Charlie Brunner: Rock and Roll Mayor
- Category: Dr. J's Blog
- Published: Friday, 07 October 2011 17:19
- Written by Gary Johnson
So what does a shy teenaged guy who is totally uninspired by schoolwork think about as he watches the minutes slowly tick away during those seemingly endless classes at Bangor Junior High School during the 60’s? The Beatles? Nancy Sinatra in a bikini? Who was going to be on Shindig or Where The Action Is this week? Playing drums? The lyrics to “Get Off My Cloud”? What it would be like to have a car? The tight sweater and budding breasts of the girl one row over and what it might be like to run your hand across them?
It’s tough being a young man with raging hormones and a rock and roll heart sitting quietly in a crowded classroom. Yes, there were lots of things to think about while passing the time. But I’m guessing that thoughts about careers in education and politics probably weren’t on his daydream agenda.
Over the course of two interviews held with him in the mayor's office in Bay City nearly 42 years later, it appeared that a young Chuck Brunner would have fit the above profile rather closely. Introverted as he was at that age, Chuck would probably have been pretty happy just to talk to that girl in the next row without getting tongue-tied and flustered, never mind the touching.
Brunner was a big fan of the Beatles and bought every record and photo book he could lay his hands on. Inspired by Ringo Starr, he started playing the drums in junior high. Although he was hardly a school rebel, Chuck even got sent home from school one day because his hair was “too long”.
“Too long” in the public schools of Bay County in the 60’s meant that your hair might be touching your collar, or God forbid, covering your ears. And, of course, those bangs couldn’t be combed too far down on your forehead. Brunner remembered that coaches might even take offending ‘longhairs’ into the locker room and shave their heads. Those were the ‘good old days’.
Although Chuck was unmotivated in most of his academic courses, music was another matter entirely. He enjoyed drumming at school in band class, but how many twelve-year-olds would be determined enough to go down to the Herter Music Center in Bay City and take out a $239 loan for the purchase of a starter Ludwig drum kit? (It was the brand that Ringo played). That was a lot of money for a paperboy back in the day.
Brunner’s stepfather co-signed for the loan, and Chuck had to make regular monthly payments of $20. And even though it initially lacked a set of cymbals and a floor-tom, (those would come later) he became an official member in teenage rock and roll heaven with the purchase of his new drum set.
Chuck set his drums up in his bedroom and practiced along with the hits of the day on his portable stereo. Brunner remembers that his mother was very supportive of his drumming, and that he did most of his practicing while his stepfather, who was not a fan of rock and roll, was at work.
Brunner met and became friends with Frankie Rodriguez during a history class at Bangor Junior High. They shared a mutual interest in popular music, and Frankie was excited to tell Chuck about the band he had just joined called the Mysterians. Brunner had a chance to watch Frankie’s band that summer when the Mysterians played in the “Battle of the Bands” at Roll-Air on State Park Drive. During those days, Chuck often visited the new Rodriguez home on Wheeler Road in Bay City, and it was there that he first tasted Mexican food.
By 1966, Frankie’s band was better known as Question Mark & The Mysterians. The group recorded two songs in Detroit in February of that year for what was supposed to be their first single. Tragedy struck when the owner of the record label was killed, and the songs were not released. Complicating things further was the impending draft into the Army of drummer Robert Martinez and bassist Larry Borgas. To avoid being sent to Vietnam, the pair enlisted on “the buddy system” and they were quickly stationed elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the band’s new manager, Lilly Gonzales, had already set up a recording date at the Art Schiell Recording Studio on Raymond Street in Bay City in April, and the band was now without both a drummer and bassist. Eddie Serrato was initially recruited to fill the drummer position, but concerned about the time he would be missing from his job at the Saginaw Steering Gear plant, he decided to quit the band instead
Frankie suggested that his friend Chuck Brunner could fill the drum seat, and Chuck played several dates with the band including a gig opening for Hispanic music favorites Rudy & The Reno Bops at the Saginaw Auditorium.
He was then given a demo recording of both “96 Tears” and “Midnight Hour” to listen to and learn for the April 15th recording date at Schiell’s Studio. Brunner remembers sitting on the floor of his home in Bangor Township and listening to the demo over and over on his mother’s hi-fi in order to prepare for the session. In the 8th grade and recording a single, what could be better?
