When discussing some of the greatest Rock-n-Roll voices to emerge from the ’70s era, chances are Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, and Boston’s Brad Delp are a few that immediately come to mind. However, one who should always be at the top of this list is none other than The Guess Who’s Burton Cummings.
Cummings, who joined The Guess Who at a young age in 1966, would remain a fixture for them on vocals until 1975. A highly distinctive singer with an impeccable range, Cummings’ voice is the x-factor in some of the band’s biggest successes; including 1969’s “American Woman,” “These Eyes,” and “No Time.” Also a key songwriter during the peak period for The Guess Who, alongside Randy Bachman, together they created some extremely memorable music.
Also achieving hits as a solo artist, including 1976’s “Stand Tall” and 1981’s “You Saved My Soul,” there is simply no denying Cummings’ Rock-n-Roll legacy. Now in 2023, he remains extensively active performing live, and yes, working on some new music. Inspired and still rocking his own way, Burton Cummings recently sat down to talk about his journey into music, his time with The Guess Who, plus a whole lot more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music professionally for many decades now. Attaining tremendous success as a member of The Guess Who, as well as with your solo work, how would you describe this unpredictable journey you have been on in Rock-n-Roll?
Burton Cummings – It’s funny, when I was in high school, that was when The Beatles broke wide open. I was already in a local band, and there were dozens of local bands in Winnipeg. But when the British Invasion hit, everything changed for all the local bands all around the world. Suddenly, there were all these songs, brand new songs to sing by The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Zombies, The Who, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Jerry and the Pacemakers, and The Yardbirds. With that, all of a sudden, it all changed. That was when I was about fourteen. It was then that I had just weaseled my way into an all-guitar band and convinced them that they needed a singer (Laughs).
So, it goes way back to being a kid and having big dreams when The Beatles hit. At that point in history when The Beatles hit, I think every kid and every local band in the world fantasized about that happening to them. It just all seemed like magic.
Cryptic Rock – Obviously The Beatles had such a lasting impact on music in general. All these decades later, people still turn to The Beatles as inspiration.
Burton Cummings – Well, Randy Bachman and I started writing songs together after The Beatles had happened. The Beatles really hit in late ’63, into early ’64. Bachman and I started writing songs together in about ’66. We had already been influenced by the songwriting of John and Paul. They were just like heroes, not just Randy Bachman and me, but to many of us. How could they churn out so many great songs so quickly, one after the other? It always seemed like when I was a teenager in the ’60s, for a few years there, that The Beatles had a brand-new record out. Always!
Cryptic Rock – They certainly were very prolific, and in a relatively short period of time. You mentioned your work with Randy Bachman. As a member of The Guess Who, you two were the key songwriters during those peak years when the band was massively successful.
You built a lot of success, but also had a lot of your own hits as well. The Guess Who are regarded as one of the best Rock bands of the late ’60s, going into the ’70s. You being a massive part of all of their success both as a songwriter and vocalist, what was that time like?
Burton Cummings – There are a couple of things that make me very proud. I’m going to be seventy-six at the end of December; so, I’ve had some time to think about this. I think there are two things I enjoy hearing the most. Number one is that the songs had never gone away. I heard “No Time” on the radio the other day and it didn’t sound fifty years old. It’s still a pretty good Rock-n-Roll record. The other thing I love hearing from people that follow what I’ve done is, “Burton, you don’t sound like anybody else.” I think that’s something that every singer would love to hear, but not every singer gets to hear that. People tell me all the time that I don’t sound like anybody else. I think that’s very important.
Cryptic Rock – You do have an extremely unique voice. Those who know your voice, and your work The Guess Who, immediately can distinguish it is you. As far as The Guess Who material from your time with the band, it still sounds fresh. That is a testament to your work as well and your voice. Speaking of which, how did you develop singing?
Burton Cummings – When I was very young, I sang in the church choir; Anglican Church in North End Winnipeg. It was St. Martin’s Church, actually St. Martin-in-the-Fields, named after the original St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields in England. I sang in the church choir for three or four years. Then, in tenth grade in high school, I auditioned. They were doing the operetta Trial by Jury (1875) by Gilbert and Sullivan, a huge production. I auditioned for the lead role and got it. In eleventh grade, at St. John’s High, I auditioned again for the lead tenor role and got it in H.M.S Pinafore (1878). In two years, I had a lot of vocal training for those two operettas.
