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Burton Cummings

Welcome to my special interview with the legendary musician, Burton Cummings. I had the privilege of chatting with a music icon known for his powerful vocals and timeless songs. Join me as I delve into the fascinating career and insights of the one and only Burton Cummings!

Jay Cooper (ATOTK):  After all the interviews I’ve done, finally I get to talk to the voice of Canada, Mr. Cummings, thank you so much.
Burton (BC):  Oh, goodness gracious. My hat size will be going up from compliments like that. Thanks for including me in the summer issue.

ATOTK:  Our honour Burton. Now, you’re no stranger to The Kawarthas.
BC:  Been there many times and it’s a beautiful place. I was in Peterborough doing a show there about a year ago and we walked from the hotel, a couple of us walked from the hotel down to a lake, and watched the swans taking off and landing and I got some beautiful pictures of myself with the swans in the background. I have used them in different interviews and magazines and stuff. I have a tremendous memory of Peterborough from that particular visit. When I’m on the road, it’s hectic, it’s crazy and you’re flying every day and dealing with the craziness of airports. I remember that afternoon in Peterborough. I was able to calm down and collect myself and get ready for the show that night, it was great. I have a tremendous memory of Peterborough.

ATOTK: Seems like we had kind of the same upbringing. I started piano lessons at the age of five and I studied Conservatory of Music until I was 14.
BC: We have a lot of similarities in our upbringing. My mom knew I was musically inclined because I would go and plunk around the family piano. She started me on lessons when I was five or six. I was never that great at reading music. I could play a lot of things by ear that I was hearing, on the radio. My heroes in the early days of my life were Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. I loved the piano players that pounded the piano.
ATOTK:  I was thinking, prepping for this, what can I ask a man that has seemingly done everything, awards, platinum albums, Order of Canada, I mean, good God, you were a bachelor on The Dating Game (laughs).
BC:   Well, fortunately I didn’t win the dating game because I didn’t want to go on some date with someone, a stranger and be filmed. The reason I was on The Dating Game, the other three guys in the real Guess Who back then were married but I was still single. Let’s put it this way, Jay, there was no rock and roll and no pop music on television then, except maybe one singer on the Ed Sullivan Show once a week. So, they said we could be on The Dating Game if Burton would be one of The Bachelors and they would let us lip-sync one of our songs. We went on The Dating Game and that whole episode started with us lip-syncing ‘She’s Come Undone’.  Then I went on to be bachelor number three and not get picked but the whole point of it was tremendous. Television exposure all over North America. So that’s how I ended up on The Dating Game (laughs).

ATOTK:   I would like to clear up this Guess Who controversy. You and Randy have nothing to do with the current version of The Guess Who?
BC:   Absolutely. Except that, the fake Guess Who is using our songs. The songs that Kurt Winter and I wrote. The songs that I wrote. The Bachman-Cummings songs. We have nothing to do with that. That’s why the stoppage was put on the fake Guess Who using the real songs and it’s as simple as that. I don’t want to go into any more details because the lawyers are handling it, but the Guess Who, as they are called, it’s a fake name because it’s not the real Guess Who and they will never be able to perform those songs again under that name ever!

ATOTK:  I’m in a Western Canada headspace right now because we featured The Stampeders and have Nick Gilder. The amount of music that came from there is incredible.
BC:  I know Nick Gilder, he and I have become friends over the years. He’s a great guy. I knew the Stampedes too. We were around in the early days, The Guess Who and The Stampeders were very early when there wasn’t much of a Canadian music industry yet established, you know? We even played shows together in the old days. I’ve known of them for ages and they were one of the other early Canadian groups that cracked the American market. City Woman was huge in the States. I mean in those times, April Wine was around in the early days. We’re talking about the days when there wasn’t much of a Canadian music industry yet. So, we were very excited to be cutting records.

ATOTK: Your songwriting process is fueled by life experience, a lyric in your head, a riff you had?
BC: Well, let’s put it this way. When I was co-writing with Randy, in the early days, we would come to each other with pieces. Usually, we fit the pieces together rather easily and usually within half an hour or 45 minutes there was a song finished. As far as my solo writing is concerned, I’m not one of these guys that says, let’s meet at noon and create something. It’s only five to 12, we can’t be creative yet. I’ve never said, let’s get together and write songs. I’ve never done that. I’ve never been one for jamming. Get together in a garage and play one chord for four hours. I was never one of those. I like to sit down and try and write songs. So once in a while, I’ll have a title. Once in a while, I’ll have an idea of a theme, let’s say, but most times I will sit down at the keyboard, let my hands start picking out chords and see where the vocals go.

