The original members of American band Grand Funk Railroad grew up in the shadow of Motown.
During its early days in Flint, Mich., the trio, heavily influenced by the ’60s soul music emanating from Berry Gordy’s Detroit hit factory, Motown Records, was a rhythm-and-blues band.
Also following the example of late ’60s power trios the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and Blue Cheer, Grand Funk Railroad adopted the rock-trio format.
“We took our R&B thing and cranked it up,” drummer Don Brewer recalled from his home in southeastern Florida.
Grand Funk later showed its R&B roots with hit remakes of Little Eva’s 1962 hit, “The Loco-Motion,” and the Soul Brothers Six’s “Some Kinda Wonderful,” originally a 1967 release that reached only as high as 91 in the Billboard Top 100 singles chart.
“We were heavily influenced by all of the black music that was going on,” Brewer said.
“One of our biggest hits came from our time in Flint when we were listening to the black station WAMM. They were playing the Soul Brothers Six version of ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ and we just picked it up later from that.”
Formed in 1969 by Brewer, bassist Mel Schacher and singer-guitarist Mark Farner, Grand Funk Railroad’s popularity soared in the era of progressive-rock radio.
Following a succession of gold and platinum albums, the group released hit singles, too, 1973’s Brewer-sung and-composed “We’re An American Band” and 1974’s “The Loco-Motion.”
Signaling a liberating new direction for the band, Todd Rundgren, a successful recording artist himself, produced the two albums, We’re An American Band and Shinin’ On, that contained the latter hits.
“Todd was a joy to work with,” Brewer said. “Before Todd, we had always worked at Cleveland Recording. We used old-fashioned recording techniques, an old-fashioned engineer, old-fashioned equipment.
“It was difficult to get the rock feedback, big arena sound in that studio with that kind of engineer.
“But Todd threw all that stuff out the window. ‘Hey, here’s how you do it. You burn it on the tape too loud and you distort it. That’s what makes the sound good. Just play any way you want to and I’ll get it on tape.’
“I loved it,” Brewer remembered. “Those two records were very pop-oriented rock ’n’ roll but they sounded great. They still sound great today.”
Grand Funk turned to another great artist of the era, the super-inventive singer, composer and guitarist Frank Zappa, to produce 1976’s Good Singin’, Good Playin’.
“It was a nice combination, working with these guys who were so well-respected in the music community,” Brewer said. “They brought so much to the Grand Funk Railroad table.”
Farner left the band following Good Singin’, Good Playin’. He returned in 1981 and 1996, but only temporarily.
After Farner’s 1998 departure, Brewer and Schacher recruited singer Max Carl, formerly of .38 Special; guitarist Bruce Kulick, whose credits include KISS, Meatloaf and Billy Squier; and keyboardist Tim Cashion, a rock veteran who’d performed with Bob Seger and Robert Palmer.
“When Farner left the band again Mel and I started trying to figure out what we were gonna do,” Brewer recalled. “We lucked out and got Max and Bruce and Tim to come in with us and we’ve been touring ever since.”
Brewer, who also plays drums with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, calls Cashion the last white soul singer on Earth.
“Grand Funk is this unique combination of R&B and rock,” he said. “So we require a guy who gets what the R&B thing is and that’s Max.”
Brewer also thinks it’s some kind of wonderful that Grand Funk Railroad has an essential original ingredient intact, the original rhythm section partnership of Brewer and Schacher.
“It’s the engine that drives,” he said.