School started at 9 AM every morning, but for those two seasons I had to be there at 8 AM every morning for the one-hour rehearsal of the operetta before regular classes even started. That was not only vocal training, but a lot of extra responsibility as a teenager in high school.
Cryptic Rock – That is very interesting and it sounds like those experiences really laid the groundwork for you.
Burton Cummings – I should also mention that my mother started me on piano lessons when I was very young… about six, I think. By the time I was about eight or nine years old I was hearing people like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. These were piano players that pounded the hell out of the piano and sang.
By the time I was nine or ten years old, I was playing a bit of piano and singing in a church choir. It just naturally seemed normal to me to get into a band when I was a young teenager.
Cryptic Rock – And look where it led you to. Music became a massive part of your life and along with it came success.
Burton Cummings – It’s always been a massive part of my life. When I dropped out of high school, I was seventeen. I didn’t really know what my future was going to be. The Guess Who had already been thinking about asking me, but they never would have made me leave school to join their band. Once they heard I had left school, shortly after that, they asked me to join the band.
I was still only seventeen, and they were like the biggest band in Canada. They had already had a record called “Shakin’ All Over” from 1965, which was a huge record. They had toured on the strength of “Shakin’ All Over.” They had toured with The Kingsmen, who did “Louie Louie,” Dion Dimucci, and The Turtles. These were big names on the radio! When they asked me to join, I was still a kid and pretty blown away.
Cryptic Rock – That is kind of unbelievable when you think about it.
Burton Cummings – It’s a little bit like a Cinderella story, really. I was just in the right place at the right time. Their lead singer, Chad Allen, the guy who had sung “Shakin’ All Over” and had been their lead singer for years, wanted to go back to university. Rather than breaking up the band, that’s what started them thinking about getting another singer. They were pretty good – Randy Bachman, Jim Kale, and Garry Peterson. They didn’t want to just pack it in. There I was, a seventeen-year-old, imitating Eric Burdon, Paul McCartney, Paul Jones, and all the singers of the day; because we were a cover band. Then they just took a liking to that.
Cryptic Rock – Well, those influences shine through in your music, for sure. The Guess Who split up in ’75, and you went on to release a solo record in ’76. You released numerous solo records through the years since that time. What was it like going out solo after establishing yourself as the vocalist of The Guess Who? Was it intimidating, or were you ready for it?
Burton Cummings – Well, I would say that my immediate response to that is it was scary. It was terrifying because you’re out of that group mold; that syndrome where you have brotherhood around you. Suddenly, it’s all on your shoulders.
I had watched Neil Young. Neil Young grew up in Winnipeg. He started his career in Winnipeg in a group called The Squires when we were all teenagers. I then watched Neil’s success with Buffalo Springfield. Then I watched him leave Buffalo Springfield and go solo. That always inspired me a little bit down deep… but it still took guts. It’s still way more terrifying being a solo artist than it is being part of a group. That’s just the way it is. If things are great, you get all the accolades. When things go wrong, you have to take all the slush that comes with that.
Cryptic Rock – Very true. That said, you have done a lot of great things on your own too. The last time you released a record was 2012’s live album Massey Hall. However, you did release a few new songs back in 2019. Do you have some more music in the plan to follow those tracks released back in 2019?
Burton Cummings – Well, we’re just trying to book a bunch of studio time now to work on my new album. I have more than enough songs for another album. I think the songs are pretty good. I’m not rushing it. I’ve worked on these songs for a few years now. Let’s face it, I’m seventy-five. I can’t put out corny records at this stage in my life. I would be too embarrassed to. I’m going to be seventy-six on New Year’s Eve. I can’t be putting out teenage love songs; because it doesn’t make any sense anymore at this point in my life.
The lyrics are far more introspective, existential, searching, and curious. Hopefully, the songs will still be catchy. I’m not saying I’ll never write any love songs anymore. I’m just saying that at this stage in life, I think the lyrics would just naturally take different turns, and that’s what’s happening with me. I’m still a songwriter, and I have a bunch of songs that I believe in. I’ve shown some of them to my band, and they’re very excited. So, we’ll get started on a new album.
Cryptic Rock – That is really exciting to hear. Just looking at your most recent work, “Sanity” was an exceptional song. That in mind, it has been quite a while since you released a full-length studio album.
