“Working on The Railroad”

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CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

WORKING ON THE RAILROAD

Terry Knapp was born in Lapeer, Michigan. Charlie Speights’ wife Nancy remembered the Knapp family since Terry’s father used to be their milkman.

Knapp became Knight.

Terry Knight was hired as a disc-jockey at WTAC by Gene Milner and later went to Detroit, where he worked at WJBK and CKLW.

Terry was an extraordinary air talent and master bullshitter.

He returned briefly to Flint in late 1964 as an air personality at WTRX.

While back in Flint, Terry rented the IMA Auditorium and bought commercials on his station for a special promotion. The copy was quite clever.

“The Sounds of Chuck Berry; the Sounds of Stevie Wonder; the Sounds of the Beach Boys; the Sounds of the Dave Clark Five and the Sounds of Gene Pitney!! All for just three dollars on SUNDAY from 2 ’til 6 at the IMA. BE THERE OR BE SQUARE !!!”

Two thousand showed up and forked-over their three bucks. Terry plugged in his turntables and played records featuring all the artists and “Sounds” mentioned in his advertisements. Several hundred were quite disgruntled in the absence of real live performers and Terry cheerfully refunded their admission in full. Most remained. Crowds always keep crowds. Terry walked away with several thousand dollars for all his time and trouble. Although outraged at his amazing scam, we secretly had to admit he certainly had pulled off a good one.

The time was at hand for Terry to leave the broadcasting business.

He wanted to be not just a radio hero, but a Rock ‘n Roll Star.

Joining forces with Flint musicians Mark Farner and Donnie Brewer, Terry changed the name of Donnie’s band “The Jazz Masters”. It became “The Pack”.

“Terry Knight and the Pack” started playing throughout the Midwest with Terry out-front on vocals and “The Pack” in back.

In 1966, Terry Knight and the Pack were signed to Lucky Eleven Records and had a minor national hit with “I (Who Have Nothing)”. It was their only big single. Two albums which followed flopped, so they were dropped.

The group broke up and Terry headed for the Big Apple.

He tried stints as a “folk-singer” and “stand-up comedian”. He went to work for Ed McMahon and picked-up a few minor television roles. He wrote a movie soundtrack. He was just about everywhere, doing almost everything. Nothing in particular was coming down all the way right.

But wait.

If Terry wasn’t making it big as a “Star”, what about nailing the big time as a “Star-Maker”?

Returning to Flint, he called Donnie and Mark.

They needed a bass player.

Mel Schacher was out of work. He used to play with Question Mark and the Mysterians, but the group’s popularity had collapsed after not quite two years. “Q” was sniffin’ glue. Yuk. Mel was available!

As anyone who has ever waited an eternity for a train to pass through one of Flint’s many railroad crossings knows, Grand Trunk Railroad ruled the rails in the Auto City.

Terry pictured the trio pounding out basic rock and blues with minimal frills. They’d just chug right along and huff and puff like a big old Rock ‘n Roll locomotive steam engine and……. hey! That’s it!  Grand Trunk Railroad!  No. Hang on. Wait a second. Let’s think. Trunk.

Trunk-Skunk-Hunk-Bunk-Sunk-Punk-Dunk-Junk-Funk. Funk. FUNK!!

“GRAND FUNK RAILROAD!!!!!”

Terry rehearsed the band hours upon end.

He told everyone who would listen that “Grand Funk Railroad” would be bigger than the Beatles.

Sure, Terry.

Do you mean the “Sounds” of the Beatles, or the actual Beatle-Beatles?

Mark and Donnie and Mel were well regarded in the Flint musical community, but Beatles?

Terry also put on his “Master Bullshitter” hat and went to town. He called everyone he knew in the entertainment trades. And in radio. And in television. And in movies, newspapers, magazines, advertising agencies, public relations firms and every other media-connected organization he could think of.

Terry sold Grand Funk Railroad like he was pushing pussy on a troop train!

“They’re incredible, unbelievable, amazing, wonderful, gigantic, stupendous, spectacular, superlative, outstanding, unbeatable, killer and the greatest”.  And he was only talking about the Grand Funk road crew!

