Burton Cummings-Still Not Phoning It In.

Cover May 6, 2011

Story:Lenny Stoute

It’s not often an Order of Canada medal winner phones up to apologise for something that had nothing to do with him. Ok, never before. Especially when you consider this particular OC winner has sold millions of albums around the world and is responsible for penning such classic singles as ‘These Eyes’ and ‘American Woman’ and really doesn’t need the pixels.

Still and all, this little incident says loads about the class of the artist, the Order of Canada and the gracious Canadian-ness of it all. 

What followed was a 17-minute, information packed, down-home and open talk with Burton Cummings. Loosely structured around the upcoming tour, Cummings is such an enthusiastic wealth of information the digressions are often as much fun as the structured bits. Kinda like jazz. Which, like r’n’b was an influence on the very young Cummings.

“  When I was a kid, it didn’t get any whiter than growing up in Winnipeg. So I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like black people. When I heard all this great music on the radio, black or white wasn’t an issue. I was into the sounds, the voices; when I heard Sam Cooke sing I can’t recall even thinking about what colour he was”.

For a taste of jazz influence on the later Cummings, check the flute solo on ‘Undun’. The Sam Cooke vibe surfaces on what many Aficionados rate as Cumming’s sweetest soul vocal, a relatively obscure track called ‘Broken”. 

Just to nail it in place, the album which launched The Guess Who’s career, of which Cummings was the lead singer, was titled Wheatfield Soul and carried THE SINGLE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING.

Burton'n'Randy not phoning it in.Burton'n'Randy not phoning it in.“ Yes, ‘These Eyes’ changed everything. At the time we had this CBC show where we played all covers. We finally convinced them to let us do one of our own and it was ‘These Eyes’. The producer Jack Richardson happened to be in the studio and jumped on it right away. 

“ Mortgaged his house to pay for our trip and recording session in New York, to do Wheatfield Soul. The engineer on the sessions was a guy named Phil Ramone”.

Chuckling at the memory, Cummings recalls; “ So there I was not yet 21, with a hit song on Billboard and I couldn’t drink in the bars. The world changed right there, overnight for Randy (Bachman) and I”.

So with all this renown and considerable monies under his belt, why would an otherwise sane 62-year-old want to get back into the crazy world of the rock’n’roll road again?
Turns out it’s about the voice, the legacy and the times, they are a passing. Two years ago Burton Cummings quit smoking with the result he says he’s sounding stronger, clearer and better than he has in a long time and can’t wait to share it with us. 

 We have corroborative evidence this is so from a member of Cummings’ touring band. In a casual conversation the guitarist remarks on the hot to rock vibe around the upcoming tour and how to his ears Cummings has never sounded better.

Which makes this probably the best time to go out there and buff up the legacy. 

Burton Cummings- Burton on the mic 'n'keys.Burton Cummings- Burton on the mic 'n'keys.Songs like ‘Share The Land’, ‘Stand Tall’ and ‘American Woman’, to name but a few, constitute a body of work that stands up admirably, even demands to be revisited. 

As to his career longevity, Cummings unhesitatingly tags it to a knack for writing great hooks and the kindness of radio. Those elements came together with spectacular results not once but twice with the anthemic ‘American Woman’.

“ That one was strange right from the start. We had the riff that we had been playing around with. We had just come back from touring in the US and I remember looking out at the Canadian girls in the audience and noticing how fresh-faced they looked in comparison with the American girls, who seemed to grow up faster and wear more makeup. What I was really saying was, Canadian girl, I prefer you.  It was never intended to be political."

“ One night at a small club in Kitchener, we were riffing and I was making up the verses as I went along. There was a guy in the club with a cassette recorder who was I guess ‘bootlegging’ the show. When we heard it played back and heard those lines about ‘I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes’, we thought Hey, this isn’t bad."

Burton standing tall.Burton standing tall.“ There was some concern at the label as to how the Americans would take it and yes, we were somewhat surprised at how big it became there. I think what happened is we managed to tap into a tide of anti-Americanism that existed within the American kids who were questioning the war."

“ That song gave The Guess Who a whole new life when Lenny Kravitz recorded it for the soundtrack of the Austin Powers movie. It opened up a whole new audience to the music.”

For this upcoming tour though, it’s mostly about the old audience, the folks who’ve been there from the start. Or those that are still standing.

” These are times of great chaos and in such times, live entertainers always do well. People need to get away from all that if only for a couple of hours; be in a familiar, enjoyable space”.

“ So many of the great artists have been taken from us that the ones remaining are very precious. I’m in great shape, I have a hot band with me, all the things I need to go out there and do great shows. So I figured there’s no better time.” 

Cummings and crew are hitting the road in support of the legacy defining Burton Cummings Live at Massey Hall DVD, currently in the tinkering stage. Recorded last November when Cummings was in Toronto for the Walk Of Fame ceremonies, it offers all the hits and then some, delivered in typical Burton Cummings style; strong, straight from the heart, all killer no filler.

“ You know how sometimes the band is red hot but the cameras aren't rolling and the show’s a little flat and the cameras are rolling? Well at Massey Hall, everybody was on fire, everybody was burning.”

Cummings opens the In Your Backyard tour Saturday May 7 in Halifax and closes it out June 3 in Richmond B.C. That gives him almost a month before the U.S. leg kicks off in Connecticut July 2. Cummings plans on spending that time in the studio putting the final touches on the Massey Hall album. Then it’s back on the road for the rest of the summer and into fall.

Burton, Randy & The Carpet Frogs.Burton, Randy & The Carpet Frogs.

Just to keep the sleep thing down to a minimum, Cummings is an ardent blogger with thousands of posts, many of which sample from his book of poetry (look it up) and others which dabble in controversy and generally stirring it up. To paraphrase the poet Dylan Thomas, it’s a safe bet Burton Cummings will not “go gently into that good night” anytime soon.

For a list of In Your Backyard 2011 tour dates, check http://burtoncummings.net/live-concerts/