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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Exclusive Interview: Mark Dawson, Lead Singer and Bassist of The Grass Roots

By Aaron S. Robertson

Author's note: After reading this in-depth interview with Mark, check out my follow-up with him in October 2013!

If you ever get the chance to talk with Mark Dawson, you’ll notice a couple of things right off the bat: he loves humor and will almost certainly make you laugh, no matter the subject; and he listens to you, showing a genuine interest in what you have to say. And so it was during our conversation by phone on September 12. I haven’t even met the man in person yet, and we were talking like old pals for more than an hour and a half, sharing memories of our favorite bands and concerts, talking about sports, and a lot more. We talked briefly about other recent interviews I’ve done, the latest having been with Doug Clifford, the drummer of Creedence Clearwater Revival. As many of my readers and friends know, I’m starting to get into lyric/poetry writing a little bit, and Mark even took some time out to give me a few pointers on the business side of music, which I really appreciated. As with all of my interviews, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity, and I hope you’re just as excited to read these words as I was in writing them.

Serving as the bassist and lead singer of The Grass Roots comes naturally to Mark. “I’ve always been a sucker for mid-60s pop,” he explained. “And not just Brit pop, but American pop. The Buckinghams, Paul Revere and The Raiders, The Seeds, Gary Lewis and The Playboys, and of course, The Grass Roots!,” he added.

Happy Together Tour, Grass Roots, Wisconsin State Fair, Mark Dawson
Wisconsin State Fair, August 2012.
So just how did Mark end up becoming the bassist and lead singer of one of the greatest bands to emerge from the 1960s, filling the big shoes of Rob Grill, who died in July 2011 after dealing with multiple health issues? The back story, as Mark explains, reaches back to the mid-late 70s. “I was just a punk kid, about 21, trying to hook up with other groups. One night, we played at a field house at Western Illinois University. I think this was ’77 or ’78. We had to open for The Grass Roots! Not only did we have to open for them, but we had to supply our gear to them,” he explained, adding, “Well, Rob and I hit it off, and he invited me up on stage to play some songs with them! That was really cool. And we just kept in touch over the years.” But despite this long friendship of nearly 30 years, the timing for joining The Grass Roots was never quite right. Something else always seemed to come along. “It was never the right moment to make the leap [to The Grass Roots],” Mark told me. “There was always a lot of soul-searching taking place.” He thought a chance came along in 1982, when Epic records pulled the plug on a band Mark was working with. But then another project presented itself, and again, and again, until 2004, when Mark, originally from Chicago, moved to Orlando and Rob to Mt. Dora. The two were now only 30 miles or so apart, and they began keeping in touch more. In 2006, the official announcement was made that Mark had joined the group as a bass player and secondary singer. About taking Rob’s place after his passing, Mark explained, “I don’t try to imitate Rob. I try to emulate what he did.”

Performing in January 2011 at the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, IN.

But in addition to helping to carry on the legacy of one of America’s greatest groups, Mark is also making a name for himself as a solo artist, as well. He’s currently working on his second solo album, and hopes to have it completed sometime this fall. Entitled, “Making Noise”, he credits his wife, Cathy, for coming up with the title. “I have an in-home studio, and she always says to me, ‘Go make some noise,’” he explained with a laugh. One of the songs on the album, “Cold Sweat on a Hot Night”, is available for free download at Mark’s Web site. The album promises to be a lot of fun, featuring Carl Giammarese, lead singer of The Buckinghams as well as a solo artist in his own right, and at least one member of the Ides of March, among others in an all-star lineup.

Mark can also be heard on a few group albums. He did a couple albums with The All-Night Newsboys in the mid-90s. And a song entitled, “She’s Gone Hollywood”, which Mark appeared on in an album released in 1982, is getting new life, thanks to The Numero Group, a record company known for putting together high-quality, unique compilations. “That was pretty exciting. I just received this phone call out of the blue one day from someone at The Numero Group saying they’d like to use this song in a compilation album, and that they’ll be in touch to discuss the royalty arrangement,” he said. The compilation is named Buttons: From Champaign to Chicago. “They do a great job finding material for their compilations, and they also do great liner notes - they’re so nicely written, and they really provide the reader with rich background info,” Mark added.

