Thursday, June 2, 2011

Burton Cummings: Celebrating a Classic Voice in Rock and Roll

If the Gods of Rock and Roll were to grant me one wish this summer, I would wish for transportation and tickets to take in Burton Cummings' tour of his native Canada.

Burton Cummings might not be a familiar name to many music fans under the age of 40. But in my view, he and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival stand as two of the five greatest vocalists in rock-and-roll history.  Given that two other spots have to go to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, that doesn't leave much room for anyone else. (My fifth spot would go to Don Henley, of the Eagles.)

Cummings made his mark as a solo artist in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But he is best known as the lead vocalist and one of three driving creative forces (with Randy Bachman and the late Kurt Winter) of The Guess Who. From Neil Young to Gordon Lightfoot to Rush to Alanis Morissette, Canada has turned out some stellar musical talent. But The Guess Who remains the quintessential Canadian band.

The band members grew up around the prairie town of Winnipeg, and Cummings was a white guy producing bluesy vocals long before anyone ever heard of Hall and Oates or Taylor Hicks. In fact, The Guess Who's first album was called Wheatfield Soul.

"Share the Land," "Laughing," "No Time," and "No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" are just a few of The Guess Who hits that remain staples on classic-rock stations. Lenny Kravitz brought The Guess Who to a new generation of music fans when he covered the band's best-known work, "American Woman," in 1999.

Like many bands, The Guess Who was beset by personnel changes and legal wrangling through the years. Bachman co-wrote many of the band's early hits before realizing that his Mormon beliefs did not mesh with the other band member's lifestyles. He went on to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive, churning out such '70s classics as "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" and "Takin' Care of Business."

Jim Kale, the band's original bassist, bought the rights to The Guess Who name and tours the U.S. with a band that bears the famous name but has almost nothing to do with the original group. The other members of the real Guess Who cannot use the name without paying Kale a hefty royalty. Cummings derisively calls today's Guess Who, who might soon be playing at a state fair or outdoor venue near you, "Kale's clones."

What remains of the real Guess Who (Cummings on keyboards, Bachman on guitar, Donnie McDougall on guitar, Bill Wallace on bass, Garry Peterson on drums) overcame legal squabbles to tour under that name in 2000 and 2003. But since then, Cummings (and sometimes Bachman) have toured mostly with a backing band called The Carpet Frogs.

The Frogs are backing Cummings on his current tour across Canada. Cummings' voice might be a little more thin than it was in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, but at age 63, he remains a compelling live performer. Here are Cummings and The Carpet Frogs with "These Eyes," a Guess Who ballad that has aged remarkably well--and Cummings provides insight on how the song came to be:

The Guess Who has a rocking legacy, as Cummings proves with this performance of "Star Baby":

Cummings' best-known work as a solo artist is "Stand Tall," a song about overcoming life's challenges:

If I had to pick the two most memorable songs of my youth--by North American artists; not counting British-invasion tunes from The Beatles, Dave Clark Five, and others--one would be CCR's "Up Around the Bend." The other would be The Guess Who's "Share the Land," a song whose message still resonates some 40 years after it was released. Enjoy:

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