ATOTK:  Winnipeg - with 200 bands? That sounds insane to me in a remote area.
BC:   Oh, it was remarkable. In the early 60s, Winnipeg was the rock and roll capital of Canada. It was the pop music capital of Canada. Toronto was all R&B at that time. Vancouver was basically folky so there wasn’t much going on in Vancouver, Alberta, Calgary, and Edmonton hadn’t produced any artists yet. I think when we cracked with ‘These Eyes’, originally 68 and 69, Winnipeg was pretty remote. Randy and I especially in the early days, were glued to the radio in Winnipeg. There were three major stations and they were playing everything. We were exposed to a lot of different styles and genres that crept into the songwriting.

ATOTK:  When did you realize your songwriting was connecting?
BC:   We dreamt about being songwriters and having a big record. We never imagined anything as ‘These Eyes’ zooming up the charts as it did. Let me tell you another thing, that was thrilling for Randy and me. The same year that our Guess Who ‘These Eyes’ charted, Junior Walker and the All Stars put it out on Motown and had an R&B hit with it the same year, 1969. So, we did a show one-time with Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Junior Walker and the All-Stars and The Guess Who and this was in Boston back in 69. Randy and I took the time to find Junior Walker’s bus, go into his bus give him a big hug shake his hand and say, “Hey man, we’re the guys that wrote ‘These Eyes’ and we’re thrilled that you did it”. For Randy and me, a couple of white boys from the north end of Winnipeg, to have one of Motown’s major stars, cut a song we wrote and have it zoom up the charts and Walker’s version went Top 20 in Billboard the same year as ours did. So as a couple of young songwriters from Winnipeg, I think that was pretty remarkable.

ATOTK:   In 1970 Randy left The Guess Who and you added two guitar players.
BC:   Randy had a completely different lifestyle at the time. He had become a Mormon. A serious, practicing Mormon, so he wouldn’t even take an aspirin or have a Coca-Cola, a Pepsi or a cup of coffee. He was extreme when he first got married and turned Mormon. He didn’t like travelling with the band. You know and we drank a little bit and smoked a little bit. We weren’t crazy, but we certainly weren’t Buddhist monks. Randy wasn’t going along with any of that. So, he left. We got Greg and Kurt from Winnipeg because we thought that was the best place to go to recruit guitar players. Kurt Winter entered the band and he and I became songwriting partners. Kurt also brought ‘Hand Me Down World’ and ‘Bus Rider’. Two great songs that he had written previously. When Randy left, we just kept on going, then I came up with ‘Share the Land’ and that ended up being a Monstrous hit record for us. ‘Share the Land’ ended up being the biggest album The Guess Who ever had even though Randy was gone. Let’s be honest, it was in the wake of the success of ‘American Woman’, which had been worldwide. I’m just trying to put the proper perspective on everything here.

ATOTK:  In 1975, that was the end of The Guess Who, you went solo. Was it a bit intimidating for you or just another day?
BC:  The band folded in ‘75, that was it. No, it wasn’t just another day. I was scared, you know, we had all known Neil Young as teenagers in Winnipeg. That’s where he grew up and got into his first band. He had a band called The Squires when I was in The Devrons. Teenagers at this point in Winnipeg and Neil left early. He went to Toronto and then after being in Toronto for a while, he went to LA. and ended up in Buffalo Springfield, which was fabulous. Randy and I had known Neil as teenagers, and we were thrilled for him that Buffalo Springfield had ended up being so big. Then we heard that Neil left and went solo. So, I always followed that very closely and when I left and went solo, I likened myself to what Neil Young had done and I was hoping the same thing would happen to me because Neil had tremendous solo success. I was scared, but I was willing to throw my hat in the ring and try.

ATOTK:   How can you win Best New Vocalist and Male Vocalist of the Year all in one night? That’s like two different generations?
BC:   That was funny when that happened. I was up for best new male vocalist because I was a new solo artist but also up for best male vocalist. After all, I had been on the radio for years and years. I was up for both categories and I ended up winning both categories. When I was asked to come up a second time to win Best Male Vocalist, what came out of my mouth was impromptu. I looked in the camera and said “Don’t ever let anybody tell you that things don’t happen fast in Canada because in 60 minutes I went from best new male vocalist to best male vocalist of the year. I don’t even know where that came from, it just came out of my mouth, but I think it was appropriate (laughs).