A big fan of Paul McCartney, you may see Mark in the crowd if you’re catching McCartney’s show in St. Louis on November 11. “We just bought the tickets this morning, actually, and I’m really excited,” he told me.

Dusty Hanvey, Mark Dawson, Joe Dougherty, Larry Nelson, Grass Roots
L-R: Dusty Hanvey (guitar), Mark Dawson (bass), Joe Dougherty (drums), and Larry Nelson (keyboards) of The Grass Roots. Source:
The Grass Roots are expected to have a new album out in 2013, as well, the first album with Mark as lead singer of the band’s current lineup. The background story on this live album is interesting. As Mark explained it, the band was performing at the Sausalito Art Festival on September 2. That performance was being recorded for this new album, when, about 40 minutes into the show, the entire festival went down - everything was being run on solar power. In the end, the band lost those first 40 minutes or so on the recording, ending up with only 18 minutes. So The Grass Roots are scheduled to be back out in California in October, this time for a private show in Cloverdale, where the band will give the recording a second go.

Mark Dawson's take on a Grass Roots classic, "Temptation Eyes"

In addition to keeping busy with recording, Mark is also an aspiring author - well, of sorts. He’s working on a book he hopes will be out in early 2013. As with his new album’s title, Mark credits wife Cathy for the idea of the book, which he describes as, “…a little paperback, toilet humor kind-of-book.” Based on, “…the silly, ridiculous things I say on Facebook and Twitter,” Cathy noticed one day that he has over 5,000 Facebook and Twitter posts, and that’s where the idea started. It’s a funny book you don’t want to miss, and Mark said he’s in talks with a, “…famous person…” to pen a foreword.

“I don’t try to imitate Rob. I try to emulate what he did.”

When not on the road touring or in the studio recording, Mark enjoys the simplicity of everyday life. “It sounds cliché, but I really enjoy each and every day,” he explained to me. “Cathy and I hang out a lot, do spontaneous things - dinner, farmers markets, the beach. I love playing with the local musicians when I get the chance. I don’t like schedules, like to be spontaneous, be free-flowing.” Mark is also a big pro-sports fan, mostly baseball and football. “Go Pack!,” he told me, in reference, of course, to our beloved Green Bay Packers.

Mark and guitarist Dusty Hanvey represented The Grass Roots for the 2012 Happy Together Tour, their third year in a row doing the tour. The 2012 lineup, in addition to The Grass Roots, featured The Buckinghams, Gary Puckett, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, and The Turtles. Unfortunately for Grass Roots fans, the band will not be represented for the 2013 Happy Together Tour. Asked if there was any one particular moment, show, or venue that really stood out in his mind during this year’s tour, it was tough for Mark to answer. “We had a lot of fun! Choosing one favorite moment is very difficult. That being said though, the Minnesota State Fair does stand out for some reason. The fans are insane up there! They were just so loud and fired up about the show. It was a blast.” And, of course, performing in his hometown of Orlando stands out. “We performed at The Plaza Theatre. A big highlight, my hometown. Less than a 1,000 people in the place, and so many people knew me!”

Asked if he was keeping an eye on anyone in particular as far as up-and-coming talent, Mark was quick to point out a band called The Dunwells, made up of five guys out of England. He noted that The Grass Roots played a show in Rochester, New York, and The Dunwells was the opening act. “They were like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, only more modern, more electric guitar,” he said. “They were awesome. I ended up buying their CD. One night, I turned the TV on, and they were on the Jay Leno show! Excellent songwriters and performers.” He also enjoys the work of The Decemberists, the indie group out of Portland, Oregon.

Mark Dawson, Mark Dawson Grass Roots
Mark’s advice for aspiring musicians: “Always make sure you do something because you love it. My father always gave me that advice. He’d often tell me, ‘Be sure to love what you do.’ And be in touch with your audience. Know what you’re playing for them, and make them happy. If you do that, the fans will respond. They’ll come to your shows. They’ll buy your CDs. They’ll tell others about you.”