Sadly, the rug got pulled out from Chuck when drummer Eddie Serrato had a change of heart and rejoined Question Mark & The Mysterians shortly before the band’s classic recording was made. The bad news was delivered via a phone call on the day of the scheduled session. It was a big disappointment for Brunner even though Schiell’s tiny studio wasn’t very impressive on the surface.
The recording facility was situated in a converted sun room off the dining area in Schiell’s modest home on Bay City’s West Side. But then who in their wildest dreams could ever have imagined that “96 Tears” would go on from such humble beginnings to become a # 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 just six months later? Chuck came that close to playing drums on a song that is rated as one of rock and roll’s 500 greatest songs by both Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So what’s a young drummer do to hide his disappointment? Play in another band, of course. Chuck rolled with the punch and joined the Loose Ends, a band with musicians all a few years older than he was. Brunner was the only member not old enough to drive. The Loose Ends played fairly regularly at dances on weekends, appeared at the popular Saginaw teen spot, Daniel’s Den, and were even written up in Deb & Jo's column in the Saginaw News. Just to be on the safe side, however, Chuck kept his day job as a Bay City Times newsboy on Route 159 on the West Side.
By 1968, the Loose Ends had undergone some lineup changes and transitioned into Cherry Hill. It was during this time that Chuck got another call from Question Mark & The Mysterians. Eddie Serrato had quit the band again, and they needed a replacement drummer for an important gig at a Ft. Wayne, Indiana teen club called the Swinging Gate. The band and their equipment traveled in two Chevrolet window vans to and from their engagements and on the ride back from Ft. Wayne, Brunner was asked to join Question Mark & The Mysterians as the permanent drummer. Joining a nationally known band while in high school? There could only be one answer!
This big news led to a March 17, 1968, article in the Bay City Times entitled 'Times Newsboy Signs With Mysterians". The story quoted Chuck as saying that “He could hardly believe it. He had hoped that such a thing might happen but didn’t really expect it.” The article gushed that “instead of driving his folks crazy on drums, he’s busy driving the nation’s teenagers crazy.”
The article also opined that Brunner “probably never thought about being famous and signing autographs when he was delivering the Bay City Times on his paper route.” Chuck excitedly stated, “It seems really funny to sign autographs,” and that he hoped “to squeeze in enough classroom work to complete his sophomore year at John Glenn High School before taking correspondence course if the tours get too fast and furious”.
Brunner also said in the article that the band had scheduled spring TV appearances on both American Bandstand and Happening ’68, and had just signed a new recording contract with Capitol Records. The news story made it seem as if Brunner’s future was so bright that he might have to borrow Question Mark’s shades.
It sounded almost too good to be true, and it was. Soon after the Bay City Times article on Chuck went to press, the ever unpredictable Question Mark (a.k.a. Rudy Martinez) decided that he wanted a different drummer for the band. Bassist Frank Lugo’s brother, Adam Lugo, was given the job instead of Brunner.
Original guitarist Bobby Balderama stated in a recent interview with me that Question Mark felt that the band should continue to be all-Hispanic, and he convinced the rest of the Mysterians to go along with him. The first clue came when no one in the band called Chuck about rehearsal, and then the dreaded word came that he was out. To this day, Brunner claims that he can’t remember exactly how it all went down.
Chuck was understandably devastated by the news. Brunner hadn’t signed a contract with the band, and in his excitement of becoming the new drummer for Question Mark & The Mysterians, he had given up both his paper route and his drum seat in Cherry Hill. His family and close friends understood but now he had to face the kids at Bangor John Glenn. What would they say?
For a quiet guy, it was probably pretty tough going to high school in the aftermath of the Bay City Times story followed by his sudden dismissal from the band. However painful the losing of his rock and roll dream might have been, it probably was a major factor in Chuck's decision to start concentrating on school work for the first time and discovering that he both enjoyed and took pride in his academic success.
Needing to work, Brunner got a job as a grocery bagger/carry-out at the Ray’s Food Fair on Euclid Avenue. It was there that he became known as “Charlie” rather than Chuck, and he would continue to use “Charlie” from that point on.
Brunner also started playing in a two-man band with his friend Gregg Barber at this time. Featuring Gregg on accordion and Charlie on drums, the pair started playing at weddings in late 1968 or early 1969. With the addition of Gregg’s brother on guitar, the band became known as the Gregg Stevens Trio and their success as a wedding band helped pay for Charlie Brunner’s eventual college education.
