinces me it isn’t his first “dog wash” and it’s clearly, judging by his respect for the facility, far from his last.

But, besides raising much-needed funds for man’s best friend, Brewer has quite a musical legacy. The band name was coined by former Grand Funk Railroad member and manager, Terry Knight, after the Grand Trunk Railroad, an established Michigan line. Originally from that state, Brewer is as genuine and warm a subject, as this writer has encountered.

Maybe it’s the gene pool. Early videos show his massive ‘fro of black curls and contagious smile – playing live in front of vast crowds. And, in another solo video, his hair bears a silver hue, but he demonstrates equal joie de vivre. Brewer comes from a supportive and musical family. His dad, also a percussionist, hand-built the trailer which hauled the band’s early equipment.

Brewer parted ways with then bare-chested vocalist Mark Farner in 1999. But, bassist Mel Schacher, lead singer Max Carl, guitarist Bruce Kulick and keyboardist Tim Cashion continue to perform sold-out shows at nationally recognized venues. Both 2009 and 2010 have filled their calendars with sold-out engagements.

In mid 1971 almost 60,000 fans crammed New York’s Shea Stadium for one of Brewer’s most humbling moments. Third release ‘Closer to Home’, a psychedelic epic, blew the inter-galactic roof off the charts. Solid gold ‘We’re An American Band’ (1973) took more than eight grueling months to create, but it cemented the group’s status in rock history, with producer Todd Rundgren’s icing on the cake edgings. Both outrageously pulsating and introspective material appeared there. One in-depth cut ‘The Loneliest Rider’ explored the plight of Native Americans ravaged by Columbus.

Two more solid gold hits; ‘Shine On’ (1974) and ‘All The Girls in the World’ (1975) etched their name further into rock’s tree of eternal life. And, even an unexpected encounter with Frank Zappa resulted in the production of two more obscure, but equally unique releases.

Brewer took a break from Grand Funk Railroad to tour with colleague Bob Seger in the mid 80s and in 2006. Currently, he’s written some new tunes, ‘Sky High’ and ‘Bottle Rocket’ which the band plays in between their most requested hits. They’ve been referred to as the loudest American rock band ever, which belies the fact that Brewer’s voice, during this phone interview with Pennyblackmusic, is soft and graced with nuance.


PB: Hi, Don.Why do you think Grand Funk has become an American institution?

DB: (Laughs) Wow!

PB: Yeah, let’s start right off..okay, we KNOW it is, but, why?

DB: Oh, I guess number one is because we’re old. When you become old, you become classic. I really think that the music of Grand Funk. I’ve told others if you go back and listen to it - it has a kind of honesty about it.

And that’s what I hear when I hear one of our songs on the radio. It’s not the greatest recording in the world, it’s not the greatest this, it’s not the greatest that. There is just some kind of honesty about it where it shows three guys from Flint, Michigan, are really putting their heart and soul into what they’re doing.

I think that’s what comes across and I think that’s what people still want from the music that we created all these years ago and when we do the shows, now live. It’s always done with a kind of high-energy, forget about your problems, have a good time kind of atmosphere that we create on stage. To this day, so that’s what it’s all about.

I think Grand Funk has always had this way of reaching an audience in that kind of a fashion – that honest approach. So I think that’s what I would attribute it to.

PB: Were you surprised at the success of ‘An American Band?’

DB: Well, actually, yeah, I mean, I remember being in the studio. Y’know I really hadn’t written songs prior to that. I’d co-written a couple of things with Mark (Farner) and I had taken a few stabs at writing and had a couple of songs on albums and stuff, but, we were splitting up with Terry Knight. He was suing us, you know, and we had lost all the money we had made off of gold albums. He took it all, and we were really in a sink or swim mode.

FM radio had changed from being the underground thing – now a hit radio thing and we had to write hit songs, so that’s it.

So, I decided I was going to take a stab at it.

PB: That turned out to be quite a stab.

DB: Fortunately, I had been on the road and I had quite a few stories in my head. I had all these things and I was putting all these pieces together and I was describing, to myself, what we were. We’re coming to your town and we’ll help you party it down. That’s what our job was. We’d fly into town, get in the hotel, we’d go down to the arena. We’d go, “C’mon down.”

That’s what I feel we were doing. So I kind of pushed that into that song and I had this anxiety about sinking. We finished the song. We were in the studio with Todd Rundgren in Miami and we finished the song and everybody’s going, “God, that’s great.” People were going “Oh, what a great song” and I turned around and said, “You guys really like this?”

