Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Burton Cummings Interview: The Guess Who legend reveals true origin of “American Woman”

By Ray Shasho

Burton Cummings is the legendary voice, songwriter, and keyboardist for Canada’s own classic rock superstars The Guess Who. Although the group has had numerous personnel changes throughout the years, the most prominent members have been Burton Cummings and guitarist Randy Bachman.

Cummings was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His first band was an R&B group called The Deverons. The band released two singles on the REO Records label.

In 1965, Cummings joined The Guess Who replacing Bob Ashley on keyboards and eventually Chad Allan on vocals. The Guess Who scored commercially with their first international hit “These Eyes” (#6 Billboard Hit) in 1969. The track was featured on their album Wheatfield Soul on the RCA record label. The single was written by Bachman/Cummings and was their first to reach the top ten.

The Guess Who followed with a succession of Top 40 hits including … “Laughing” (#10 U.S. Hit, #1Canada -written by Bachman/Cummings) and “Undun” (#22 U.S. Hit).

1970 would prove to be the most pivotal year for The Guess Who. The group scored (2) #1 Hits in the U.S. with “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" and “American Woman” the group’s biggest selling single. The Guess Who also spawned the hits …. “No Time” (#5 U.S. #1 Canada -written by Bachman/Cummings), “Hand Me Down World” (#17 U.S. Hit) and “Share The Land” (#10 U.S. Hit -written by Burton Cummings).

Randy Bachman left The Guess Who in 1970 and would eventually form Bachman- Turner Overdrive.

Subsequent albums released by The Guess Who … Canned Wheat (1969), American Woman (1970), Share The Land (1970), So Long, Bennatyne (1971), Rockin’ (1972), Artificial Paradise (1973).

In 1973, Burton Cummings and The Guess Who released one of the group’s most underrated albums entitled The Guess Who #10. The album was a clear diversion from the band’s roots but spotlighted brilliant lyrical content and virtuoso musicianship. The album featured Burton Cummings composition “Glamour Boy.” The track was a jab at David Bowie’s glitter rock insurgence. The album also featured the profound “Cardboard Empire” written by Bill Wallace and Kurt Winter, while hauntingly performed by Cummings.

In 1974, The Guess Who collaborated on their final Top 40 single entitled “Clap For The Wolfman,” (#6 U.S. Billboard Hit) an applicable tribute to legendary radio and TV personality Wolfman Jack.

Subsequent releases: The Guess Who #10 (1973), Road Food (1974), Flavours (1974), Power in the Music (1975), The Way They Were (1976).

The Guess Who disbanded in 1975.

In 1983, Bachman, Cummings, Jim Kale and Garry Peterson reunited as The Guess Who to play a series of Canadian gigs and recorded the Together Again live album and video.

Bachman and Cummings reunited again in 1997 to perform in Winnipeg for a disaster relief fund raiser.

An eclectic Guess Who reunion ensued in 2000 featuring Bachman, Cummings, McDougall, Kale and Peterson. Bill Wallace eventually replaced Kale while the group toured regularly through 2003. A live album and DVD followed at the end of the 2000 tour.

The Guess Who was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2001. Cummings received an additional Star in 2011.
The Guess Who performed for an estimated 450,000 people at Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto, a benefit concert in 2003.

The Guess Who continues to tour with only original members … drummer Garry Peterson and bassist Jim Kale.

Burton Cummings also amassed a widely successful solo career. He landed a huge hit with “Stand Tall” (#10 U.S. #1 Hit Canada) in 1976.

Burton Cummings solo albums Burton Cummings (1976), My Own Way to Rock (1977), Dream of a Child (1978), Woman Love (1980), The Best of Burton Cummings (1980), Sweet Sweet (1981), Heart (1984), Plus Signs (1990), The Burton Cummings Collection (1994), Up Close and Alone (1996), Above the Ground (2008).

In 2002, The Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts in Winnipeg, Manitoba was renamed to dedicate the singer and songwriter.

In 2008, Cummings released the highly- acclaimed CD Above The Ground. All the tracks on the release are written by Cummings. The album also features his touring band The Carpet Frogs.
In 2009, Cummings received the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.

In 2012, Burton Cummings Massey Hall was released –an incredible live CD recorded in Toronto.

