Friday, September 13, 2013


Two weeks from tonight we'll be going to see Burton Cummings, performing live at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, IL, and, from what I understand, this is a VERY hot ticket. 

Complete ticket information here: 
Click here: The Arcada Theatre  

As a life-long Guess Who and Burton Cummings fan, it truly was an honor to have the opportunity to talk with Burton this past week about not only the up-coming show, but life in general.  

KENT KOTAL / FORGOTTEN HITS:  Burton Cummings!  In Los Angeles?!?!  
BURTON CUMMINGS:  Yes, in L.A. ... I live here now ... I still have a place on Vancouver Island ... but I'm here most of the time ... in Los Angeles. 

We kicked around a couple of ideas as to how to do the interview ... either by phone or via email ... and, when all was said and done, we did a little bit of both.  Turns out Burton is a bit of a "blogger" himself and regularly updates his own website and Facebook page with first-hand, hand-written news!  (He's also a bit of a night owl ... so he spends a fair amount of time online.)    

Click here: Burton Cummings

BC:  Yeah, I do some of that ... I'm an insomniac ... I don't sleep ... so I spend some time online ... actually, I do a lot of that.
kk:  I recently interviewed Al Kooper and he told me that he only sleeps about three hours a night ... and that's all he CAN sleep ... so the rest of the time he's up workin' on stuff, lookin' for something to do.
BC:  Well, they say that short naps are better ... I wish that I could go to sleep like some people ... it's eleven thirty at night or eleven o'clock and night and they say "Well, I think I'll go to sleep" and then they just lay down and go to sleep!  But I've NEVER been able to do that ... even when I was a little kid, I couldn't do that!
kk:  And I'm sure it's very different when you're up playing music all night, too ... I mean you're on such a high once the show is over that you're really not READY to just lay down and go to sleep.  There's got to be some time to unwind after a big show.
BC:  And that's really it ... I mean since really very early on ... even as a teenager ... I was in a band ... and that's where that whole cycle began.  You play at eight o'clock at night and, now that I'm older, sometimes even later ... now we have shows where I don't even go on until ten o'clock at night ... so by midnight or twelve thirty, you're really not ready to go to sleep ... so you end up ... really ... upside down from being in show business.  Because your work night starts at about eight or nine or ten at night and then you're upside down.  

kk:  You've been doing both solo shows ("Up Close and Alone" with just you at the piano) as well as shows with a full band.  (We'll get to see Burton backed by The Carpet Frogs at The Arcada Theatre on September 27th).  Obviously, you have to prepare differently for each of these kinds of settings.  Even the material presented has to change based on the musical back-up and surroundings.  What are the personal joys for you as a performer in each of these environments?  
BC:  We have a lot of shows coming up ... some are one man shows and some are with the band.  The band is tremendous ... we've been playing together for over ten years now with the same core of guys so it's pretty tight ... and they all sing well ... and you know, I've always been a stickler for that ... so we're doing justice to the records I think.  But you're right ... I do shows both ways now, some with the band and some with just me up on stage all alone with a piano.  I did a couple of solo shows recently right in Manhattan and I was a little nervous, all by myself you know, but the reception was tremendous.  It's a COMPLETELY different show than with the band ... you can't be sitting alone at a piano singing "American Woman", you know ... it's not that kind of a deal ... so the one man show is completely different ... it's just me at the piano and I did a hundred minutes in New York and it seemed to work ... everybody was quite pleased.  

kk:  It definitely did ... I've seen some of the clips on YouTube and, of course, I have the CD from a couple of years ago ... and it's a very entertaining show.  