So, did I know it was going to be a hit, no! I had no idea until I really heard it on the radio the first time. Then I knew it was a hit because it just had, and still to this day, it had this thing. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.

PB: Of course, you know that Grand Funk is also Homer Simpson’s favorite band…

DB: Yes, I do.

PB: What do you think of that?

DB: Well, I think that’s a real true honest endorsement from a blue-collar guy. I co-wrote the song they wanted to use ‘Shining On.’ They wanted to get approval to use the song and they sent me a copy of the script and I read it and I went, “He’s going to mention us by name!”

(Don animates his voice)

‘And the wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner. This is the bum rattling bass of Mel Schacher, the very competent drumming of Don Brewer.’ I mean, I went, “Simpson’s going to talk about us.”

PB: That is so cool.

DB: I went, “This is a perfect endorsement.” (Laughs).

PB: Don, you’ve worked with an animal shelter in Florida…

DB: It’s Safe Harbor Animal Rescue in Jupiter, Florida. My wife, Sunny, and I both live here. My wife was on the radio for many years. We’ve always been very supportive of Safe Harbor – it’s a no-kill animal facility and the girl there that runs it, Kay-Lynette Roca, is a real wonderful person and she’s organized these events – it’s called a celebrity dog wash - where she started out just having the local newspeople come and have a dog-washing team, and people would come, and now it’s kind of turned into a thing where I’ve actually played a couple of times for it and this year she’s got Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

She’s turned this into a big deal and she isn’t really supported by the country so all the money has to get from donations. It’s a wonderful place…

PB: How long have you been involved with this organization?

DB: My wife, Sunny, and I have been volunteering here for about ten years. It’s a real kind of community event. You have a whole park full of dogs and they don’t fight. We’re going to be judging the costume contest tomorrow.

(The Celebrity Dog Wash is described, in a press release; “in our Dog Wash Tent, there will be a steady stream of local celebrities washing dogs and mingling with our animal loving crowd.” Besides judging the contest, Brewer and Sunny will spend several additional hours scrubbing dogs and talking to locals…)

PB: Good luck with that. How did you end up in Florida? I’m a mid-westerner and I’m calling from Chicago so it’s always interesting when mid-westerners –

DB: when they migrate…

PB: when they migrate – right.

DB: When they want to get out of the winter –

PB: Maybe it’s not so astonishing, as I sit here looking at the snow…

DB: There you go. I grew up in Flint, Michigan and I never really liked winter. Winter was always the time that you stayed inside and you ran to the car and started the car and driving for ten minutes in the freezing cold, and so when Grand Funk was going we’d be touring someplace, we’d be up in Des Moines, Iowa, in January and we’d go home, and I’d go, “You know, I don’t want to go home for the weekend. I’m going to go to Florida for a few days.” I came down here and I liked it and I married a girl from Pompano Beach and that’s what got me down here.

PB: You married a girl from Pompano Beach?

DB: I married a girl from Pompano Beach. That was my first wife and that’s why I ended up migrating to Florida.

PB: Don, how does it feel being one of the founding members? Does it make you feel like the big guy in charge or is it an overwhelming responsibility – you know, you’ve got to get them all in line?

DB: (laughs) Yes and no, I mean I’m one of the founding members, actually, and I – even before we were Grand Funk…I started my first band when I was in high school, the Red Devils. I was the guy that had the basement. Everybody came to my house to rehearse.

My parents were always supportive. My dad was a former drummer and my mother was a dancer. So, they were always open to having a band and having people making music and stuff. So, it always happened at my house and my dad, as we started going out a little further, and we started playing gigs. He helped me build a trailer. He actually helped me make a trailer and we’d haul it with my car so I’ve always kind of been – “that guy.”

So, to be the founding member of Grand Funk and still even during Grand Funk days I was kind of like the business guy in the band.

PB: That’s really important. Maybe you had to be.

DB: I was the guy that was saying, “Let’s rehearse tonight. Rehearsal’s at 7:00.”

PB: Don, you mentioned that your mother was a dancer. Do you have any siblings and, if so, were there any artistic influences there?

DB: My older sister Sandra has been on Broadway and movies. She has a dance studio with 600 students.

PB: Now, how about writing at this point?

DB: Do I still write?

PB: Yeah.

