Monday, August 24, 2009

Guess Who's Standing Tall On The Charts

During the 70s, it wasn’t entirely uncommon for the solo artist behind a hit single to boast a considerable musical pedigree, often times as a vocalist, or key member, with a well known 60s/70s band. The likes of - Jon Sebastian (ex-Lovin’ Spoonful), Jay Ferguson (ex-Jo Jo Gunne), Nick Lowe (ex-Brinsley Schwarz), Bob Welch (ex-Fleetwood Mac), Dave Edmunds (ex-Love Sculpture), Gary Wright (ex-Spooky Tooth), Elvin Bishop (ex-Paul Butterfield Blues Band), John Stewart (ex-Kingston Trio) - see previous posts - Eric Carmen (ex-Raspberries), Brian Cadd (ex-The Groop), Diana Ross (ex-Supremes), Stevie Wright (ex-Easybeats), Peter Tosh (ex-Wailers), Peter Frampton (ex-Humble Pie), Boz Scaggs (ex-Steve Miller Band), David Gates (ex-Bread), Rod Stewart (ex-Faces), Lou Reed (ex-Velvet Underground), Eric Clapton (Cream/Yardbirds), Steve Winwood (Traffic), and not forgetting some lads from Liverpool who used to be in a group called The Beatles - all opened their solo accounts with a hefty carry over credit from their group days. Burton Cummings was another hit maker of the 70s whose name can be added to that list. For those of you not already familiar with the name Burton Cummings, prior to scoring a blockbuster hit ballad in 1976, he had fronted the Canadian rock group The Guess Who for almost a decade. Far from being anonymous, The Guess Who had forged a strong identity as purveyors of top ten singles and albums.

Cummings had joined his first band, the R&B styled The Deverons, in the early 60s. Around the same time, several fellow Winnepeg natives, including vocalist/guitarist Chad Allan and guitarist Randy Bachman, had established a rock band called Chad Allan and the Silverstones. By 1963, they’d released their first singles as Chad Allan and the Reflections, and by 1965 that moniker had been tweaked to Chad Allan and the Expression (to avoid confusion with the Detroit band The Reflections). In 1965, they released a cover of the old Johnny Kidd and the Pirates hit, ‘Shakin’ All Over’, which became a hit in Canada, and peaked at #22 on the U.S. Hot 100. The band’s Canadian record label, Quality Records, then came up with the goofball publicity stunt of releasing the associated album with the words ‘Guess Who?’ printed on the cover, by way of implying that the band may actually have been a famous British guitar band incognito. The name stuck, and the Canadian rock outfit became The Guess Who. Burton Cummings joined around this time in place of keyboardist Bob Ashley, and soon after Cummings also assumed vocal duties when Chad Allan departed the band to return to fulltime studies. For a while The Guess Who carried on as the quartet of Cummings, Bachman, Jim Kale (bass), and Gary Peterson (drums), but they lived up to their new moniker over the next couple of years by remaining largely anonymous. By the late 60s, Cummings and Bachman had steered the band away from the straight up guitar driven British invasion sound, and had incorporated a mix of styles from harder edged rock, through blues, early prog-rock, and elements of jazz (Cummings was also an accomplished flutist and saxophonist and introduced a wider range of instrumental styles).

By 1969, The Guess Who had found a strong music identity that would usher in a period of phenomenal commercial success for the band. The album ‘Wheatfield Soul’ (US#45) proved to be the breakthrough, and spawned the U.S. #6 single ‘These Eyes’. The cleverly titled follow up album, ‘Canned Wheat (Packed By The Guess Who)’, further consolidated the band’s growing profile with the hits ‘Laughing’ (US#10), and ‘Undun’ (US#22). In February 1970, The Guess Who released their third album within the space of a year, with ‘American Woman’ (US#9), which elevated the Canadian rock quartet to the upper branches of the U.S. popular music tree. It yielded the U.S.#5 hit ‘No Time’, but it would be the album’s title track that would become The Guess Who’s signature song. ‘American Woman’ wasn’t, as the title might imply, about an American woman, but was in fact a searing indictment of U.S. military policy and the general decline in American social values. Themes aside, ‘American Woman’ was a guitar rock juggernaut, propelled along by a raucous fuzz-guitar riff, and Cummings raw, snarling vocals. ‘American Woman’ achieved the coveted #1 spot on the U.S. Hot 100 (UK#19/OZ#43), and went on to become a guitar rock anthem for future generations. The band even performed at an official Presidential function at the White House (minus the politically contentious ‘American Woman’ in their set).