After working briefly at the GM plant in Bay City and at a number of other jobs around town, Charlie was persuaded to enroll in college by a girlfriend who was about to attend MSU. Brunner initially wanted to attend Northwood Institute and then operate his own car dealership. But his poor overall record at John Glenn killed that idea, and he instead took advantage of Delta College’s open enrollment program to pursue an associate’s degree in Business Administration.
Two years later, he transferred to Central Michigan University. Attracted by the enticing prospect of summers off, Charlie got his degree in Business Education. He then began what would become a successful 30-year teaching career in the Midland Public School System in 1977.
That old saying “sometimes things work out for the best” might very well apply to Charlie Brunner’s abrupt departure from Question Mark & The Mysterians. Things did not go all that well for the group in 1968 and beyond.
On April 2nd, shortly after Brunner had been dumped, lead singer Rudy Martinez, age 23, was arrested in a parked vehicle in a rest area off I-75 near the Zilwaukee Bridge and charged with glue sniffing. State Police said they found several tubes of glue and brown bags containing glue in the vehicle when they arrested Martinez and two other individuals, one of whom was a 15-year-old Saginaw juvenile. The story of the embarrassing arrest was carried in both the Saginaw News and the Bay City Times, as well as newspapers across the state.
Shortly thereafter, Capitol Records dropped the band from its roster after their lone single, “Make You Mine/Love You Baby”, failed to chart. The situation with Capitol Records resulted in an irreparable rift between the band and their manager, Lilly Gonzales.
With both Eddie Serrato and Frank Lugo no longer with the band, Question Mark & The Mysterians signed with Ray Charles’ Tangerine label. In 1969, Tangerine released a non-charting single, “Ain’t It a Shame/Turn Around Baby”. The band had recorded enough material for an album, but Tangerine dropped Question Mark & The Mysterians instead and the songs remain unreleased.
By the time that Question Mark & The Mysterians released their last single of the decade, “Sha-La-La”, on Super K Records, only Question Mark (Rudy Martinez) and Frank Rodriguez were left from the original band, as guitarist Bobby Balderrama had departed to go back to school. When Frank Rodriguez left to move with his family to Texas, Rudy Martinez was left to carry on with an ever-changing cast of backing Mysterians.
Charlie had no contact with any of the members of Question Mark & The Mysterians after he was replaced. Frank Rodriguez had stopped attending John Glenn in the 9th grade, and their friendship was also undoubtedly affected by the band’s decision to sack Charlie. Thirty years after the incident, the original members of Question Mark & The Mysterians reunited for a sold-out performance in Bay City. Brunner attended and enjoyed the show, but he made no effort to speak to any of his former band mates. I guess he felt that he’d already had his “15 minutes of fame” in the rock and roll arena.
Interested in local politics over the years, Charlie Brunner successfully ran for the seat of 9th Ward Commissioner in Bay City in 2001. Coincidently, the 9th Ward includes the Banks area where Madonna’s grandmother lived and where a young Madonna spent several summers following the death of her mother.
After retiring from the Midland Public Schools, Charlie was elected mayor of Bay City in 2007. It’s mainly a ceremonial job paying $8,000 a year with no staff, but one gets the feeling that Brunner is going to use his position to do the very best he can for Bay City. Talking to him, you can sense his enthusiasm for promoting economic development, new housing codes, “green” energy policies, and collaboration of services between neighboring townships and the city. And to top it off, he is also working to resolve the “Madonna issue” that has made Bay City look rather foolish to the rest of the world for over twenty-three years.
Charlie stopped playing the drums a few years after marrying his lovely wife, Judy, in the 1980’s. He was tired of playing almost every weekend and sold all his equipment. Judy Brunner seems to have a good sense of humor regarding her husband’s musical ability and his rock and roll past – the ring tone on her cell phone is the tune of “96 Tears”!
So what might be going through the mayor’s mind as someone drones on and on over some trivial issue at a City Commission meeting? An upcoming weekend in Traverse City with his wife? This morning’s weather forecast? Or could it be a recurring fantasy of installing a gleaming set of Ludwig drums in the Commission Chambers and kickstarting every meeting with a rousing rendition of “Wipe Out”? It would certainly liven up those often dreary meetings and give every indication that his rock and roll heart is still beating.