Burton Cummings – Yes, Above the Ground was from back in 2008. If it had been in the days of vinyl, that would have been a double album because it’s nineteen tracks. And you know what? The new one will be about the same. I have seventeen or eighteen songs that I really believe in; a couple that I’ve co-written with my guitar player, Michael Zweig. We shall see what the future holds. I believe in the songs.
After the COVID layoff, my vocal chops are finally back. That was an awful time; not working for two years. But it seems I’m singing like the old Burton again. I’m very happy about that.
Cryptic Rock – Excellent. You mentioned how at this stage in your life, naturally, the lyrics will be more introspective. That is based on progression as a human being, plus wisdom earned from living. What are some of the topics that you will be touching on in the newer material?
Burton Cummings – Well, you know I’m far more conscious of the passing of time now because I’m closer to the end. I mean, once you’re well into your seventies, which I am, you become more aware of the passage of time. Some of my songs have that theme – the passage of time. I think if there’s an underlying theme that’s not screaming out, but obvious, it is to enjoy every minute because, you’re not here forever. Taking pleasure in some of the simpler things are some of the themes that will creep into the songs.
There is one song called “Arrogance,” which is kind of a discussion of what humans have done to the planet. With lyrics – “Arrogance, thy future lies with nature. Wasn’t too many ages ago when the buffalo roamed right by this way. Wasn’t too many eons ago when the forest was alive in a different way.” Stuff like that. The themes about the passage of time and the preciousness of the planet, but without trying to be preachy about it.
Cryptic Rock – Well, those topics sound like ones that could be relatable to a lot of people, regardless of their age. Beyond this, will you be partaking in more live performances in the next few months?
Burton Cummings – Yes, we played in Kelowna, B.C. just before the wildfires broke out. God, it was awful what happened there. We played a concert there and a day and a half later, it was on fire, most of the city. We also did concerts in both Saskatoon and Regina. It was a busy summer. We did seventeen shows in a month. At my age, that’s pretty good.
Cryptic Rock – At anyone’s age that is pretty good!
Burton Cummings – Yeah, that’s true. Keep in mind, my act is not a fusion band where the soloing goes on and on for five minutes. Ninety percent of the time we’re on stage and I’m singing. We do about two hours non-stop, and it’s a lot of singing.
Cryptic Rock – Very impressive. With the prospect of new music, you have one final show in 2023 before a few announced dates thus far for 2024. So, you mentioned about the passage of time and how you think about these things more as you get older. From your lengthy career in Rock-n-Roll and everything in general, what do you think are some of the most valuable things you have learned?
Burton Cummings – I have never taken it for granted. I think what happens when people have success in Rock music or Pop music, they tend to think it’s going to go on forever. It really doesn’t, in most cases. I’ve been a notable exception that I’ve been on the radio for more than fifty years. That doesn’t happen to everybody. I think the most valuable lesson to learn is to just be aware that it can be very temporary.
I’ve seen people have tremendous success, make lots of money, and have fame beyond their expectations. Then it all falls apart and they end up a mess. The main thing I’ve learned is to be thankful for whatever success you have because there’s millions that don’t get that success. That’s the main thing. I’ve also learned that in show business, when you get knocked down, you’ve got to get up and try again. It’s as simple as that. “These Eyes” was a huge breakthrough for us. Before “These Eyes,” we had nine or ten singles that all failed miserably. We just kept getting back up and trying again. I think that’s the most important lesson.
Cryptic Rock – Those are great lessons. Learn and stay grounded. That is really the key to life – never take things for granted.
Burton Cummings – Absolutely. I think in some ways, athletes have a shorter window. Singers, if they can keep their chops, can go on for quite a while. In my seventies, I wouldn’t be playing hockey anymore if I were a hockey player, but I’ve got a bunch of shows coming up. So, I do consider myself one of the lucky ones. I really do.
Cryptic Rock – You mentioned dealing with failure and how the band kept trying. Truly inspiring, what really stands out about your music and The Guess Who was how unique it is. There are hints of Jazz and Blues in there. There are heavy and mellow songs.
Burton Cummings – That is partially because of songwriting in the original years with Randy and me, and then later years with Kurt Winter and me. When we were kids growing up in Winnipeg there were three major radio stations, and they were all competing with each other for the audience. They all had Hit Parade charts, all three of them. So, what we heard was a huge variation of music, different styles. And I think that crept into the writing for Backman and Cummings, and it crept into the writing for Cummings and Winter. We were lucky to have all those different kinds of music on the radio.