Most recently … Burton Cummings is on a summer tour. He’ll be releasing a book of poetry soon entitled, ‘The Writings of B. L. Cummings,’ and a video series called RUFF.

I had the rare opportunity to chat with Burton Cummings recently about the summer tour, the true origin of “American Woman,” The life and times of The Guess Who, Canada, Wolfman Jack and so much more!
Here’s my interview with singer, songwriter, musician and legendary voice of 'The Guess Who' BURTON CUMMINGS.
Ray Shasho: Hello Burton, thank you for being on the call this afternoon.
Burton Cummings: “It’s my pleasure Ray.”
Ray Shasho: How’s the summer tour coming along?
Burton Cummings: We’re doing great, actually we just came back from Kamloops, British Columbia and we did an outdoor gig last Saturday night on the side of a mountain in a natural amphitheatre and it was so beautiful. Last Saturday, there were moments when we were onstage that felt like 1968 or 1969 again, it was just great. There were tons and tons of people, they all brought their dogs, everybody had a great time and it was really terrific.”
Ray Shasho: Was that a music festival?
Burton Cummings: “It’s a one time a year festival at Sun Peaks which is a ski resort, and we could see all the cleared runs coming down the mountains and we played in this beautiful natural amphitheatre …just tremendous. So it’s been a pretty good summer so far, we’ve got another big one in Edmonton this week, Klondike Days, there’s all these big festivals in Canada, and after that I’m doing a couple of one-man shows in New York City and a place called The City Winery … so it’s a pretty busy summer.”
Ray Shasho: Burton, I’ve always wanted to see Canada but never got around to it.
Burton Cummings: “It’s beautiful it’s just cold for a lot of people’s taste. I grew up in Winnipeg and it’s thirty below a lot there. Thirty-thirty five below is not uncommon. I’m in California now which is a totally different world completely. I think I’m turning into a wimp because I can’t take the cold the way that I used to. When we were kids we just played hockey all day long outside and we’d come home with frozen toes and frozen finger tips and frozen cheeks and that was just an everyday occurrence.”
Ray Shasho: Canadians are buying lots of property here in Florida.
Burton Cummings:Now they’re calling Toronto … New York north. It’s such a huge place; it just became the fourth largest city in North America. How about this …Toronto just passed Chicago in population. The city has always been cutting-edge, the CN Tower is one of the wonders of the world, but you know what’s huge there is the film festival. When they have the Toronto Film Festival they call it Hollywood north, because every major star is always there, every major studio is always represented. When you’re in Toronto at film festival time you can’t get a reservation at a restaurant or an elevator in your hotel, it’s just completely overrun. It’s good for Toronto and good for Canada.”
Ray Shasho: We never seem to hear negative news coming out of Canada, things always appear somewhat peaceful and I really like that.
Burton Cummings: “Here’s the thing … in Canada we have one-tenth the population that the U.S. does. So just purely by the numbers there’s going to be a lot less crime. We have socialized medicine in Canada which is very-very attractive to Americans. It’s the same as Sweden. You know another place in Canada that people rave about is Quebec City, there’s so much history there. So a lot of people particularly from the United States go to Quebec and get the European experience without going all the way over to Europe. So when you think of it that way, it’s kind of cool.”
Ray Shasho: I chatted with some guys that may have been on your last studio album entitled, Above the Ground … I interviewed Gino Vannelli and chatted with Brother Ross Vannelli.
Burton Cummings:Ross sang on my last studio album, I know all of them quite well. Joe was my engineer and Ross is the youngest of the three, he sang and played a little guitar on my last album too. Joe was the assistant producer and Ross just came in and did some musical stuff. Joe helped me out a lot, he’s a great engineer. And he’s got a beautiful state of the art studio out in Agoura Hills, California … it’s not that big but these days it doesn’t have to be that big anymore, everything has shrunk so drastically.”
Ray Shasho: Many music artists are recording from their computers at home nowadays?
Burton Cummings: “There’s a very famous story that PINK did most of her album from a laptop on the bus between gigs. You can actually do that know.”
Ray Shasho: Don’t you kind of miss that big music studio experience though?