DB: Yeah, every now and then I might throw my two cents in, but I don’t sit around and try to search for the next great song out of my head. I listen to music today and I kind of feel like (Sighs) disconnected.
.
PB: When you hear the music today, you feel disconnected?.

DB: Yeah. I can’t relate. I’m not inspired so when the band gets together rehearsing and we take off in a different direction that’s - I love that.

I love going there, but try to come up with the next great song that’s going to put Grand Funk on the radio? It’s a complete impossibility (laughs).

PB: So, when the band gets together - something will happen? Jamming?

DB: Sure, really. That’s how Grand Funk came up with the vast majority of their material. We rehearsed every night of the week, be there from 7 ‘o’ clock and be there until midnight or one in the morning and we jammed and we’d come up with – there’s an idea, there’s an idea – oh, let’s put two ideas together for this song.

That’s where we always came up with everything – all the arrangements and everything – it always came from jamming.

PB: Can you talk to me about drumming? What makes a great rock drummer? How would you define a classic rock drummer that really stands out?

DB: I always judge a drummer by the energy. I hear a lot of drummers that get very technical and I appreciate them doing the technical stuff, you know?

I’ve never been a very technical guy. It doesn’t really turn me on. I’d rather hear a guy playing from the gut, playing from the soul and really throwing himself into it that way.

That’s what I look for in a drummer. It’s kind of the energy that flows and how he puts himself into the music.

I think, one of the greatest examples of that is Keith Moon. He was just his own kind of drummer. He played a very unique style and I like that.

PB: Do you bring your drum kit with you or do you bring what’s available with you when you tour?

DB: We’ve been fortunate enough to hook up with the “backline.” When they refer to backline equipment - that’s on the stage. We have a backline company that’s located outside of Indianapolis. We also have a place in Vegas. They basically have two complete sets of equipment for us at these locations and they bring the equipment to us.

So, it’s always basically our stuff. It’s always exactly the same every night and my drum kits are my drum kits and that way it eliminates that going to sit down at a drum you haven’t played or an amp – even if its’ the same exact Marshall that you’re used to – everyone of it is different. So, we have basically our own gear that‘s brought out to us.

PB: Can you tell me about your best moment on stage?

DB: Oh, man! Shea Stadium was one of the great highlights of our career, flying into Shea Stadium into a huge sold-out arena..

We’re flying in on a helicopter – all these people, yeah, that was pretty amazing. So it was a rock ‘n’roll fantasy – it was one of those kind of things.

Pinch me. I’m from Swartz Creek, Michigan. Am I really doing this? (laughs).

Swartz Creek, Michigan, that’s where I grew up and then, here, I am in New York City, Shea Stadium, flying in a helicopter, sold out faster than the Beatles…

PB: Amazing. As far as soloing on-stage, do you have some tricks you pull out or is it fresh every time? How are you influenced by the chemistry of the band? Can you give me some insight into that?

DB: Well, I’ve been doing kind of the same or a similar drum solo every time since Grand Funk came into existence. I do variations of it, so over the years it’s changed, but it’s always been based around the same kinds of things that I like to do, because when I play my drum solo (laughs), when I play my drum solo, I’m basically playing everything I know (Laughs).

I may vary it a little, but I play every chop I know how to do (Laughs). So it’s kind of like, you know, a dog does tricks. They may do it a little different each time, but those are the tricks that he can do, so that’s me. That’s my drum solo.

PB: You do have some great energy. Now, as far as recording plans, do you have something in the works?

DB: We keep working on new stuff and we’ve got four new songs we play in the show. Actually, over the course of the last ten years; we’ve had many more. They’ve come and gone, you know?

That’s how we try songs out – we try them out on the audience and if it works, it’s great and if it doesn’t work, then, well…I guess maybe not. We don’t really have a plan to do a new CD or anything. We just have fun with it.

PB: Don, the band toured in ’09 and now in 2010. Was there a different vision behind these two tours?

DB: No, it’s pretty much the same. We do around 35-40 shows a year. That’s about what we like to do and most of it is in the summer, so in the winter we’ll do a few more casinos and things, not a steady stream of them, you know? And in the summer we’re out there every weekend, but we’re still home every week.

We play Friday and Saturday night and we’re home every Saturday. We live all over the country. Everybody’s got families. We don’t, you know, like the idea of going on a bus tour. It has always come up because the agents want to get you on a bus and out there doing it and we always refuse and then everybody in the band says, “We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to just say goodbye to the families.”

