Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley began their careers as solo folk artists on the coffee house circuit in the early 1960s. Both native mid-westerns (Oklahoman and Ohioan respectively), they first met in 1964 at the Blind Owl coffee house in Kent, Ohio. It would be three more years before they would team up, and during those three years the two crossed paths at clubs on the folk circuit, and each tried their hand in other musical collaborations that didn’t pan out.
In 1965 Michael Brewer migrated to Los Angeles following the emerging west coast music scene. Around this time, Tom Shipley arrived in L.A. and looked up his acquaintance from the folk circuit. Tom rented a house around the corner from Michael’s house, and soon they began writing songs together. Brewer eventually accepted a job as a staff songwriter at Good Sam Records, a publishing offshoot of the newly formed A&M Records. When Shipley was subsequently hired as staff writer for A&M in 1967, their partnership began as a songwriting collaboration.
A&M Records soon recognized that Michael & Tom’s demo recordings exhibited a unique sound and style of their own, so they green lighted them to record an album, Down In L.A. A&M brought in the best musicians in the L.A. to play on the album. But even with a soon to be released debut album and mutual friends who were starting to make it big in bands, such as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Association, Michael and Tom so disliked their life in L.A. that they decided to move back to the Midwest as soon as the record was recorded.
Tom described their decision to settle in Missouri as one of fortunate circumstance:
There was a music scene built up in Kansas City, and Michael and I used to come during Christmas and it was great. There would be clouds in the sky — you don’t see clouds in LA, just the haze. We really didn’t care for L.A. very much. We had just had enough, and figured there had to be a better way to make music, without living there. So we left California, and ended up coming back to the heartland. We ended up in Kansas City and started a management/production company with some friends.
After settling in Kansas City, they released four albums in the space of four years: Weeds, Tarkio, Shake Off The Demon, and Rural Space. It was on the third album Tarkio (from a regular gig they played in Tarkio, Missouri) that they released the song One Toke Over the Line, which they wrote as a joke while preparing backstage for a performance.
The incident that sparked this song happened at the Vanguard in Kansas City, Missouri. The band was playing the show because, in seeking to escape the LA music scene, they started a tour of their Midwest homelands. Shipley reports that he was given a block of hash and told to take two hits. He ignored the advice and instead took three. Shipley recounts in The Vinyl Dialogues:
I go out of the dressing room – I’m also a banjo player, but I didn’t have one, so I was playing my guitar – and Michael (Brewer) came in and I said, ‘Jesus, Michael, I’m one toke over the line.’ And to be perfect honest, I don’t remember if Michael was with me when I took that hit or not. I remember it as ‘not’; I think Michael remembers it as ‘yes.’ And he started to sing to what I was playing, and I chimed in and boom, we had the line.
Brewer also remembers the occasion:
I just cracked up,” he said. “I thought it was hysterical. And right on the spot, we just started singing, ‘One toke over the line, sweet Jesus,’ and that was about it; then we went onstage.
It took Brewer & Shipley on quite a roller coaster ride that year. Just as it was peaking on the charts, the Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew labeled Brewer & Shipley subversive to America’s youth and then strong-armed the FCC to pull “One Toke Over The Line” from the airwaves. They made President Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List,” a badge of honor which they continue to wear proudly today.
In the early 70’s not everyone knew what the word “toke” meant and additionally many misinterpreted their iconic song because of the “sweet Jesus” lyrics. This probably accounted for several country artists recording “One Toke” in 1972 and was definitely responsible for “One Toke Over The Line” being covered on the Lawrence Welk Show by the wholesome-looking couple Gail Farrell and Dick Dale (not the surf guitar legend), who clearly had NO clue what a toke was.
At the conclusion of the performance of the song, Welk remarked, without any hint of irony, “There you’ve heard a modern spiritual by Gail and Dale.” This caused Michael Brewer to comment:
“The Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, named us personally as a subversive to American youth, but at exactly the same time Lawrence Welk performed the crazy thing and introduced it as a gospel song. That shows how absurd it really is. Of course, we got more publicity than we could have paid for.”
Because of their broad appeal, they became a favored support act for major tours, and shared the stage with a diverse list of artists, including: Elton John, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, Electric Light Orchestra, Blood Sweat & Tears, James Taylor, Stephen Stills, The Beach Boys, Loggins & Messina, Linda Ronstadt, John Sebastian, and The Ozark Mountain Daredevils among others.
As of late 2019 they were still performing. At present, Michael Brewer lives outside of Branson, Missouri. Tom Shipley lives in Rolla, Missouri, where he is part of the staff of Missouri University of Science & Technology. He is semi-retired as manager of video productions and continues to work on special video productions for the university. Michael Brewer was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame on December 1, 2018. He joins contemporaries such as, Hoyt Axton, Leon Russell, Jimmy Webb, B.J. Thomas, Tom Paxton, J.J. Cale, Elvin Bishop, and Vince Gill. The Hall also has some legendary members like Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Patti Page, Gene Autry, Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys.