April 20 marks the birthday of Craig Frost, a great musician who was a member of one of the best bands in the history of rock and roll.
In my opinion, anyway.
Grand Funk Railroad emerged from the working-class city of Flint,Michigan in the late 1960’s. Drummer Don Brewer and guitarist Mark Farner, who were members of Terry Knight and the Pack, decided to go out on their own when lead vocalist Terry Knight decided to get into band management. They recruited bassist Mel Schacher, formerly of ? and the Mysterians (although Mel didn’t play on their hit “96 Tears”), and decided to model themselves after one of their favorite bands, Cream. So they became a power trio, managed by Knight. Their name is a play on the Grand Trunk Western Railroad which wound its way through Michigan at the time. Grand Funk Railroad blew away the audience at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969, and by the end of 1970 they had sold more albums than any other American band that year. They didn’t get a lot of AM radio airplay, but were staples on FM with hits like “Closer To Home (I’m Your Captain)” and “Footstompin’ Music”.
GFR had an angry split from Terry Knight in 1972, and were being sued for all they had. Craig Frost had been touring with the band here and there, and had played with Brewer and Farner in The Pack, so he was brought in as a permanent keyboards player. They needed a fresh start, so they recruited Todd Rundgren to produce their next album, and named the LP after a song that Don Brewer had just written about being an American rock and roll band on the road: “We’re An American Band”. It became the band’s first number one hit, and is a rock classic. I remember talking to Don about writing the song, and he told me a funny story about the line “up all night with Freddy King, I got to tell ya, poker’s his thing”. According to Brewer, “We were on tour with Freddy. Every person that he hired to play in his band was required to be a poker player, because the man loved to play poker…and we found out why. He would pay the band in cash after every performance, then win back all of his money from the band members by playing poker on the bus!”
The follow-up to “We’re An American Band” was “Shinin’ On”, again taking the name from the title cut of the album, penned by Brewer. If you get a copy of the original album (complete with 3-D glasses on the cover), take a look at the inner sleeve. It contains a complete list of dates and venues from the Shinin’ On tour. About 2/3 of the way down the sleeve, you will read “March 23: Illinois State University-Normal”. What a great way to remember the date of my first concert.
My brother, Randy, was a senior in high school, and had been playing in bands all through his teens. So when Grand Funk announced they were coming to Normal, all the guys in the band got tickets. I begged Randy to let me go along. He agreed, as long as I paid for my own ticket…a total sum of $3.50.
It was a Saturday night show, and five of us all crammed into one vehicle to make the trip to ISU. When we got there, I noticed they were selling all kinds of GFR merchandise, so I bought a poster of Mark Farner playing his signature Microfrets guitar, and raising his fist in the air…that poster still hangs in my basement today.
The show was certainly a memorable one. Wet Willie opened the show, and did a pretty good job. But then the lights dimmed a second time, and a large screen above the stage showed footage of fireworks going off in the air…just as the band kicked into “Footstompin’ Music”. From that moment on, it was hit after hit for me…in more ways than one, as numerous joints were passed down the line for everyone to enjoy.
I think everyone remembers their first concert experience, and I know that I will never forget mine…do you remember yours?
Here’s a clip from that very tour…maybe it was even shot at ISU!