“Gee guys, I wish you had asked me sooner. I just accepted an offer to become lead singer of the Beatles.” – 15-year-old Burton Cummings response to being asked to join The Guess Who.
He was kidding of course. But that oft-told story is an example of Burton’s legendary self-confidence. He did leave his band, The Devrons, join The Guess Who; the rest is rock and roll history.
The story came to my mind this week because I am going to see Burton in concert this evening, for the first time in a decade. I last saw him live ten years ago on the Guess Who reunion tour. I’m not sure when I last saw him perform solo, I think it was 1981 at the Central Canada Exhibition, though it might have been later. I do remember chatting with him backstage before the sound check on, I think, the Dream of a Child tour, so maybe that was it. If so, it was 1979 or so.
Most of us have a musical act that is “ours,” someone who touched us at a young age and of whom we have remained fans ever since. I became a Burton Cummings fan in 1969, when The Guess Who first hit it big with “These Eyes” and “Laughing,” and I’ve remained one ever since. There’s something about that voice and those songs that resonates within my soul.
“Never been this blue, never knew the meaning of a heartache, but then again, I never lost at love before…” – Stand Tall
The Guess Who were the headliners of the first real rock concert I attended, Canada Day, 1970 at Place des Nations in Montreal. There were 30,000 people there to see the band perform for the first time since the departure of guitarist Randy Bachman.
I remember that show almost as if it was yesterday. I can’t give you a complete set list, but I know they played two new songs that still haven’t been recorded: “What’s Wrong” and “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” (I found a live version of “Close Up..” on YouTube yesterday. Just as I remembered it. No luck on “What’s Wrong.”
They played the hits: “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “No Time,” “American Woman” “Hand Me Down World” (which had been released that day as a single) and “Share the Land,” which would be the follow-up hit. I was enthralled. I was also 14, which I am sure contributed to my emotional state. It was the only time I ever heard the band play “The Key, “ a song I’ve always liked for its Biblical message (probably more Bachman than Cummings in that one). Were there other songs? Probably, but that was 46 years ago and I didn’t think to take notes.
“Anybody here see the noise, hear the fear and commotion? I think we missed it. Anybody here see the love, see the hate, the emotion?” – Hand Me Down World
I also saw The Guess Who the day before Cummings’ last show with them. It was September 14 1975 at the Ottawa Civic Centre. The hits weren’t as frequent for the group by then, they had had personnel changes and musical shifts, and even I could see it was time for new directions, though I didn’t want to admit it.
“Don’t want to think about a runaway dad, who took away the only thing that I ever had…” – Sour Suite
For six years, my teen years, The Guess Who were the soundtrack to my life. I can probably tell you where I was and who I was with when I first heard each song. When Burton began releasing albums as a solo artist I was no longer a teenager, not as malleable perhaps. I still loved his music, but it wasn’t as emotional a connection.
“So won’t you take time to sing and play an honest song for the people tonight?” – Glamour Boy
Tonight I will be 14 again. For a couple of hours the cares of adulthood will be gone.
Thank you Burton.