Somehow, some way,  Terry was successful in booking the completely unknown group at a major musical marathon scheduled called the Atlanta Pops Festival. He then focused his attention on making contact with every major rock station in the South. He lined-up interviews for the group. He arranged for limousines to sweep Mark, Donnie and Mel from station to station and town to town. He leveled his considerable talents at media manipulation toward every reporter, music critic and record executive who might come within a hundred miles of the Festival. And all their relatives, living and dead.

Well, what ‘d ya know?

The hype was so heavy that the world was waiting and Grand Funk Railroad delivered in Atlanta! They weren’t fancy. They weren’t flashy. They weren’t flamboyant. But they DELIVERED!! They were really LOUD!!!!

They did so well in their original time slot, they were asked to return at the end and close the show. They tuned-up and turned-up even LOUDER!!!

News of the concert spread wildly and Grand Funk Railroad was on the front page of newspapers across America and featured in key television clips of the Festival. Worst to first. Lame to fame. Back of the rack to tops at the Pops.

Terry had pretended and it all came true!

We were floored in Flint and Bob Dell had his plan.

Bob Dell and Terry Knight had known each other well working together at WTAC, then had drifted somewhat apart after Terry went to Detroit. They were briefly outright competitors when Terry had temporarily returned to Flint and WTRX. When “Terry and the Pack” came into existence, their friendship resumed and Bob had used the group several times at Mt. Holly and elsewhere. They had remained in contact during Terry’s varied careers in New York and Bob had been fully kept posted on the formation of “Grand Funk Railroad” before and after the fact. While he certainly was as stunned with the group’s massively heralded launch as were we all, he definitely had an “inside lead” and immediately made his move.

The idea was to create a smaller scale version of Woodstock or Atlanta on the slopes of Mt. Holly and headline “Grand Funk Railroad” in their premiere Michigan appearance. He would beat the capacity problem the indoor lodge presented by just taking it all outdoors. The hills behind the lodge had a natural contour which centered at exactly the right spot.  Perfect! You could probably squeeze thirty or forty thousand souls on the Mt. Holly hills. At five dollars a head, that would be the very heaviest of “hits” ever. Ha!

Terry Knight was excited over the prospect and disappointed in me since I had passed on “Grand Funk” at a guaranteed $2,000 vs. 65% of gate admissions. The most I payed a group was $1,250 vs. 50%. It was purely an economic consideration. If word got out (which it always did) that I’d adjusted both guarantee and commission percentage for Terry, I could forget maintaining established norms and be in a considerably riskier and less profitable series of investments.

Although I loved the music and the honor of promoting it far and wide, every concert was an exercise in basic business mechanics. I was always the last to get paid and, even with care and caution, found that nights of significant profit were necessary to fund other nights where losses might prove substantial. I surely came out way ahead over the long haul, but only by never forgetting the underlying economic realities of the game. Nine out of ten times, one would either win or lose in structuring performance terms with the booking agent weeks or months before the actual engagement. I was always making my best educated guess. I felt that Grand Funk Railroad, at that precise moment, did not offer the draw potential to justify the amounts discussed.

Admittedly, this was a few weeks before Atlanta.

The event was scheduled only two weeks in advance for the end of August and Bob arranged staggering logistics in record time.

A massive sound system was booked to cover acres of land and security planning was enormous. Heavy and expensive radio advertising was scheduled on Detroit stations and on Lansing, Ann Arbor, Toledo, Saginaw and Grand Rapids facilities. WTAC, naturally, became the “presenting” entity. Announcements started running on an hourly basis. Numerous live references on Bob’s morning program became standard and heard thoughout the rest of the day from “liner cards” scheduled by the Program Director and read by all the other jocks.

Since the Sherwood Forest hall was still several months away from opening and we had nothing major scheduled which might be negatively impacted by the “Grand Funk” Festival, Irons and I just raced through the promos. We sat back and waited with subjective interest. Would Bob hit the ball right out of the park again at Mt. Holly?

