Don Brewer is the group's drummer, and along with their lead singer Mark Farner (who left the band in 1999), he wrote many of their songs, including the massive hit "We're An American Band." Don has a lot of energy and is very personable, which might explain how he toured constantly and still found motivation to write. He's been with the band since they formed in Flint, Michigan in 1969. Grand Funk called it quits in 1977, regrouped for a short time in the '80s, and got back together in 1996.
Don Brewer: Okay.
Songfacts: Anything you can tell us about it, like how it started, the origins?
Don: Well, we started out as a trio in 1969. Everybody calls it heavy metal, but heavy metal didn't come around till the '80s. So we were just a hard rock trio. And we were kind of riding along with the FM underground situation as far as radio was concerned. So we were able to make 7-minute, 9-minute songs. And we'd get airplay with them, because that was kind of the in thing to do. We could get whole albums played.
And as we moved into 1972, FM underground radio was beginning to be very commercial. So they were looking for 3-minute songs, 3 minutes 30 seconds long. The new commercial AM radio became FM. So we needed to go that way. And we had left our former manager, Terry Knight, in 1972, and we were going through lawsuits and all of this crap. And we came out with an album that was very different for Grand Funk Railroad called the Phoenix album. We were lucky to have sort of a semi hit off of that record ("Rock & Roll Soul"), but we knew at that point that the next record had to be something big or the career was going to go down the toilet.
So we were touring, supporting the Phoenix album, and we were just going from town to town and we were having lawsuits flying all over the place. It was a very tumultuous time period. And I remember us having lots of discussions in the backs of cars going, "What are we going to do next?" And our manager kept saying, "Why don't you just write songs about what you do? Look, you're out here on the road, you're going to this hotel, you're going to the place, there's people, you're coming into town." So the thought came to my mind, we're coming to your town, we'll help you party it down. That's really what we were doing. We were coming into towns and we were the party. (laughs) So that's where the line came from. And the next thought that I had was, We're an American band. And it wasn't, like, to wave the flag or anything. It was just simply that's what we were. I mean, it was just a true description and it kind of rolled off my mind as far as, (singing), "We're an American band."
So I went home and worked on the concept for a while, picked up the guitar. I'm not really a great guitar player. I can play two-finger chords and that kind of stuff. And I worked out the chords and the chord structure to it, and I brought it into rehearsal one day, and there you go. I mean, we just kind of let it go from there. And it had a whole mind of its own. (laughs)
Songfacts: How about the lyrics, are they about anything in particular?
Don: Well, they're all about little things that were going on on the road during that Phoenix tour. Freddy King was the opening act for us, the great blues guitar player from Texas. And it always struck me funny that he would make his band play poker with him every night. We used to sit in on some of the poker games and that's where that line came from. "Was up all night with Freddy King, I've got to tell you, poker's his thing." It was just funny, he'd have these band guys that he would pay them, and then he'd go win all the money back, so they were broke and they'd have to keep playing for him. It was a great deal.
The four young chiquitas in Omaha, that came from a situation where we checked into this hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, and there were four groupies in the lobby waiting to see the band. (laughing) The legendary Connie out of Little Rock, Arkansas, that's where that line came from. "Sweet, sweet Connie doing her act." So all the stuff is true and it just kind of figured into being in the song.
Songfacts: So it is "four young chiquitas in Omaha"?
Songfacts: That has to be one of the most mis-heard lines ever. When I was DJ-ing at a classic rock, I even put that out, "Does anybody know what that line is?"
Don: What were they saying?
Songfacts: A lot of people heard "welcome" in there. I heard "Welcome to Keetas in Omaha," or like as if it was a bar or something. But that wouldn't make any sense.
Don: No, it's "four young chiquitas in Omaha." A lot of people can't understand the Freddy King part, because they don't know who Freddy King is, I think. Anybody that knows who Freddy King is immediately picks it up, so people that didn't know who Freddy King was, they couldn't understand. "What are you saying? Are you saying that Focus can't sing?" No, I'm not saying Focus can't sing. I'm saying "Freddy King."
Songfacts: Yeah. If it was BB King or Albert King, people would know. Freddy's just a little off radar.
