Burton Cummings Celebrity Interview - Royal York Hotel, Toronto - March 22, 2012 - Canadian Music Week
By Vanessa Markov
Photos by Vanessa Markov
“CHERISH YOUR MEMORIES, AND POLISH THEM AS BRIGHTLY AS YOU CAN. AFTER A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF TIME, THEY’RE ALMOST AS GOOD AS BEING THERE AGAIN…” Burton Cummings writes in his blog in his typical Caps-lock style late last December, and you couldn’t help but feel drenched in sentiment as the Canadian rock icon recounted notable moments of his past to a room full of attentive fans during a celebrity interview last Thursday at the Royal York Hotel.
The forty-five minute interview brought us back to the very beginning of Burton’s career, starting with his single mother saving pennies so her son can learn to play piano, to supporting his decision to leave high school in order to pursue music full time:
“I never officially finished high school. I dropped out when I was 17 because I was starting to fail everything. It’s not that I was a complete dummy, it was just that I couldn’t care less about why the base angles of an isosceles triangle were equal…I just cared about what the Beatles next single was.”
We learned about how Burton was a huge fan of The Guess Who - then an instrumental band – and how he had all but begged to sing for them before they finally obliged. But even then, he was only invited on stage to sing one or two songs until…
“Finally one night, we played at a church and there was an upright piano at the side of the stage. So instead of leaving the stage, I just went over there and pounded along during the guitar instrumental. The piano was not amplified in any way, nobody heard me, but it meant that I didn’t have to leave the stage. And that was a big turning point for me. After that, we got a fifteen dollar electric violin pickup, which we would attach to the back of the pianos with thumb tacks…suddenly the piano was part of the band, and about two months later it was leading the band.”
And if not for the CBC placing the band on a weekly television show, Burton is unsure what would have become of The Guess Who:
“The CBC saved our asses. We were in so much debt after a disastrous trip to England in 1967…we didn’t even have enough money to come home, we were stuck there. Suddenly, the CBC came along like savior angels and said, ‘Here boys, here’s a weekly television show.’ We couldn’t sign fast enough.”
It was then that another saviour angel, producer Jack Richardson, came along. He saw the band performing “These Eyes” and took matters into his own hands. Despite the band having no contracts or record label, Richardson re-mortgaged his house in order to fly the band to New York to record the song. Now nearing five million plays in the U.S., one is prompted to realize just how delicate fate can be.
It’s no secret to fans of The Guess Who that “These Eyes” was the song that launched the band to fame, but Burton clarified a little known fact about the making of the now-infamous ballad:
“We wrote These Eyes in maybe twenty-five minutes…Everybody always thought that was my piano riff, but it wasn’t. Randy was the one that wrote that ‘bum bum da ra da ra ta’ and he wanted to call it ‘These Arms’.”
But even after “These Eyes” went gold, Burton, barely 20, remained full of doubt. “I didn’t want to be finished at 20,” he explains, going on to describe how he and Randy worked toward a heavier, more rock-tinged follow-up. So how did “Laughing”, another ballad, become the band’s second single?
“Don Burkheimer, who was the Vice President of RCA at the time, took us to the Carnegie Deli in New York and he said, ‘Guys, please give us another ballad, something in the vein of These Eyes.’ And we thought, ‘Oh god, here we go again.’ So we wrote Laughing literally to order and in less time than These Eyes.”
And there was gold record #2.
But as history will tell you, it didn’t stop at ballads. The Guess Who went on to write “American Woman”, arguably one of the most recognizable rock songs of all time. Apparently, the band disagrees on how the song was conceived, but Burton insists that he remembers the real story.
As it goes, The Guess Who was about to start the second of two shows in a Scarborough, Ontario club and by the time Burton got on stage, the rest of the band was already jamming to a new riff:
“I just started singing whatever the hell came to my head. All that stuff about war machines and ghetto scenes, coloured lights, get hypnotized, and I never thought twice about it…”
But that’s not all there is to it. It turns out that “American Woman” might have never existed had a young man in the audience not been illegally recording their set:
“Had that kid not been bootlegging the show that night, the song never would have happened. I wouldn’t have remembered anything - it was all on the spot stream of consciousness. It was a happy accident.”
Indeed, a happy accident and perhaps the most fascinating story of them all. It’s obvious that Burton loves to remember and retell the stories of his past, and in such a way that you’ll never forget them, but when asked if any of his stories would be put into book form, Burton firmly replied:
“You want a book from me? There are 1200 pages of blogs online. I don’t want to do a book. Randy did a book and it put me to sleep.”