The praise doesn’t come any loftier when none other than John Lennon says you are his favourite singer and Led Zeppelin’s icon, Robert Plant, says you are one of rock’s best voices. Both are talking about Burton Cummings. Few singers in pop music inspire the flash-recall of recognition like that of Cummings. Say the name and it conjures up the monster hit, American Woman, or the soulful song, These Eyes, or the solo hit, Stand Tall.
Cummings is perhaps best identified with the success of The Guess Who – with whom he starred for about 10 years until his departure in 1976 to pursue a solo career. That direction has also been singular: Stand Tall was his first million-seller and a 1979 album, Dream of a Child, sold more than 300,000 copies – the first such Canadian album to achieve triple-platinum status. His Up Close and Alone album, released in 1996, went platinum in less than six months. He has won several Junos (best male singer twice) and been a concert headliner around the globe.
Born in Winnipeg, Burton originally played keyboards and saxophone with a group called The Devrons. In the mid-1960s, he replaced Chad Allan in the band that later became the powerhouse group, The Guess Who. Combining with Randy Bachman, he wrote and co-wrote some of the band’s biggest songs, including American Woman, a No. 1 song in the United States and Canada. The two were the creative sources behind other big hits, such as These Eyes, No Sugar Tonight and No Time.
The band’s name sprang from a tongue-in-cheek joke to stir interest about the time the British Invasion was washing over the continent. Back in the mid-1960s, several Winnipeg musicians, including Chad Allan, had trouble getting air play with their songs. So, a plain album cover went out, containing the words, Guess Who? Some people thought they had a new British band on their hands. The promotional gimmick worked – disc jockeys played the band and the name stuck.
The group really flew upon release of its Wheatfield Soul album, and its Cummings-rich These Eyes voice track. The song reached No. 3 in the United States and – in the days before Canadian content regulations – forced Canadian DJs and record promoters to pay attention. These Eyes eventually sold 1 million copies and got the band onto Dick Clark’s American Bandstand show.
But it was American Woman that really made the band’s reputation: the song rocketed to the top of the charts and hung on to No. 1 for three weeks. Its lyrics suggested a strong anti-American theme but Cummings has said the words were more stream-of-consciousness: “Vietnam was a bit of a factor but it was never meant to be political.” Bachman said later the words originally came together in a lengthy jam the band was involved in at a dance. The Guess Who – minus Bachman, who left in 1970 – was invited to perform in the White House before an audience that included Prince Charles. But Pat Nixon, wife of U.S. President Richard Nixon, asked the band not to perform its incisive classic.
Burton continued to lead the band for another five years as new members entered The Guess Who lineup. He wrote other hits, such as Albert Flasher, but finally left the group in 1976 to pursue other musical ambitions. That new path led to such songs as Stand Tall, I’m Scared, and the lush I will Sing a Rhapsody. The first two were heard more than 1 million times on radio.
Cummings headlined in concerts and also opened for other acts. He joined ex-Beatle Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, in which he did some of his own songs. He reunited off and on with Randy Bachman, the duo touring together in 1983. He picked up a screen credit in a Canadian feature film, Melanie, and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Four of his LPs have sold more than 200,000 copies each. In 1987, the original members of the group – Cummings, Bachman, Garry Peterson and Jim Kale – reunited for a national tour that resulted in a concert video and live album. The same year, the band entered the Canadian Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.
Other credits came in the form of awards. Cummings earned four Junos, including one in 1980 for his best-selling album, Dream of a Child. He received the William Harold Moon (a former president of BMI Canada) international achievement award nine years later. In 2001, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada honoured Burton for three songs and also recognized him and Bachman jointly for their work on These Eyes and No Time. A new generation of music lovers heard Cummings anew when Sony Music Canada reissued his first four solo albums in CD format in 1999.
It was in that year the hometown boys stood tall once again as The Guess Who when they played at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg. Also, in 1999, Lenny Kravitz covered their signature hit, American Woman, and the applause came roaring back. Reunion tours followed across North America. Cummings, the native son, had an old vaudeville theatre and community centre named after him in the Manitoba capital and was invested in the Order of Manitoba. Both he and Randy Bachman received the Governor General’s award in 2003.