American Woman was born at an Ontario gig in 1969, when Bachman broke a guitar string. After he changed the string, he started riffing on a chord pattern, and Garry Peterson and Jim Kale joined in the jam. Cummings ran back in, and with no plan, improvised the immortal words, “American woman, stay away from me.” When the jam ended, the audience response told the band that they had something big. The song evolved further at future gigs and they devoted a day in a studio to it, before finally revealing the completed American Woman in Seattle later that year.
With Jack Richardson producing, the band recorded the song for their “American Woman” album and released it in 1970. Both the album and the 45-rpm single (Nimbus 9-74-0325-N) went gold within weeks. In Canada, the single topped Toronto’s CHUM radio chart for April 25 and May 2, 1970, pushing The Beatles’ Let It Be out of No. 1; overall American Woman spent five weeks in the top ten. Meanwhile on RPM’s Top 100 chart, the single was No. 1 for two weeks in May.
American disc jockeys and audiences reacted with similar enthusiasm; in May 1970, American Woman reigned at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for three weeks, the first No. 1 hit by any Canadian band. On the B side was No Sugar Tonight, making the record a “double A-side” (a hit on both sides).
The timing was right, at the height of the Vietnam War and anti-war protests, for Americans to hear this hard-driving protest song with its defiant lyrics, “I don’t want your war machines, I don’t want your ghetto scenes.”
The album also charted well, with a longer version of American Woman featuring an improvisational blues introduction with Cummings singing, “Gonna mess your mind; I say A; I say M…,” spelling out “American.”
Bachman’s distinctive guitar riff on American Woman was achieved on his 1959 Gibson Les Paul (the brand favoured by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page), with a custom amplifier unit and “whammy” bar that allowed him to create the distortion, feedback and bent notes that he aimed for.
On the strength of American Woman’s success, The Guess Who won Juno awards in 1970 and 1971 for top vocal instrumental group. American Woman was later recognized with BMI and SOCAN Classic awards. Many artists have covered the song, including Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Copperfield Brass, Elite Aces, Prince, Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, Joe Ferry, Krokus, Jaymz Bee and the Royal Jelly Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, the Willard Posey Reunion, and Texas Chainsaw Orchestra.
American Woman was revived in 1999 when Lenny Kravitz’s cover earned a Grammy for best male rock performance and spent an amazing 58 weeks on RPM’s Top 100 chart. His version also made it to the big screen in the comedy Austin Powers 2, The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Bachman said in his book “Vinyl Tap,” “Lenny made American Woman contemporary. I’m continually amazed that my songs have longevity to them and keep reappearing. It proves that the music has transcended the generations and decades.”
American Woman was also featured in “The Cable Guy” and “American Beauty” and in commercials for Tommy Hilfiger and Castrol motor oil.
The Guess Who united with Kravitz to perform the song in 2000 at the MuchMusic Video awards in Toronto, where the band received a lifetime achievement award.
American Woman has continued to evolve, as captured on the double-platinum live “Running Back Thru Canada” CD. It’s a remarkable, energy-filled 13 minutes and 14 seconds, featuring an extended blues introduction ‒ true to the song’s roots as a jam ‒ with additional lyrics.
The Juno award-winning The Guess Who, formed in Winnipeg in 1965, was Canada’s first super-group. The iconic, much-honoured rock band recorded such million-selling rock and pop hits as These Eyes, Laughing, and No Time at the peak of its success by the early 1970s. The Guess Who’s accomplishments include a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and recognition in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame.