I guess I could say I really began my rock ‘n’ roll journey back in sixth grade at Our Lady of the Angels School on Chicago’s West side. We had our first gymnasium dance that year, and I remember that night — and my burgundy outfit — well, complete with red vest, deep red polyester pants, red-flowered silk shirt and black platform shoes.
Flashbacks still occur as I recall streamers taped to the walls and hanging from the basketball hoops, a punch bowl of Hawaiian Punch, just a few of the fluorescent bulbs on, a record player manned by the gym teacher and a bunch of boys on one side of the room, and a bunch of girls on the other.
Everyone pretty much stayed on their respective side of the gym for most of the night, except for when the teacher called out “Ladies choice” and played Terry Kath’s “Colour My World” by Chicago. I’ll never forget that dance. I was a strapping 4 feet 10 inches, and she was a solid 5-foot-6. I rested my head on her chest during the flute solo, and from that moment on I was never the same.
Anyway, in typical youthful fashion, the 8 p.m. ending to the dance was quickly approaching and the realization that the evening was coming to an end caused mass concern when the teacher turned up the music a bit. “The Loco-Motion” was just released by Grand Funk Railroad, and was the teacher’s last-ditch effort to shake things up. For some reason, that song brought us “I don’t dance fast” kids all on the dance floor and, all at once, we became “American Bandstand” wannabes. Then the last song came on, GFR’s “We’re An American Band.” We air-guitared like we were on stage ourselves. I knew then what it felt to be a rocker!
But by the time I graduated grammar school in 1976, Grand Funk Railroad, which began as a power trio with drummer Don Brewer, bassist Max Schacher and guitarist Mark Farner, had broken up. No more Grand Funk 45s to be purchased from the record store on Saturday mornings. I was heartbroken! But over the years, the band got back together and split up again multiple times with a variety of rosters. I was able to breathe once more.
With all the bands I have worked with in my 25-plus years in the music biz, I only worked with Grand Funk for the first time just in the past couple of years. And that was with the Don Brewer version of the band. Although Farner was in and out of the band over the years, he predominantly focused on his solo career.
I recently worked with Mark Farner for the first time on a co-bill at the Arcada Theatre with Three Dog Night original Chuck Negron. The two guys and their respective bands just killed that night, with just so many hits, and both are out-of-control rockers who have not missed a beat!
I met Farner for the first time as he was on our stage doing his sound check before that night’s show. He is a thick guy, still sporting his signature patriotic colors and long, straight hair. As I was watching him effortlessly rock his guitar, I was marveling about how his thick fingers landed perfectly on every fret.
He said hello, and I could pretty much look him square in the eyes. Whoa! I thought he was a much bigger guy! We talked a bit, and he is very much grounded, still with a deep appreciation for his fans. I shared my story about those two songs and he gave me a couple of stories back.
First of all, he saw legendary rock-and-roller Todd Rundgren had signed our dressing room walls after his recent Arcada appearance. “Did you know that Todd produced both those songs, ‘The Loco-Motion’ and ‘We’re An American Band?’ ” he said. “As a matter of fact, had it not been for Todd, we would never have recorded ‘Loco-Motion’ ”
It seems that the guys were recording when Farner walked in whistling the 1962 Little Eva version of “The Loco-Motion” he had just heard on his car radio on his way to the studio. Rundgren heard Farner and the producer wheels started turning!
“There is a story out there that The Beatles recorded ‘The Loco-Motion,’ ” I said.
“No, they never recorded it, but when I was touring with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, Ringo told me it was one of the covers they would play before they made it big. So I sang it on stage with him and it was recorded on his next live album! That’s as close as I got to playing with the Beatles!”
In 1965, the Beatles sold out Shea Stadium in New York in just about two weeks. That was an incredible feat, being that meant more than 50,000 people bought tickets in a pre-Internet culture. A few years later, Grand Funk Railroad smashed that record, selling out Shea Stadium in less than 72 hours.
“It was a mind blowing experience! People everywhere, we had to be helicoptered in. When we landed in the parking lot, our limos weren’t there, so the police brought us into the stadium to the stage, which was on second base, with their sirens on. One of the coolest experiences of my career,” Farner said.
During his incredible Arcada show, Farner slammed on the brakes to pay special tribute to military personnel. He touched on their sacrifices and dedicated his next song, which had become a Vietnam War staple. Originally penned by Farner about a sea captain facing a mutiny with his crew, “I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home)” became a wartime anthem for the troops overseas who just wanted to be “closer to home.” At the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Wall, “I’m Your Captain” was voted the No. 1 requested song by Vietnam War vets.
Both the Don Brewer version of Grand Funk Railroad and Mark Farner’s solo tour featuring Grand Funk hits continue, and thank God for that. These songs are a huge part of our pop culture, influencing people and music from the band’s inception in 1969 through the young generations I see at my theater today. In a time when patriotism is tested regularly, and national unity is at a rare premium, there is nothing that gives me red, white and blue warmth more than someone on stage proudly professing that they are an “American Band.”