Burton Cummings: “I do miss the big room experience that we used to have in the old days recording at the RCA Studios in LA and then also with Richard Perry at Studio 55 which was adjacent to the Paramount Pictures lot. I kind of miss the studio experience to a degree but also I love the technology, what you can do is sort of fix things. I don’t use a lot of Auto-Tune but if I have a piano clunker, you can now go right in and dial that bad key out, whereas before you had to do a whole new take and go beginning to end. It’s a double-edged sword; I don’t like the fact that there are so many machines on records now and another thing I don’t like, Joe Vannelli said this to me too, have you ever noticed in the last eight or nine years … everything is perfect. It’s not supposed to be perfect, there’s never a tiny glitch in the vocals, never a bad note on anything because producers and engineers are just fixing everything. I think you can over-fix things. I think you can fix things to death. There’s no human element left. I don’t think the vocal is supposed to be tuned like a guitar string. But that’s just me; I’m 65 and seeing it through older eyes.”
Ray Shasho: I spun 45’s and album tracks when I was a Top 40 radio deejay back in the late 70’s and that technology brought the radio listening audience the greatest music the world has ever known.
Burton Cummings: “The thing about radio that is disappointing now is the voice- tracking. It’s not live like it was, when I was a kid you could phone-in and now with voice- tracking, people don’t realize … I really shouldn’t let the cat out of the bag, maybe a lot of your readers don’t realize how much voice- tracking really goes on. It is true; I did AM radio in my hometown of Winnipeg for awhile with my best friend Gary MacLean. We did the 3-6, drive home in the afternoon shift and what I liked about it the most was that they let me pick all the music. So I was showing up with literally great big shopping bags of my own collection of CD’s. We were picking them right on the spot, live radio like the old days, taking calls from people and playing all the stuff that I chose, it was an oldies station so it was right up my alley. I’m telling man, it was some of the most fun that I ever had in my life. I was doing three or four different characters, different voices, and people actually thought sometimes that there were three and four different people in the studio with us and it was all just me. Anyway, we had a lot of fun. I might have actually gone into radio if I hadn’t been so lucky with the music.”
Ray Shasho: Burton, I’ve got to say man, you’re imitation of Gordon Lightfoot rocks!
(All Laughing)
Burton Cummings: “I actually did it in front of him one night. Years and years ago I was playing a week at a big cabaret place in Toronto called the Imperial Room and it had quite a history, Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr. and all the stars from earlier on had played there. So I went in and did a week and I was doing that imitation in my show of Gordon. I guess by the end of the week they were writing it up in the papers and some of his friends had been there and had seen me do it. So Saturday night, the last night of the show, he comes down and sits right in front of me, gets a table in front of my piano. So it gets to that point in the show and of course I did the imitation right in front of him. It was hilarious! When I do it onstage people howl with laughter, it’s pretty funny. I like impressionists. When I was a kid watching The Ed Sullivan Show, other than The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five my favorite stuff were always the impressionists.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve heard many different versions about the origin behind “American Woman.” What is the true origin behind the making of “American Woman?”
Burton Cummings: “Alright here are the true goods …it was jammed onstage one night in Mississauga, Ontario, we were playing at a club called the Broom & Stone which was actually a curling rink and doing two shows that night. I guess we hadn’t gotten that big yet. Between the two shows, I was outside bartering with this kid, he had some old Gene Vincent records that I wanted to get for my collection and tried to strike-up a deal with this guy. The next thing I know, it’s time to start the second show and the other three guys have gone back onstage and I hear them start this riff … (Burton began mimicking the opening riff to “American Woman.”) I said to this guy … Oh my God; I’m supposed to be onstage man, I’ve got to run, I’ll see you later about these Gene Vincent records.”