I was curious to know if there were any musicians that Mark hasn’t performed or recorded with that he would love to. “Chris Isaak,” he said. “He’s just the nicest, most-likeable guy. All that stuff I said about connecting to your fans, he does it!”

And what kind of interview would I be delivering to my readers without a Milwaukee spin? Mark shared some great memories of performing in the Milwaukee area. “I always enjoy playing Summerfest,” he said, adding, “It’s always so well-run, and the talent lineup is great.” He recalls seeing our very own BoDeans playing at Summerfest in what he thinks was 1984. “I was just so impressed with them! A lot of talent there.” And he fondly remembers a performance by Styx in the early ’80s at Summerfest. “I was friends with Tommy Shaw. Tommy was sick and worried he’d have to be hospitalized. A doctor came along, gave him some adrenaline, and he ended up taking the stage that night afterall, and he sang great! You would have never known what had just taken place backstage.” And let’s not forget about that other big summertime festival, the Wisconsin State Fair. One thing that stands out in Mark’s mind is a performance The Grass Roots gave at State Fair a number of years back. “We played with Three Dog Night. It was raining pretty heavy that night, and no one got out of their seats to leave. That was awesome. We really appreciated that.”

And don’t forget to check out the view from the bass. Mark launched a Web site called the “Bass Eye View” - an ongoing collection of photos he takes from the stages of the venues he performs at, with his bass in the shots, of course. As Mark explains, “I’ve played some pretty cool venues. I just love old theaters, just love them. One night, I’m standing in front of the stage of a theater, taking pictures. Then I got the bass in a pic. Our stage manager, Jason Craig, said, ‘Cool bass eye view.’ And that’s how it started.”

For this self-described punk kid with Chicago roots, it’s been a heck of a fun journey, the kind of journey that dreams are made of. The adventures continue, and he invites you to tag along with him.

On the Web:


  1. Mark is a great guy and a super talented musician! - I saw Mark at one of the Happy Together tour dates in Orlando, and asked him if he would do a local charity event, He was excited to help out! - The event was a great success because of people like Mark!

  2. Great story, Aaron, about a gracious and talented entertainer with his own eye view and unique taste on the world. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Great article, Aaron. Mark is indeed a talented, gracious and witty gentleman with his own eye view, in addition to his bass' eye view, on the world. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I met Mark at the 2012 Happy Together tour in Effingham IL. He impressed me with his bass playing skills and his great vocals. He absolutely breathed new life into this music of the 60's and brought an unlimited amount of energy to the stage, that made me love this music even more. I was priveled to meet him in person and he treated me as if he had known me his whole life and and made me know that his love for his fans was genuine and that his fans were special to him and worth the extra effort. The next time I saw Mark he picked me out of a crowd and came over and gave me a big hug and made real again this special love that he has for his fans, what a guy !

    1. Really great article! Nice Job Aaron. I will have to check out The Drumwells as well.

  5. The first time I met Mark was at the 2012 Happy Together Tour in Effingham IL. I was very impressed by his skillful bass playing and his powerful vocals. He actually breathed new life into this great music of the 60's and made me love this music even more. He brought such an energy and excitement to the stage like the great performer that he is. I was priveledged to meet him in person after the concert and he treated me as if he had known me his whole life. This made me know that the love he has for his fans is both special and genuine and that his fans are worth the extra effort. Some months later I saw him again at a concert and he picked me out of the crowd, called my name and came over and gave me a big hug and made sure that my wife and I got a photo with him and the band what great guy !

  6. This is a wonderful article about Mark Dawson and what a genuine person he is. He not only is extremely talented, but has a GREAT sense of humor which we have witnessed on facebook. He is very personable as well, as my sister and I saw. At the Montgomery, AL Happy Together Tour in June 2012 we met Mark and Carl Giammarese out back. This was my sisters first Grassroots concert since Rob Grill had passed. She loved Rob and told Mark how she missed Rob and this was hard for her. Mark was so understanding and hugged her twice and tried to make her feel better. He also responds to emails we send him and takes time on fb to comment. We love the Grassroots and can hardly wait to see them again and hopefully get to meet Mark once more.

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