Click here: Up Close & Alone: Music
... a MUST for any music collection

kk:  I think it's great that you can DO both types of shows and, fortunately, you've got the depth of a catalog that allows you to do that sort of thing.  
BC:  Yeah, you know my manager ragged on me for YEARS to do that one man show and I fought him on it 'cause for a long time, I just really didn't want to do it ... and finally in the '90's, we did it and I did some corporate shows, you know, meaning private functions more for parties and events, not with tickets for the public but I always kind of found it a little bit shallow ... more boring ... not I guess "boring" but shallow, but I've come to realize over the years that that's what people LIKE about it ... is the "bareness" ... just a guy, sitting alone, and when I explain the situation ... I mean I do some pretty famous songs, like "These Eyes" and "Laughing" and even "Share The Land" ... and I do those alone at the piano and I kind of explain to people that this is how they sounded at home when they were being written, you know, before they became records ... and what went into writing some of these songs ... and in many instances ... in MOST cases ... I'm finding that that's enough for most people ... so that's thrilling for me to know.  If I can hold people's attention all alone with just a piano, it's thrilling for me know at this stage of my life.  

kk:  Well, it's gotta be thrilling for you to get that sort of reaction with just the piano and the voice, but one thing that I've learned over the years is that when you can strip the song to just the bare elements, the "nakedness" of it all, it shows how strong the material is ... now it's just you and the song, no special "sweetening" in the studio ... and it shows you just how good a song it really is.  
BC:  Yes, I think when we first clicked, Randy and I, we faithfully tried to write songs ... we faithfully set aside song-writing sessions as such, when we weren't touring.  Man, it was SO long ago that I was still living at home with my mother and my grandmother and every Saturday morning he would come over with a guitar and we would sit at my mom's piano and that's where we banged out "These Eyes", you know, and a lot of those early songs that really clicked ... "No Sugar Tonight" and stuff that we refined in the very early days ... that was all stuff that was done just sitting at home on my mom's piano.  It was so easy working with Randy that it was never like work.   

kk:  You have often thanked your Mother for forcing you to take piano lessons as a child.  I know you lost your Mother recently and I've heard that she was a very big part of your life.  How did she react to your success and your musical dreams?  Obviously she encouraged you ... but early on were there also moments of "I didn't pay for all of these damn piano lessons so you could bang out boogie-woogie rock and roll"?!?!?
BC:  My Mother forced me to take piano lessons. A lot of times I remember hearing all the neighborhood guys out on the street playing soccer or baseball, and I had to sit and practice piano. I didn't like it at first. At about age ten or so, I started to be able to pound out some of the hit records of the day on the radio, and suddenly I had different status at school. I'd play a bit of "Bumble Boogie" or "Runaway" at Luxton School and kids thought it was pretty cool. My mother didn't really react too badly when I dropped out of school. She was pretty good about my thinking about show business.    

kk:  So prior to hooking up with Randy had you already been writing some stuff on your own or no?  
BC:  Oh yeah, I had a band called the Deverons in Winnipeg and we had achieved a pretty good level of stardom on a local level in our home town ... we were thought of as one of the better bands in town.  And there were a lot of bands in Winnipeg ... there were well over a hundred bands, all functioning and playing ... and for a city of half a million people, that's an awful lot, ya know.  But part of the thing was the drinking age was still 21 ... so you could have these functions at schools and community clubs and even churches that had dance halls ... you could have those functions all the time without alcohol because the 18 and 19 year olds would still come.  Now that the age is down to 18 all that has disappeared.   

kk:  The story I've always heard is that you were making quite a bit of noise with your group The Deverons and Randy Bachman happened to hear tell of this wild man who was doing all kinds of crazy and obscene things with his piano ... he came to check you out ... was bowled over ... and then asked you to join The Guess Who.  (Of course I also heard that at first you jokingly turned him down, saying that you had just received an offer to join The Beatles!  lol)  The Guess Who had enjoyed quite a bit of local fame with their recording of "Shakin' All Over" with Chad Allan on lead vocals.  Were you already a fan of theirs by this point?  Had you been out to see them (or were you too busy with your own band?)  Did you know any of the guys?
BC:  The Deverons were becoming more and more popular in Winnipeg, and by 1965 we were playing pretty well every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.  There were rumors that Chad Allan was going to leave the Guess Who, even though he'd sung their hit "Shakin' All Over" … he was going back to University. One night, both the Guess Who and the Deverons played on the big show at the old Winnipeg Arena with Gerry and the Pacemakers … it was 1965 and Beatlemania was in full swing. That night the older guys in the Guess Who watched our band, and I guess they liked me as a singer. I was a harder singer than Chad and I was doing stuff like Eric Burdon, which Chad never did. Weeks after that show, I left high school, and when they heard that, they asked me to join their band. The day of that meeting I was still seventeen.   

