Backstage with Ron Onesti:
An “American Band” superstar
One of the coolest parts of my “job” is that I get to meet and work with some very cool people in the entertainment industry. There have been legendary performers, icons and brilliant musicians with whom I have been fortunate to share the Arcada’s historic stage.
One such unsung hero, in my book, is the former lead singer and guitarist for the rock band Grand Funk Railroad, Mark Farner.
I first became aware of this band at my sixth-grade dance. It was 1973 and the big event started as all of those types of things did back then. The kids were dressed in bright, color-coordinated polyester outfits, either purchased from Sears Roebuck just for the occasion or handed down from an older brother or sister. The dance was in the gymnasium, of course, nobody on the dance floor, boys on one side of the gym, girls on the other.
That is, nobody danced until the last half-hour when the “event is almost over” panic hit. I remember the first song that brought us to start group booty-shakin’ — it was Grand Funk’s version of the Little Eva classic “The Locomotion.” That song really got us going! Next was a “slow” song. The boys all quickly retreated back to the wall, for it was way “not cool” to slow dance. So the girls took control of the situation and grabbed random boys by their hands, Sadie Hawkins-style, and the dance floor was miraculously filled. That slow song was the Chicago hit “Colour My World,” and even though the girl I danced with was a foot taller than me, it was still magical.
That last song of the night was another Grand Funk Railroad megahit from the same album, “We’re An American Band.” The dance floor lit up with electricity and, at that moment, I became a certified Grand Funk Railroad superfan! So when I had the opportunity to work with the lead singer/guitarist for that band, I jumped at the chance, and it was something to be witnessed firsthand.
The band officially disbanded first in 1976. Farner launched a solo career, then reunited with his former bandmates for a couple of runs. But the last 20 or so years he has maintained a very busy solo touring career, performing mostly Grand Funk tunes to standing ovations and rockin’ sold out houses all over the country.
One look at Farner and you get the American flag personified. He is all about veteran’s rights and the plight of the American Indian. His song “I’m Your Captain” is one of the most-played songs on rock radio, and he continues to salute war veterans at every show.
Farner is kind of a quiet guy, thankful for his blessings and proud of his milestones. “Ya know, we were bigger than the Beatles,” he chuckled. He was referring to Grand Funk’s sold out show at Shea Stadium in New York in 1971. The Beatles also sold out Shea, but it took them about two weeks to do it. GFR sold it out in 72 hours!
Getting close to the artists is a privilege, and something I don’t take for granted. I really gain a unique personal perspective as they allow me into their personal lives. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine these international superstars have personal challenges just like any of us. It’s not all limousines, mansions and assistants for these folks.
I was in Nashville at a music conference recently and I ran into Mark and his lovely wife, Lesia. It was a grand reunion and we had dinner together. In between rock ‘n’ roll stories and “behind the music”- type insights, I asked him how long he plans to keep performing.
“My family is everything to me. I am building a huge home for my son, Jesse, with all the comforts he could possible want,” Farner said. Jesse suffered from a tragic automobile accident that left him paralyzed. “All I want is for him to be happy and lead a normal life,” he said.
At that moment, this larger-than-life rock star became majorly human to me. Got me to thinking of all the things these stars go through, things we never know. They must go on stage practically every night, play like it is their first time, be cordial to fans, smile during pictures, and remember ever note and lyric. All this with personal issues, big and small, going on back home.
I raised a glass to him that night. I toasted to Mark Farner, the father, the husband, the friend. He is a real person who has given much to rock fans around the world. And all he wants is for his son to live a normal life. I would say he is a “rock star” of a guy who I am proud to sing along with at the top of my lungs every time a Grand Funk tune comes on the radio.
“We’re an American Band” may be one of his big hits, but he is “An American Man” with a great sense of family pride. So next time you see one of your music heroes on stage at The Arcada, remember he or she is probably a working-stiff like you and me, just trying to take care of our families. For me, the music just got deeper, and more important.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.