Grand Funk Railroad end 2012 at Resorts with a pair of shows Dec. 30 and Dec. 31.
Desperate times often call for desperate measures, even in the music business. Especially in the music business.
That’s where the members of Grand Funk Railroad found themselves in 1972.
Two years earlier, they had sold more albums in one year than any other American band. Their popularity was so huge that in 1971, they broke The Beatles’ attendance record at Shea Stadium in New York by selling out the 70,000-seat ballpark in just 72 hours.
But behind the scenes, GFR was on the verge of jumping the tracks.
They were being sued for breach of contract by their former manager, Terry Knight, whom the band had fired because of mismanagement. And, in spite of their huge fan base, albums flying off the shelves and sold-out concerts, the music critics were savaging their live shows and recordings. GFR needed to make a major musical statement, and they needed to do it fast.
“We were really just looking for hit material,” says GFR founding member and drummer Don Brewer. “We were going through a big lawsuit with our former manager who had kind of ripped us off of everything. And we were also going through a major change in radio from FM underground to being more of a hit-oriented format. We really had to get with the times if we were going to stay alive. It was sink or swim time.”
Touring behind their 1972 album Phoenix, Brewer found himself thinking about the band’s job as they toured from one city to the next.
“I was just looking at what we were doing, and I kind of felt like we’re coming to your town, we’ll help you party down, because that was our job,” Brewer says during a recent chat from his home in Florida. “And so I had this line in my head, and pretty soon I sat down with my little guitar and I was screwing around with two-finger chords and stuff and I came up with some chord changes.”
A new song was percolating, and Brewer, 64, didn’t have to look very far lyrical for inspiration. Life on the road offered plenty of opportunities — wink, wink, wink.
“I wrote the lyrics about things that were happening on the road,” he remembers. “There was sweet Connie in Little Rock and the four chiquitas in Omaha [and] playing cards with [bluesman] Freddie King all night.”
The only thing missing was a tag line for the song, which presented itself a few weeks later.
“That’s when it dawned on me that the perfect answer to everything is that we’re an American band, and that’s when it all came together,” Brewer says of the song that eventually became known as “We’re An American Band,” which became GFR’s signature and remains an iconic tune that’s still in regular rotation on practically every greatest-hits radio station in the country.
Brewer, who’ll lead Grand Funk Railroad into Resorts Casino Hotel for shows Dec. 30 and on New Year’s Eve, knew the song had hit potential. But he had no idea that it was going to have four decades of staying power.
“I knew the song was going to be a major hit the first time I heard it on the radio,” he remembers. “I had to pull my car over and off the road because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, because on the radio it sounded so great, it just had the sound of a hit record. I think it still does today. When I hear that opening drum lick and the cow bell and the way the song comes on, it just takes control.”
Grand Funk Railroad already had several hit singles, including “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home,” when it released “We’re An American Band” in 1973. The song shot to the top of the charts and would be the first of two number one singles the band would release that year, along with their cover of “The Loco-Motion.”
Forty years after their biggest hit, Brewer and founding member and bass player Mel Schacher perform about 40 shows a year. The band’s third founder, Mark Farner, last performed with GFR during a period in the late 1990s.
Yet the band, who used legend-in-waiting Todd Rundgren as one of their record producers in the 1970s, still captures the original GFR sound with its collection of all-star musicians. Keyboard, guitarist and songwriter Max Carl, a former member of .38 Special is part of the current GFR lineup. So is Bruce Kulick, who spent 12 years playing lead guitar behind KISS. Veteran session musician and keyboardist Tim Cashion, who has played behind Bob Seeger and Robert Palmer, rounds out the band.