Don: (laughing) Right.
Songfacts: Was this the first song you wrote?
Don: Oh, no. I'd written some stuff before that. I actually had co-written a couple of things with Mark on earlier albums and I had been writing songs, actually, ever since I started playing drums. I was always writing.
Songfacts: And you're lead vocal on "American Band"?
Songfacts: Because Mark was doing most of the singing at the time.
Don: Mark did most of the stuff. I sang "Are You Ready" and "High On A Horse," and "I Can Feel Him In The Morning." There were a lot of things that I sang. "Gimme Shelter" was mine. A lot of people used to think that Mark sang "We're An American Band," too, and "Some Kind of Wonderful" is another one which I do half the lead on that song. "Shinin' On," "Walk Like A Man," a lot of people just kind of assumed that Mark was singing all of that stuff, but he wasn't.
Songfacts: What do you think of the Kid Rock cover of "We're An American Band"?
Don: Well, I think it's great that he does it. I mean, a lot of people have done it. Garth Brooks did it. I wish I could have heard that one. (laughing) So, to be honest with you, I was kind of let down when I heard it, because I kind of assumed that when Kid Rock was doing a version of it, that he would do more of a rap/rock version, since he is a rap/rock guy. But he really just stays true to what the song is. Just kind of covers the song. He does a good version of it.
Songfacts: The song has come to have a fair amount of meaning over the years. It's one of the songs that's really been hanging around. I don't know if there's anything you attribute that to, but there aren't many songs that do that.
Don: Well, from the time that I brought the song in and we worked up an arrangement to it and we got it recorded, the song just kind of had a life of its own after that. And I don't know what makes a song like that. Nobody can sit down and write a song, like "I'm going to write a song like this and it's going to be a major hit." You know? They just either have it or they don't. And that one just had it.
Songfacts: Now, when Terry Knight was your manager, he did some stuff that was pretty revolutionary at the time, the billboard and that kind of thing. When you moved onto this album, obviously it must have had some really good promotion, because it became a No. 1 hit.
Don: Well, the time was right, it was the summer, heading for the 4th of July. We'd come off of about a year of publicity with the lawsuits flying over Terry Knight. Rolling Stone and the other music mags and press were all covering us. There was a lot of things going on where, as long as we came up with something that was commercially viable, it was going to hit. And this really just kind of took it over the top. We enlisted Todd Rundgren to work on the album. We wanted that commercial appeal that Todd could give us with FM radio. He really understood what the sound of the time was. So when he came in, man, it just was there. The magic was there. We recorded down in Miami, it was just - I hate to say magical time period, but it was. One thing was leading to another and it was just kind of all snowballing and happening for us, and the fact that the song was so good and so commercially good, that just added to it.
Songfacts: Was that at Criterion in Miami?
Don: Yeah. That album was done at Criterion.
Songfacts: I was talking to Bobby Whitlock the other day, who did Derek and the Dominos down there.
Don: A lot of people have recorded in that studio. It's a famous studio. It really doesn't do anything but rap anymore.
Songfacts: It's still around, though.
Don: Oh, yeah.
Songfacts: So what was it like with Todd Rundgren in the studio?
Don: Well, working with Todd was very relaxed. He did the engineering himself, as well as the production. He would just kind of sit there and let us do our thing and work our way through all of the arrangements. And every now and then he'd drop in a suggestion. His real thing was the sound. I mean, he just had a way of turning knobs that would make everything sound huge. Even in the headphones - a lot of engineers would come in and they'd go, "Oh, I've got to record everything flat. Don't worry about what it sounds like in the headphones, I'll make it sound great later."
Well, Todd was of the school that, "I'm going to make it sound that way right now. It's going to tape right now that way. I'm not going to screw around with it later and have a whole different sound. You guys are going to hear the way it's going to sound on the record in your headphones." And that was new to us. And it just blew us away that we're hearing these great sounds in the headphones as we're playing.
Songfacts: So when you're doing a song like, in your early days, "Closer To Home," it's going to get pieced together like Frankenstein by the time it's done.