This way we get to go out – it’s kind of like weekend warriors. Have fun on Friday and Saturday night and then we go home.

PB: So you’ve avoided addictive behaviors by not doing the bus tours and being consistently on the road?

DB: We’ve seen what it’s done to other people and you kind of go…I don’t want to go that way or that far in that direction.

I think we were kind of fortunate that, coming up as Grand Funk Railroad, we didn’t move to New York or LA or to the big metropolitan entertainment centers where a lot of the temptations were. We stayed home in Flint, Michigan, and I think that helped keep us grounded, and of course we experimented with all that kind of stuff and we just said, oh, that’s not for us.

It really just comes down to the individuals, really. Certain people are more prone to falling into that than others. Fortunately, we never got there.

PB: If you could jam with anybody, living or dead, who would it be?

DB: (Laughs) Oh, wow. Jimi Hendrix, for sure.

PB: That would be a trip.

DB: We played with him a few tunes, We played at the Second Atlanta Pop Festival. We played the Randall’s Island in New York. It was an outdoor festival. I should say we played on the same show. I was just totally fascinated with that guy. I’d love to have been able to play with him. That would’ve been awesome.

Randall Island is famous for its jail. They put together a rock festival out on Randall Island.

PB: How would you play with someone like Hendrix? How could you even follow what he was doing?

DB: Well, you just go with it. It’s very inspiring with a musician who has that type of charisma. It’s inspiring for you to be able to be there and to actually hear him play live and not on a recording. And then you’re playing something and all of a sudden he’s playing something off of you - your idea. And then, you kind of get this energy going back and forth. Oh, God, I wish I could have played with him.

PB: Well, how about currently?

DB: Who would I want to jam with now? Oh, Gee. Jeff Beck kind of scares me. I think he’s…I’d like to say Jeff Beck, but he’s really, wow….

I guess, Eric Clapton, I would love to play with Eric Clapton – that’d be fun.

PB: How is the touring schedule determined? Do you guys have any say in that or do the promoters just tell you where you’ll go?

DB: Well, we have an agency. I’m on the phone with the agent all the time – all the buyers or promoters – whatever you want to call them – they know who we are – we’re with Paradigm, it used to be Monterey Peninsula, now it’s called Paradigm, They know that’s where our representation is so they call the agency and say we’re interested in booking Grand Funk,

A lot of talent buyers for fairs, festivals, casinos, whatever, they go to all the different agencies and they know someone at the agency and they’ll call us up and say, “Look, I’ve got a date open on June 5th. Who do you have? Who’s available?”

They’ll look at the roster and say I’ve got this band, I’ve got that band, and then they pick. They’ll put in an offer and they’ll send the offer to me and I’ll look at the offer and I say, you know, I either accept it or I want more money or it doesn’t fit our schedule or whatever – so that’s how it’s decided.

PB: In regards to Bruce Kulick and Max Carl; has this changed the on-stage dynamic? I’m sure it has, but I mean, looking at the band where it was before and currently,.are you trying to keep it the same way or is that chemistry just going to be inherently different?

DB: We approach the music the same way. We really try to get onstage and get the audience involved and have a high energy Grand Funk rock’n’roll show. That’s really what we’ve always done. That’s how we approach it, and, yeah, it’s different players than we’ve had, but, of course, now we’ve been with them ten years. It seems (laughs) very natural for us to take the stage every night

It was a change from what it was before. It was a change back in the 70s when we were first a trio and then we added and became a four piece. In the 90s we actually had two different side guys. It always changes the dynamic a little bit.

But, everyone in the band is very fond of the music that we play. That makes it easy so …we all kind of have similar likes and dislikes in the music. That really is important.

PB: You were saying that you test the material out on the audience. Do you find that the audience is willing to grow with you? As a fan, you go to a concert and think, “I want to get that song that I remembered.” Is there a technique for when you have some new material – whether it’s cover or not – to sneak it in there a certain way. Do you create the set list as you’re playing live and do you stick to it?

DB: No, we have pretty much the same set list all the time, depending on whether we’re going to play a 50 minute show or a 90 minute show – that determines what songs we’re going to do. We may change around a little, but the show really does focus on the hits.

It’s a Grand Funk stroll so we’re going to do ‘Rock and Roll Foot Stomping Music’, ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’, ‘Locomotion’, ‘Shining On’, ‘We’re An American Band’ ‘I’m Your Captain – Closer To Home’ – all the stuff that people expect Grand Funk Railroad to do.