The day of the concert was hot and sunny.  Bob had live “road reports” scheduled every twenty minutes over WTAC to present an image of heavy incoming traffic; the highways to Mt. Holly choked to capacity with eager throngs flocking to the slopes. The reports kicked-off four hours before performance time.

The earliest “feeds” cheerfully reported “no problems”.  Dell was angry and suspected treachery. He spoke with the WTAC announcing staff “traffic reporters” via phone. The next few updates sounded strange. The drift was that even if there were no traffic tie-ups then, there would be later. The rest of the “update” was a blatant recitation of all the reasons to get up off one’s ass and attend the Festival. It became glaringly conspicuous that the show was in trouble. Orders were given to double all “Mt. Holly” announcements on WTAC for the rest of the day.

There is always a tendency to believe that last minute hyperbole can rescue a fading proposition. It’s only natural to want to do something as the odds of success slowly slide away right before your very eyes. I’d seen it happen many times before with other concerts,  promotions and, particularly, station “remotes”.

A “remote” was an appearance by a disc-jockey broadcasting “live” from some location away from a main studio. The theory was that hordes of listeners would show up to see the “live radio show” and be enticed to purchase products, test-drive cars, buy a lot of food or sign-up for a trip to Hawaii. It’s an easy “sell” for a salesperson to make, at least the first time around. It sounds like real “show business” and promises crowds galore.

“Why, sure we’ll put your salesmen on the air and they can talk about all the wonderful items and prices and deals and bonus offers they want.!  Our listeners will love it!

Bullshit!

” Remotes” only really work if there is enticement above and beyond the fact that there is a “live radio broadcast” going on somewhere. Even then and certainly now, viewing some turkey talking into a microphone is like watching water boil. However, should  the guy go on the air and promise to stick his dick in boiling water if somebody comes in and buys a new Buick, then we have something else again. We have SPIN!

The possibility is fair that someone listening who was going to purchase a new vehicle anyway, might head over to the dealership and plunk some money down just to see a dick get boiled. Stranger things have happened. Many disc-jockeys have little dicks anyway, so we’re not talking about a lot of pain. The point is that you need to have something really interesting to pull people in and broadcasting alone won’t cut it! The media alone is not enough message!

So it is I had often witnessed the cry of the wounded sales-warrior.

“Peter, we’re dyin’ here. Come on! Plug this more! I guaranteed the guy we’d pack this goddamn place! He’ll never use us again! Talk some more about the ten percent discount on swimmin’ pools they’re offerin’! Christ, the guy’s givin’ away free  chlorine with every one he installs!”

This actually happened.

Endless jabber from drooling owners, five minute dissertations on the glories of real brick fireplaces, or a ten minute treatise on aluminum siding is the worst sort of programming. You might as well just take the microphone and shove it up the client’s ass for a half-hour of digestive drama. I’ve wanted to. Listeners hate hype. If they turn your station on for entertainment and hear horseshit, they’ll leave. They’re always just one decision away from doing so. All the time.

The truth unfolding and lesson learned that lovely summer day at Mt. Holly was that “Grand Funk Railroad” had become interesting, but not yet compelling to Michigan rock fans. After all, almost everyone had known Mark, Donnie and Mel for years. They’d seen them at high school dances, weddings, family reunions and out in the bars getting drunk. . They were real people. “Stars” are never real people. They can’t be!

The magic was missing.

Grand Funk Railroad played well that day before several thousand who probably could have been squeezed inside the regular hall after all. Most of the crowd was from outside the Flint area.

After all the fuss and fury and promises of untold riches, Mt. Holly’s owners were bitterly unhappy. They had taken tons of shit from township officials, law enforcement agencies and area residents who seemed the only ones convinced, along with Bob and Terry, that a multitude would assemble on the slopes. For what? To “break-even”? They barely did that!

John Irons and I made a note to contact them after the first of the year.

As Fall arrived, work on the Sherwood Forest hall was nearly finished. A “Grand Opening Concert” was planned for the third Sunday in October. Who to book?

There was only one group I had in mind.

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