“I run inside and run up onto the stage and just grab a microphone and started singing whatever came into my head; it was all stream of consciousness at the moment stuff … all that stuff about war machines and ghetto scenes, colored lights can hypnotize …it was all just spur- of- the- moment. And nobody would have ever heard it again but there happened to be a kid bootlegging the show that night. This was way back in the 60’s and he had a cassette machine, and those machines were a relatively new invention at that time. But this was 1968, forty-five years ago. We noticed this onstage as the night went on and he still kept recording. So we motioned to our road manager… go get that tape-go get that tape! He got the cassette tape and we listened to it later and heard this jam about American Woman stay away from me. So we actually kind of learned it from that tape, otherwise nobody would have ever heard it again. So talk about a Cinderella story. And that was a monstrous hit record for us; it was number one on Billboard for three weeks. So it was all an accident, I guess the music Gods were smiling on us. The music Gods probably sent that kid with the cassette machine.”

“When RCA heard “American Woman,” the guy that was head of A&R was listening and he threw up his newspaper in the air and said, “That’s a number one record!” He immediately new it was going to be big. You know what’s interesting too, thirty years later Lenny Kravitz covered it. We did a big thing for MuchMusic in Toronto which is the MTV of Canada. It was the real Guess Who that reformed back in 2000-2001, the real band not that touring band that calls itself The Guess Who, the real band got together again for about a year and a half. And us together we Lenny’s band got together and did “American Women” onstage outside the MuchMusic studios and there were thousands of people in the street. At the end, Lenny and I were actually trading vocal lines, it was pretty cool.”

“Another cool thing on millennium night, New Years of 1999, Prince had a pay per view special on television and he was wailing away and said, “I’d like to introduce my friend Lenny Kravitz!” Out comes Lenny …and Prince and Lenny Kravitz together do “American Woman.” Trading vocal lines and trading guitar lines. It’s all over You Tube if you want to check it out …it’s very cool. Here’s the thing that made me so proud …a love song is a love song. A love song a hundred years later is going to have the same effect that it did a hundred years earlier. When a song is not a love song, it’s very unusual that it would make sense thirty years later because times change, whether it is political or apolitical or just observational, it’s very-very odd and very-very rare that a non-love song would surface thirty years later and still be relevant. That’s what makes me so proud about those lyrics … I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes … that could have been written last night! For me as a lyricist, it was one of my proudest moments because to have it stand up again and not be corny. It was also the biggest record of Lenny’s career.”
Ray Shasho: Burton, I’ve been waiting a long time to talk with you about one of the most underrated albums in rock history … The Guess Who #10 album.
Burton Cummings: “Do you know why it’s one of my favorites … if you check the writing credits, I wrote almost everything on it with no co-writers and at that time took the reins of the band and we had a real direction on that album. It wasn’t the cheeriest album but I thought it hit pretty hard. The reason I like it so much is that it was the closest thing to a solo album that I ever did while I was still in The Guess Who. I was really running the ship at that point and I think the songs were good …”Just Let Me Sing, “Self Pity” and I always thought “Glamour Boy” was one of the best things that I ever wrote. I do like #10, I’m really glad to hear you say that.”
Ray Shasho: My favorite track on the album was actually “Cardboard Empire” … just an incredible tune.
Burton Cummings: “That’s a great one, it’s one I didn’t write but it’s a great song.”
Ray Shasho: I get chills when I hear that tune; it can easily be associated with modern day America.
Burton Cummings: “Who are the people, who are the people that you think you are … man that could easily be sung directly to Dick Cheney.”
Ray Shasho: Who was “Glamour Boy” directed at?
Burton Cummings: “David Bowie …absolutely! He came along and changed everything. It bothered me a lot at first because we weren’t a glam band. We wore the same clothes onstage that we wore all day and while we were travelling. We never dressed up and had dancers and crazy costumes and pyrotechnics; we were all about the music. We used to dress like Kurt Cobain. We never played the glamour game. Then all of a sudden Bowie came along and it was Ziggy Stardust and makeup and costumes …and it really threatened me. And I also saw that he was making tons of money … for $25,000 you could look like a woman tonight … that’s where that came from, it was just a jab at what was changing so drastically.”
Ray Shasho: Well, I thought The Guess Who #10 album was a masterpiece yet it didn’t get much acclaim.
Burton Cummings: “You know what, ironically here we are talking about it and it’s exactly 40 years ago. It was 1973 and exactly 40 years ago.”
Ray Shasho: Your long hair on the front album cover was probably as long as mine back in 1973.
(All Laughing)
Burton Cummings: “At one point it actually touched my elbows. I look at those pictures now and wow man that was another lifetime.”
Ray Shasho: I’m so glad that you and the band wrote a fitting tribute to Wolfman Jack … an American icon.
Burton Cummings: “He was a radio legend … way before MTV we were on The Midnight Special a couple of times and they took a shine to us because we were a pretty good live act. The Midnight Special was all live. So if you went on there and was lame live, you weren’t asked back. When we were on the first time they loved us, so we went back a second time and hung out with Wolman a little bit and got to be friendly. Billy and Kurt were writing a song called “Clap for Napoleon.” Napoleon being a CB handle, when the big CB/trucker thing was a rage in the 70’s. …everybody had a handle. So they were going to write a song about a trucker’s handle, and I said I love this riff but if we made this lyrically about the Wolfman it would have a universal appeal. So they agreed with me and I went home that night and banged out the lyrics and sure enough it was a top five record.”