In that context that’ll be the core of the show. We’ll put in a new song in here or a new song in there. We don’t like to do four new songs altogether, because we know people are there to see and hear the hits. So, we really focus on that.

PB: What are Grand Funk Railroad’s plans beyond that?

DB: We’re tickled – this is 41 years.and we’re still out there and we can still get out there in front of an audience and have them up on their feet and smiling and having a good time and after the show it’s always fun to hear people say,’“God, I had so much fun.’

That’s what it’s all about and I love, now that we’ve gotten to this stage, that we see three, maybe four generations of people; little kids up on their grandparents’ shoulders, and they’re singing ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.’.

That’s pretty awesome. It’s such a treat to know that, you know?

PB: It’s got to be. Don, what are your favorite movies or novels?

DB: I’m a big James Paterson guy. I love his books so I’m constantly reading his stuff.
His last book is ‘Worst Case.’ Have you read that?

PB: No.

DB: It’s pretty good. I’m a book guy because I’m on airplanes all the time. And, I’m just reading the latest Dan Brown book – The Lost Symbol.’ Dan Brown’s the guy who wrote ‘Angels and Demons’ – the one where Tom Hanks was in the movie.

PB: Is there anything you do before you go on stage? Do you wear a lucky tie?

DB: (Laughs) I have a little ritual I go through and I make sure I have all my stuff and I have to make sure I have my ear plugs in because I try to keep my hearing as long as I can

PB: Have you done it? I guess that would be a grave concern for a drummer.

DB: Yeah, I’ve lost a considerable amount of hearing over the last forty years so I make sure I’m wearing my ear plugs. We always do a little pep talk right before we go on and get everybody a little cranked up before we take the stage.

PB: That sounds like a baseball team; only with electric guitars and drums. Thank you, Don. and the best of luck with Grand Funk Railroad.















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20629 Posted By: Raymond {Chip} Dobos (Cincinnati,Ohio)

whether we like it or not,the time its written in Don preforms as well as Mark,excellent listening even now it proves what a small band can really do,wish you all good luck,if ever again Rock!!

19554 Posted By: David (Pennsylvania)

I love GFR...but this group is not Grand Funk. Mark Farner is makes GRAND FUNK. Seen them over 30 times..... seen this new line up once and I won't see them again. Thats comin from a guy who's favorite grand Funker is Mel Schacher, not Farner.

19501 Posted By: Lisa Torem (Chicago, Ill.)

Hi Bill,

We are an international group of writers that would not be able to arrange for this, but that is a wonderful suggestion. Maybe some of us, in our home towns, can come up with some ideas, though.

Thanks for sharing information about Jesse. We all wish him the very best and he will be in our thoughts.

Lisa Torem

19499 Posted By: Bill J. (New York)

Don't know if you guys are aware of it, but Mark's son Jesse is in terrible trouble after having been paralyzed from the neck down after a fall last year. It would be a nice gesture, if you haven't already done so, to reconnect with Mark in some way and help with a benefit or something as the Farners could use your, and everyone's support right about now.
I've loved Grand Funk since the beginning, have all the records, been to the shows with the original line - up and will continue to listen to the music. Brings back great memories. But I don't think I'll ever go to another " Grand Funk " show unless Mark is in the band. Sorry guys.

19480 Posted By: leo forrester (ferriday,la)

no mark farner no grand funk railroad

19458 Posted By: hugo (mexico)

sin mark farner no puede ser el verdarero grand funk

19457 Posted By: Danny Rogers (Flint)

I've seen Grand Funk 16 times. 3 Times when they reunited in the 90s. I saw this band that they are calling Grand Funk and can tell you that it is definately not Grand Funk. Mark, Mel,& Don are the real Grand Funk.

19406 Posted By: tommy vise (franklinton la)

Yeah you right cuz...damn a new grand funk... without mark farner there is no grand funk!!!! What is a carl??

19380 Posted By: RD Morrison (Houston, Texas)

Please Don, For the GFR fans, reunite with Mark and put GFR back together for us, we're not getting any younger either! Life is too short. Can you explain what happend? Anything we can do as fans? Thanks RD

19325 Posted By: James McMillan (Boone Terre, MO.)

Don, although I miss Mark being with the band, I am glad the Funk still is playing. I was influenced very early by your solo on the old double record album, "Grand Funk Live", from 1970. I have patterned many of your grooves in my drumming style and I think you do one great job on the skins. Keep "shinin on bro".


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