Don: Well, not really "pieced together." The arrangement was the arrangement. It's just that the sounds weren't the same. They would take a guitar, and rather than let the guitar be all distorted and crazy sounding, it would have to be clean. Or the drum sound would have to be clean instead of heavily EQ'd, because they were afraid that if they did the EQ now to tape, then they couldn't have that option later. So Todd didn't care. He would just make it sound the way he wanted to right up front, put it on tape that way, and that's the way it was going to be. Which was wonderful, because then you could hear it in the context of what the final outcome was going to be. It wasn't a matter of piecing anything together. Those songs were always arranged and done in their entirety. I mean, back then we used to do an album in a week, so you didn't have a lot of time for splicing and editing and changing arrangements after you got it done. It was done in a week and it was done with mistakes or without, whatever happened.
Songfacts: You guys are one of the greatest groups at picking cover songs and somehow making them work. Can you explain how "Locomotion" came about, for instance.
Don: Well, we can go back earlier than that. We can go to "Gimme Shelter" and "Inside Looking Out." They were songs that we felt at the time that we could do - I wouldn't say a better job than the original, but we could make them be ours. It was always a matter of taking a song and making it be ours. And to do that, I think we, as a band, had to feel it. So when somebody came up with the idea of doing a cover song, it was like the whole band could feel, Oh yeah, man, this feels great.
You know, we were really kind of a jam band in the studio. We would endlessly jam on stuff. So the idea of "Locomotion" came out of working on the Shinin' On album in the studio with Todd, and we had basically finished the album. "Shinin' On" was going to be the first single, and we really weren't even thinking about what to do as far as another song was concerned. And Mark came in one day and just off the top of his head he was singing, "Everybody's doing a brand new dance," you know, just for fun. And we all went, "Yeah! Grand Funk doing 'The Locomotion'!" You know, it was like a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. And we said, "Let's try it. Let's do it."
Songfacts: I guess it was the right time frame, apart from the original, that it had a fairly new audience for it, as well.
Don: Sure, yeah.
Songfacts: What about when you did "Some Kind of Wonderful," who came up with that idea?
Don: Well, actually, the idea came from me. We all grew up in Flint, Michigan. We used to listen to a station called W-A-M-M, which was a black station in Flint. We grew up on R&B and gospel and soul music. And they used to play the Soul Brothers Six version of that song all the time on WAMM radio in the '60s.
So when we were traveling around the country, I used to just start singing that song in the back of the car a capella, and everybody would just kind of jump in and sing along with me, (singing) "I don't need a whole lots of money, I don't need a big fine car." And then we'd kind of share off on the choruses and stuff. And the manager said, "God, yeah, it's a great song, why don't you record it?" So we recorded the song and it became a huge hit.
Songfacts: When you got the American Band album, you did some tricks with the album packaging. Who was it who was coming up with the idea to print out something other than black vinyl?
Don: Well, that was Capitol's idea. A couple of bands had done that prior to us. It's called virgin vinyl, actually. And it's expensive. So record companies didn't want to do virgin vinyl, because you can see through it. In the black vinyl they can put all kinds of impurities in there and nobody cares about it. In virgin vinyl, where you can see through it, if there was impurities and stuff, there'd be little specks all through it. So they didn't like doing that. But we just went to them and said, "Look, we want to make a special statement." So they agreed to print 100,000 units of both the single and the album on virgin vinyl, gold vinyl, to kind of go along with the gold record situation that we had going. We had about six gold albums prior to that record and it was just kind of like, "Let's give everybody a gold record."
Songfacts: And there were only 100,000 of them printed?
Songfacts: So that must have made them pretty rare.
Don: They were rare. And they still go for a pretty good buck now for collectors.
Songfacts: Anything you can tell me about Shinin' On?
Don: Well, the Shinin' On album was, again, the second album that Todd did. And we were working at our studio, it was probably the first record that we had done at our own studio in Michigan. And we had been working on building this place for a couple of years and we finally got the thing done and we went in there and we actually recorded that album there. It was the first record we did there. We didn't mix it there, we mixed it in New York, but we did record the whole thing there. And it was a fun project, there was some little tensions starting to arise at that point, but all in all it was good fun.
Songfacts: Anything you can tell me about the title track?