By now I'm sure that we've all heard the story about how the record company changed the band's name from Chad Allan and the Expressions to The Guess Who when "Shakin' All Over" first came out as a single in the hopes that a disc jockey or program director might be curious enough to give that record a spin instead of throwing it in the reject pile.  The song had already been a big hit in England for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and Chad Allan's version definitely had a British feel to it.    Perhaps thinking that the ambiguous prospect that this MIGHT be a brand new, as-yet-undiscovered British band, the record company gambled and changed the band's name on the record label to read "Guess Who" ... and, before you knew it, "Shakin' All Over" became a huge Canadian Hit ... and then three other records followed it into The Canadian Top 40.  It crossed over to become a Top 20 Hit here in The States, too.)

When Burton first joined the band, it was as the keyboard player, as Chad Allan was still onboard as the lead singer.  After a while, Allan elected to leave the band and Burton Cummings took over the lead vocals, a role he never relinquished for the next ten years.  During that time, The Guess Who placed an incredible 24 hits on the U.S. Charts, including six Top Ten Hits and one #1 Single.  (You'll find the complete Guess Who / Burton Cummings Hit List at the end of our interview.)
Before making it on their own, The Guess Who became the featured "house band" on a Canadian television show called "Let's Go", recreating hits by other artists every week ... including (coincidently enough!) "Time Of The Season"  by The Zombies, the band who will be opening for Burton Cummings at The Arcada Theatre on the 27th!

Randy Bachman has stated that working on this show really developed the band's song-writing skills, as they now had a spotlight forum every week to showcase their own material ... and out of that opportunity came "These Eyes", their first experience at international fame.

Although we all know that it doesn't really happen this way, once "These Eyes" became a hit, The Guess Who became an "overnight success".  (Forget the fact that by this point they had already been playing for literally THOUSANDS of hours trying to nail down the sound that would make them stand apart from the rest.)  However, corny as it sounds, there is no denying the fact that their lives changed literally overnight. 

In true Canadian form, it all "snowballed" from there ... the hits just kept on coming.  Without question, The Guess Who were TRULY in the zone at this point ... 12 US Top 40 Hits spread out over the next 3 1/2 years.  Plus 12 that went into The Top Ten in Canada during that same stretch.  In fact, there was a period there of about three or four years where The Guess Who outsold ALL of the other Canadian recording acts COMBINED!!!  That had to be some pretty heady stuff at the time. 

And then, right at the peak of this success, with "American Woman" sitting on top of both the album and singles chart,
Randy Bachman quit the band to do other things, eventually forming Bachman-Turner Overdrive and carving out his own niche in rock and roll history.  (In fact, he and Fred Turner have been touring together recently, recreating some of those great songs again.)  

Since then, Cummings and Bachman seem to have had an on-again, off-again relationship over the past couple of decades.  I was fortunate enough to see a few of their reunion shows and there is no denying that a genuine, mutual love and respect for one another comes across during those shows.  

kk:  There was some hope  a few years back of better things to come when the Bachman-Cummings Band recordings came out.  Have you guys actually tried to write together again after all these years?  One cannot help but wonder what kind of magic that might generate.
BC:  Randy and I don't really have a burning desire to write together again. For one thing, all the stuff we did years later after the Guess Who was gone, was always measured up against These Eyes and American Woman and stuff … you can't live in that kind of a shadow and not have it affect you when you try new songs … but we did some good ones together in 1987 for the Thunderbird Trax disc.    