Soon after, guitarist Randy Bachman left the band, prompted by an increasingly fractious relationship with Cummings - religious convert Bachman didn’t approve of the band’s supposedly hedonistic lifestyle. Randy Bachman went on to form Brave Belt which later evolved into Bachman-Turner Overdrive, who scored a string of guitar-rock hits, including the barnstorming ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’, and ‘Taking Care Of Business’. The Guess Who were now firmly under the creative direction of Burton Cummings, who recruited two new players to round out the band’s line-up, Kurt Winter (guitar), and Greg Leskiw (guitar). That line-up returned The Guess Who to the U.S. top ten late in 1970, with ‘Share The Land’ (#10), lifted from the album of the same name (US#14), which boasted a strong mix of riff-ridden guitar rock, and more complex blues arrangements. The stream of chart hits began to dry up over the next couple of years, with only 1971’s ‘Rain Dance’ (US#19) managing to break the top twenty drought. By 1974’s ‘Road Food’ album, The Guess Who were no doubt feeling starved of success. The novelty style rock hit ‘Clap For The Wolfman’ (US#6/OZ#39), a tribute to the iconic disc jockey Wolfman Jack, finally re-established The Guess Who’s identity as a top ten band, albeit briefly. By now the band had experienced numerous personnel changes, but Burton Cummings remained the creative focal point, aided during this period by ace guitarist Dominic Troiano. The Guess Who released two albums during 1975, ‘Flavours’ and ‘Power In The Music’, but neither managed to yield a major hit (though ‘Dancin’ Fool’ peaked at US#28). By late ‘75, Cummings and the band decided to wind up The Guess Who.

During the late 70s, original bassist Jim Kale led a revamped line-up under The Guess Who banner, but it wasn’t until 1983 that key members Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings put aside past differences and played a series of Guess Who shows (with Kale and Peterson) across Canada (resulting in the ‘Together Again’ live album). The Guess Who brand cropped up occasionally over the next fifteen years, in various guises, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the ‘American Woman’ era line-up played together again. By 2004, Kale and Peterson had assumed control of The Guess Who brand, and have continued to tour with various playing rosters.

Following the abandonment of his Guess Who identity, Burton Cummings signed a deal with the Portrait label to record his debut solo album. Helmed by acclaimed producer Richard Perry, Cummings’ self titled set featured a mix of styles, including a big band version of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’ (not sure if he had Randy’s blessing on that one). The stand out track was the soaring ballad ‘Stand Tall’ which showcased Cummings powerful vocals. From its gentle opening, ‘Stand Tall’ surged into an emotively uplifting chorus. Its poignant and powerful lyrics have no doubt proved an inspiring and uplifting tonic for many downhearted souls over the years. ‘Stand Tall’ did indeed live up to its title on the charts (US#10/OZ#7), and went on to sell over a million copies. A world away from the shuddering rock of ‘American Woman’, ‘Stand Tall’ proved the versatility of Burton Cummings as a writer and vocalist. The track helped push sales of the ‘Burton Cummings’ album to top thirty levels (US#30/OZ#32), the album also yielding the minor hit ‘I’m Scared’ (US#61/OZ#69).

The title of Cummings’ follow up album, ‘My Own Way To Rock’ (US#51/OZ#83), was indicative of the album’s more rock oriented feel, though the associated singles, ‘Never Had A Lady Before’ (OZ#81), and ‘My Own Way To Rock’ (US#74), returned Cummings to relative anonymity on the charts (at least beyond his native Canada). 1978’s ‘Dream Of A Child’ saw Cummings explore a range of styles, including covering some Motown classics. The album was a huge seller in the Canadian market, but sales failed to migrate south of the border, and only the single ‘Break It To Them Gently’ (US#85) registered on the U.S. chart radar. On the back of the huge success of ‘Dream Of A Child’ in Canada, Cummings inked a new deal with the Columbia/Epic label, but it came at a price as Cummings lost a considerable degree of the creative autonomy he had grown accustomed to. The album ‘Woman Love’ yielded the Canadian hit ‘Fine State Of Affairs’, but a U.S. release was blockaded, and Cummings’ attitude toward the album’s finished form could probably be summed up in the title of the opening track, ‘Feels All Wrong’. The follow up album, ‘Sweet Sweet’ (1981), did little to sweeten the deal between Cummings and Columbia. During that period, Burton Cummings spent an increasing amount of time based in California, and began composing music for motion pictures. In 1981, he even appeared in one of these said motion pictures, ‘Melanie’, which featured one of Cummings’ own songs ‘You Saved My Soul’ (US#37/OZ#47). Unfortunately, ‘You Saved My Soul’ didn’t prove to be enough to save Cummings’ career at that point. The aforementioned sporadic reunions with The Guess Who followed throughout the 80s, but Cummings didn’t release another solo album until 1990’s ‘Plus Signs’. Beyond his core fan base in Canada, the album went virtually unnoticed.

Over the ensuing fifteen years, Burton Cummings kept a pretty low profile, save for further reunion dates with The Guess Who, but he continued to write and record on occasion with old band mate Randy Bachman. The pair eventually began touring and recording together under the Bachman-Cummings banner, and despite lacking overdrive, they released the ‘Jukebox’ album in 2007. In November of 2008, Burton Cummings released his first solo album of new material in eighteen years, with the ‘Above The Ground’ set, and is still going strong on the touring front.


observer said...

randy bachman has a saturday night radio show on CBC in Canada. he plays great music and tells great stories

about 14 hours time diff between time zones in canada and australia's east coast

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Many thanks for the comment and the info/link for Randy Bachman's radio show. Think I'll have to spend a Sunday morning or two (Australian time)listening to the netcast of his Saturday night shows.
Cheers :)