ATOTK:  Like many other artists in successful bands that break up, it always comes back to their origins. In your case, The Guess Who reunion.
BC:   Yeah, we’ve had a couple of reunions where some of the original guys got together again but it’s all about the songs, the songs will never go away and I’m so proud that I have co-written and written some songs that will be on the radio forever. Very proud.

ATOTK:  You were in Ringo Starr’s all-star band.How did that happen?
BC:  Yeah, that was tremendous. What a band that was. We had four guitar players, two drummers, and six or seven singers. There was nothing we couldn’t do. It was great. They contacted us. When Ringo decides to do an all-star gig tour, his people get a hold of who he wants to see if they want to come and do it. When we toured it was on guitar, Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, Dave Edmonds and Nils Lofgren and we had Ringo and his son Zach on drums. I mean it was a terrific band.

ATOTK:  Let’s talk about your solo band, The Carpet Frogs.
BC:  They’ve been performing quite a while as The Carpet Frogs and they used to do a lot of Guess Who stuff. One night somebody took me to see them, and they said, “Hey Burton, we do some of your stuff, would you like to come up?” I went up and did ‘Hang On To Your Life’, ‘Hand Me Down World’, or ‘Share the Land’. It felt really good. One thing led to another, they ended up being my band. 20 years we’ve gone all over the place. We played in Hawaii two or three times, every province, all over the States. We’re a real band now. It’s the Burton Cummings Band.

ATOTK:  Can you name the best gig you’ve ever done?
BC:  Yes, there was a night when I was still in The Devrons way back in 1965 in Winnipeg. It was the height of Beatle mania, British invasion time. First on the show was The Devrons, second was Chad Allen and the Expressions, which turned into The Guess Who later and the headliners were Jerry and the Pacemakers. That was the night that Randy Bachman saw me in front of a big crowd. I think they already knew Chad Allen was going to leave their band, their lead singer. So that was the night I think that they kind of decided they were going to get me because it was 25,000 people in Winnipeg in the sixties. It was a huge deal. There were big inch-thick guard ropes to keep the crowd back from the stage. I’ll never forget that night, it was great.

ATOTK:  Worst gig ever like the spinal tap puppet show bad?
BC:   That’s funny you should ask this as back in my days in The Devrons, my first band. We used to play at a place downtown in Winnipeg called Rainbow Dance Gardens. We used to play there sometimes on a Saturday afternoon because we always played on Saturday nights somewhere. For young teenagers, an extra gig in the afternoon was very special. One afternoon we played there and didn’t get a guarantee, but they said we could have 50 percent of the door receipts. That afternoon, I think four people showed up. So it was about 50 cents to get in, it was two bucks gross, so we got half of it, so we got a buck. There were five of us in the band, so I think we got 20 cents a piece that day. It wasn’t exactly Madison Square Garden (laughs).

ATOTK:  What do people not know about you?
BC:  I tell you I’m a collector. I have a huge music collection, almost 500,000 mp3s in my big tower. I have an endless library of music and collected comic books when I was younger. I’m a huge NBA fan. I follow basketball very closely and I’m thinking maybe this year it could be the Celtics. The Celtics are looking pretty good. Forever I will follow the NBA.

ATOTK:   I see you’re playing Rama on Canada Day. Is that the start of your tour?
BC:   We’re going to be busy this summer and into the fall. We’re playing a lot of shows coming up. I always look forward to Casino Rama, especially on Canada Day, because that’s become a big event for me now, a special thing. We are coming to The Kawarthas also no worries! Our band is cooking, it’s rocking it’s hot. We’ve been together a long time now, and we’re enjoying the live shows. Looking forward to seeing all our fans who have followed the music for so many years.

ATOTK:  Thank you so much, Burton. Anything else to add?
BC:   I want to say thanks for following the music for so many years. I still love being on the radio. I’ve never gotten over that thrill. I’m proud to be with these other tremendous artists who have made recordings that are going to last forever. When we’re in The Kawarthas, please come say hello and we’ll get a picture together, Jay.


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