kk:  After Randy left, The Guess Who soldiered on ... and continued to amass a great string of hits.  Did you go through a period of time where you thought, "OK, this is it ... the dream is over?" and actually considered throwing in the towel?  Obviously, this put a lot of extra pressure on you at the time, not only as a performer but as a songwriter now saddled with having to carry the band.  
BC:  After Randy's departure, we immediately got Kurt Winter and Greg Leskiw who were both very good players. For the first time, the Guess Who had two lead guitar players. The band got tougher by the time we did  the Share the Land Album. We toured more, too. And Kurt and I became co writers almost instantly. He brought Hand Me Down World and Bus Rider to the first practices he attended, and I knew immediately that fate had led me to another writing partner.   

kk:  It's funny in a way because the focus has always been on the song-writing dynamic of Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman ... and I don't mean to diminish that magic in anyway ... but my two personal favorite Guess Who albums remain to this day to be "Share The Land" and "Rockin'" ... and Randy was long gone by this point.

kk:  I would imagine that Chicago holds some special memories for you ... most of The Guess Who's early hit material was recorded here, correct?  
BC:  Chicago is VERY special to us ... we recorded "American Woman" there and we recorded "Share The Land" there and some of the biggest records we did ... "No Sugar Tonight" ... these were hits all over the world and these were all recorded right there in Chicago.  Right on North Wacker Drive, right downtown, across the street from The Opera House, there used to be a building and RCA had the 12th and 13th floor and way up 13 floors high, there was a recording studio ... and we lived in that studio for about two years.  There was a LOT of time spent in there.   

kk:  Why Chicago?  Certainly there were studios in Canada ... was this more of a Jack Richardson thing (EDITOR'S NOTE:  Richardson produced all of the band's early hits) or what?  
BC:  Honestly, it was RCA ... I mean, we were contracted to RCA and part of the contractual obligation was that we record in their studios.  And we didn't like the ones in New York because they were old ... and the microphones were old ... and the engineers were outdated ... and they had worked with Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman and guys like that ... but they hadn't kept up with the times, whereas Chicago and L.A. back then, say '69 and '70, back then RCA Chicago and RCA L.A. had much hipper guys and better studios ... they had advanced more than the old New York studios.  So, once we did a couple of albums in New York ... particularly an album called "Canned Wheat" ... it didn't sound that great to us ... so we moved from there to the Chicago studios and we did a lot of recording there.  We spent a lot of time in your city ... we would stay at a hotel called The Executive House and it was right by the river, right downtown, and we would walk along that river, right where those big Marina Towers are ... those twin towers ... and walk along the river and then turn left on Wacker and then there we were!  Every day for weeks and weeks.  I know that area very well.   

kk:  So this is a little bit of a "homecoming" for you to come back here now and do this show at The Arcada.  
BC:  Well, it is ... and I still have a lot of friends in Chicago, too ... and we spent those days ... I mean THOSE days were the absolute zenith point of The Guess Who's career.  Those best days were spent there in Chicago because we were recording those records and we thought we were in pretty good with the guys at RCA.  In fact the guys from New York RCA used to fly into Chicago to hear how our sessions were going ... so it was a pretty good time for us in Chicago.  

kk:  And ironically, during that same era The Buckinghams were recording in New York instead of in Chicago!  (EDITOR'S NOTE:  Ironically Burton brought up The Buckinghams later in our interview, having just done some shows with them.)  
BC:  Well, you know what ... it all depends on where you're comfortable ... what studio you get comfortable with ... and I think we were VERY comfortable in Chicago.  And you know the climate was the same for us (lol) because we came from Winnipeg ... so we knew all about cold winters!  And mind you, it's much colder in Winnipeg than it is Chicago, but we know about winter and snow and ice and that so we felt very at home in Chicago.   