Don: Well, it just came from me wanting to express myself as far as we are winners and losers, bedfellow choosers, but we all have to shine on, just keep on moving forward.
Songfacts: And another song you wrote, "Walk Like A Man," did pretty well.
Don: Yeah, that was the follow-up single to "We're An American Band." Just another song we were jamming on in the rehearsal studio and those lyrics came to my mind and I started singing, "Walk like a man, call me your man." And it just kind of came out of jamming along and coming up with the chord changes that seemed to sound right with it.
Songfacts: You were never concerned that the Frankie Valli song was going to get in your head while you were trying to write it?
Don: Well, it never did, really. There was an issue about that afterwards and so we ended up changing the title of the song to "Walk Like A Man (You Can Call Me Your Man)." Just so that the Frankie Valli folks wouldn't be upset.
Songfacts: I know Mark wrote this one, but I was just wondering if I could get any insights from you on it. "Closer to Home."
So for a day or two we'd worked on this song and it just didn't go anyplace. That was about as far as we could get with it. And then one day, coming out of a jam that we were working on, we fell into that halftime part, you know, "dum, bum ba dum ba ba bum." And that's when Mark came up with the lyrics for, "I'm getting closer to…" And we all felt, Oh, man, that's great. We'll put that piece together with that and that's going to work. Then we said, what are we going to do from there?
So we got into the furtherance of the jam with the guitar part when it comes in, breaks back into full time again, "da da da da da da." So we got that far. Then we had a brainstorming session, what are we going to do for the rest of the song? Well, at the time, bands had experimented with orchestras, rock bands with orchestras. So we said, Well, let's put an orchestra on this thing. We'll just play endlessly, and then we'll get Tommy Baker - a friend of ours down in Cleveland - to write the score for it and we'll put an orchestra on it. So that was really the approach that we took to the song, was kind of a new thing for us. Kind of new for the day, too. There hadn't been too many bands with orchestras, so that was the concept.
When we recorded the song in Cleveland, we didn't have the orchestra there. We didn't know what the final outcome was going to be. We just recorded the end of the song on and on and on, over and over, knowing that they were going to come in and put an orchestra on it later. When we finally heard the song about two weeks later it just blew us all away. It was a religious experience. (laughing)
Songfacts: Did you have FM radio in mind when you were recording it?
Don: Well, yes and no. We really didn't - we weren't concerned with FM radio. We knew FM radio could play 7 or 8 minute songs. It wasn't a matter of being confined to anything. So we knew that it could get airplay, that wasn't a restriction. Capitol obviously wanted to cut it, do an edited version for a single and we said, "No, no, no, no, you can't edit that song. Just leave it alone."
Songfacts: There was a history to that kind of thing going around back then.
Songfacts: The Bob Seger song "Turn The Page" is about life on the road. And you actually were on the road with Bob Seger.
Don: Yeah, in the '80s.
Songfacts: What was that like? And does it have any resemblance to the song that he's famous for?
Don: Not at the time I was on the road. Bob wrote that song in his early days when they were on the road in a car and stopping at truck stops. When I was touring with Bob it was 5-star hotels and limousines (laughing), not that kind of a situation. So my experience with Bob is great bunch of guys, great organization. Punch Andrews and Bill Blackwell up in Detroit are long-time friends of mine. I kind of equated it to what was going on in the '80s. It was corporate rock. It was really very businesslike and everybody knew what they were doing going into arenas and selling out and playing a great classic show. That's what it was. And Bob had so much great material to draw from. We could change songs halfway through a tour and it didn't matter, there was still plenty of material to go around.
Songfacts: And you also got to work with Frank Zappa. What was that like?
Don: Well, I became pretty good friends with Frank and used to go over to his house and hang. And actually we still run into Dweezil every now and then. Frank was totally unlike what everybody thought. Frank had this image of being a mad scientist with music and totally out to lunch and just a crazy man. And he really wasn't. He was very straightforward/family man/musician kind of guy. A genius. A musical genius, no doubt. But a real sweet guy. And I consider him one of my best friends and one of my brothers.
We spoke with Don Brewer on June 1, 2004. Get more at grandfunkrailroad.com.
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