“Wolfman was a great guy, we hung out a lot and he used to come MC our shows back in The Guess Who days. One time we did a show in Honolulu at the HIC Honolulu International Center … It was Aerosmith first, The Guess Who and Wolfman was the MC. I still remember Tyler running around and yelling … “Where’s the Wolfman! Where’s the Wolfman!””
Ray Shasho: Burton, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview, If you had a “Field of Dreams” wish, like the movie, to play or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Burton Cummings: “Fats Domino and of course every kid that’s my age back in the 60’s would have dreamt on being with The Beatles. What keyboard player wouldn’t have wanted to be Billy Preston when he played with them on “Get Back.” If I had only one wish it would be to be the fifth Beatle …to be The Beatle keyboard player and singer.”
Ray Shasho: Burton you’re such a great singer, songwriter, and performer, I saw you and The Guess Who perform in 1973 and watched you perform with Ringo Starr & His All- Starr Band.
Burton Cummings: I think of all the Ringo Starr All- Starr bands, and I’m not just saying this because it’s me, I think ours was the best. We had Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit, Dave Edmunds, Nils Lofgren, Todd Rundgren, myself on keyboards, Ringo and Zack on drums. I’ve seen the other lineups and he’s had a lot of great bands but I think ours was the best. It was a tremendous experience.”
Ray Shasho: You mentioned before the “other Guess Who” … they actually performed on the 4th of July in Palmetto, Florida not far from where I live.
Burton Cummings: “Oh goodness, good luck to them. It’s a scam because they use the real records to draw people to their crowds and a lot of people still think that Randy and I are going to be there and it’s terrible. They’ve got to live that lie so I don’t think about them too much. I’ve got a whole different life since then.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve had this same conversation with so many guys who were the leaders of their bands like Lou Gramm (Foreigner) and Peter Rivera (Rare Earth).
Burton Cummings: “Well let’s face it tonight somewhere at some casino you can go and see The Platters. Somewhere tonight you can go and see The Temptations. But you know what, it’s not the guys who are on the records. So for me I don’t care, once it’s not the guys on the record I’d rather sit home and play the records. Grand Funk is out there without Mark Farner … it’s a sad state of affairs, one of these days there will be a law passed. There are a couple of guys who are thinking about it, taking it to the courts and getting a law established that there has to be at least 60 or 80% of the original band. It gets down to the point where somebody just owns the name and it’s just like a franchise, like owning a McDonalds.”
Ray Shasho: When will you be releasing ‘The Writings of B. L. Cummings’ a book of poetry?
Burton Cummings: “Probably in the next couple of months, we’re just making the final tweaks and making the cover look beautiful. We have a video series call RUFF … it’s going to be volumes and volumes; I’ve had a videographer follow me around for the last 13 years. We’ve finally got volume one edited, there’s some live concert footage, backstage foolery and shenanigans and it covers all kinds of ground. So it’s been a busy time for me.”
Ray Shasho: Burton, thank you so much for being on the call today, but more importantly for all the incredible music you’ve given to us and continue to bring.
Burton Cummings:Very kind words, my hat size is going up from all the praise. Thank you very much Ray, my pleasure.”

Purchase Burton Cummings latest studio release … Above the Ground and
Live CD …Burton Cummings Massey Hall at amazon.com
Visit Burton Cummings official website at http://burtoncummings.com/
Burton Cummings on Facebook
Burton Cummings on Twitter

Very special thanks to Lorne Saifer

Coming up NEXT … Recent interviews with Gary Wright, Melanie and blues slide guitarist Roy Rogers

Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at rockraymond.shasho@gmail.com

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