kk:  Were you a bit of a studio hound back then ... spending a lot of time in the studio, analyzing every note, nit-picking this or that?  Kind of a real "hands on" artist?  
BC:  I was the most, I think ... what would the word be ... fastidious ... of us during the sessions ... and I always stayed till the very end of the mixes ... although I wasn't really credited as a co-producer, I sorta was, I guess, because I was the lead voice, so I always was concerned with the mixes.  And most of this material was stuff that I wrote or co-wrote ... so I always hung around until the very end of the mixes ... and 98% of the time, I was the only guy.  Peterson, our drummer ... he never bothered with the mixes too much ... I think he figured that I would be there speaking up for the band but there's no way I was going to just turn it over to Richardson and Brian Christian, the engineer, so I stayed right till the end always so yeah, I guess I was a bit of a studio hound ... I always loved seeing how it was done, how the mixing was done and then the EQ, all of which led me later to produce my own records.  That's how you learn.   

kk:  I remember when you did your first solo album, you were VERY complimentary to your producer Richard Perry, who is considered one of the geniuses in the studio of that time.  
BC:  Oh, he was terrific ... absolutely terrific ... you know, he had had SO many hit records so I kinda felt lucky to have my first solo record being done by a master like that.  He had already done records like "You're So Vain", which was a #1 Record all over the world. He had done a LOT of stuff ... a lot of different stuff ... everything from Tiny Tim to Barbra Streisand to that group Night from England (they were tremendous) ... Richard worked with SO many big people.  I always thought "You're So Vain" was a classic, classic record, you know ... just one of those records that stands out in your memory.  And here's a bit of trivia that a lot of people might not know ... but I think a lot of people DO know ... that the harmony on "You're So Vain" is Mick Jagger ... you can hear it if you listen to it carefully enough ... you can hear him singing along with Carly Simon.   

At this point I had to smile a little bit because I think the whole WORLD knows by now that that was Mick Jagger singing in the background on "You're So Vain" ... and most of us probably knew this the week the song was first released back in 1972!  Funnily enough, when Cummings first mentioned sharing a little piece of "You're So Vain" trivia, I half expected him to say that he bet I thought this song was about him ... so I had to kid him about it later ...  

kk:  Oh ... and see, I thought you were going to reveal that she wrote it about YOU ... after all those years of people wondering who the song was actually about ... I thought maybe it was YOU and you were finally ready to tell the world, right here in Forgotten Hits!  (lol)  
BC:  No, no, no ... (laughing) ... I hear it's about Warren Beatty ... but I don't know for sure ... but that's the rumor that I heard in Hollywood ... that it was Warren Beatty ... but who knows, man.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Carly Simon has NEVER officially revealed the source of inspiration ... but Beatty was a leading contender for years ... as was (ironically enough) Mick Jagger, who then would have been singing about HIMSELF when he harmonized with Simon!  The most recent speculation pins it on record mogul David Geffen although DOZENS of names have been thrown in the hat over the past four decades.  Apparently, however, Burton Cummings was NOT one of them!  (lol)

BC:  I gotta tell you, though, GREAT song, GREAT hook ... and, on Richard's part, a great record.  And then Richard did all those big Pointer Sisters records and he worked with SO many people ... he worked with The Manhattan Transfer ... SO many big people ... he really has cut some GREAT records through the years.    

kk:  Well, he did Ringo's biggest album, too ... and then years later you found yourself performing as part of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band.  
BC:  Yeah, Richard did all of Ringo's solo hit records like "You're Sixteen" and "Only You" ... stuff like that ... he's very, very good in the studio.  I think he's semi-retired now ... lives with Jane Fonda.

kk:  Is that right?  I did not know that!
BC:  Oh yeah, they've been together quite a while.  

kk:  Wow ... well that's interesting! 

More with Burton Cummings tomorrow in Forgotten Hits ... don't miss it!

Two personal favorites ... first up, Burton paying homage to his former partner with a little tongue-in-cheek (but absolutely stunning) arrangement of one of Randy Bachman's post-Guess Who hits ... and then another one that literally brings a tear to my eye EVERY time I hear it!  (kk)