Interview: Burton Cummings

Burton Cummings

(Oct 2016) Over the years I’ve interviewed everyone from Gene Simmons to Sarah McLachlan, both of which, at different points in my life, I was a huge fan. That of course has been one of the great perks of this gig, but when I found out Burton Cummings was coming to Peterborough, I couldn’t resist reaching out. The Guess Who was one of those “first bands” for me and I doggedly pursued his manager for a chance to talk with Burton. So where do you start? Maybe I’ll let the website say it best, “As a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, Canadian Walk of Fame, Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, Prairie Music Hall of Fame, multiple Juno Award winner, recipient of the Order of Canada, the Order of Manitoba, the Governor-General’s Performance Arts Award, and several BMI awards for over 1 million airplays of his songs, Burton is one of the most celebrated rock artists in Canadian music history.” I caught up with him the morning after a sold out NY performance and about 20 minutes from my deadline…

 

Mb: Hello Burton.
Burton: Hey! My manager just gave me your number, so I guess we’re hooked up!
Mb: I’m excited to speak to you, I held the press for this interview!
Burton: Well thank you very much!
Mb: So first of all, congratulations. What a career! I don’t know where to start. I started listening to the Guess Who when I was just a little kid, not to start there but, that’s where it starts for me.
Burton: Well, we got so lucky and I was very young at the time. They already kinda made it, to an extent, on “Shakin’ All Over” before I was ever in the band. But then, they really never followed that record up, not with something that really clicked. So I came along. (laughs) I was still seventeen when they asked me to join the band. They were already the biggest band in Canada because they had “Shakin’ All Over” and that cracked the American Charts. They had toured with big stars like Dion Dimucci, The Turtles, Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown… they were on Scepter Records in the States, so it was a big deal for them to call me when I was still seventeen!
Mb: You’re still in school at that point?
Burton: Here’s the thing, I had just left high school. They wanted me in the band but they would have never encouraged me to leave school to join the band. Randy and Jim Kale told me that many times. Plus, I don’t think my mother would have stood for that. I did leave school under my own volition and as soon as they found out about that, they knew it was cool to ask me.
Mb: Suddenly the envy of all your friends.
Burton: Well, it was a bit ah… ya, a little bit surreal! You know, I had a band called The Deverons and we were fairly successful in Winnipeg. We were climbing the scene there. The Guess Who was really the measuring stick, because they were so much better than everybody else. But our band was climbing up the totem pole, but with an offer like that, you just can’t say “No!” You never know how many times something like that will happen in your life. Here’s what I’m getting at in this round about way, it was tough to leave my buddies! We were all sixteen and seventeen years old! Tough to leave, but goodness gracious, 3 years later we had “These Eyes” and everything changed.
Mb: And it wasn’t like they were asking you to play drums in the back…
Burton: No, it was pretty big deal. When I joined, Chad Allen was still there and he was singing lead on most of the stuff. As the weeks went by, the guys, at practice, would encourage me to sing more songs and more screamers because Chad sang softer stuff. We were still a cover band. We were doing the Hollies and Bobby Goldsboro and The Rascals and The Stones and The Beatles, and they got me doing the harder stuff. Eric Burdon and the Animals stuff, and stuff where I got to scream a bit. I could see what was happening. I could see the transition, even though I was just turning eighteen, I could see what was going on. About 2 months later, Chad went back to university and that was it. Suddenly I was the lead singer in the biggest band in the country. It really is a bit of a Cinderella story.
Mb: Maybe it was the only time in music, something like that could happen. Do you think it could happen today?
Burton: No, it’s a whole different business today. I don’t know how the promotion is done. There’s so much more online downloads and there’s much more pirating. Once Napster came along they let the genie out of the bottle. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, especially when we were riding very high, it wasn’t unusual to sell 60, 70, 1000 thousand albums a day! Today, 100,000 albums would make you #1 on Billboard. Its a much different world.
Mb: Do you think it drove a lot of acts back to the road to make money?
Burton: I’ve never really left the road. I’m one of those road warriors that always toured. I have a terrific band these days, so I’m enjoying that quite a bit and I’m gong to do a bunch of these one man shows and I haven’t done that for a while. So I’m in pretty good strength from doing all the shows with the band, and singing at home getting ready for this one man tour. I’m doing a whole month of one man shows. It’s a totally different show, than with the band.
Mb: I remember seeing you 20 years ago, solo on the piano. I was great.
Burton: My goodness I was doing that, that long ago? That’s funny to hear that, but I guess, ya!
Mb: I had a real intimacy…
Burton: I tell people, the really famous songs, the songs everyone knows, I tell them “This is how they sounded at home when they were being written.” It’s just a guy at a piano singing. I think, when it’s songs that have really been played a lot, especially in Canada, a song like “Break It To Them Gently” which has been played more than anything I’ve ever done, when they hear me alone at the piano… it’s kind of like inviting the audience into your living room.
Mb: And that’s the magic moment. If a song works, just vocal and piano, you know you have a good song. You can produce all you like but…
Burton: That’s the thing, you can really tell if the song has any strength to it. I’ve done a lot of one man shows, and people really do like it. To me, it seems so simple and I wonder why people get so excited. (laughs)
Mb: I can see my times running out, but I have one more thing I want to talk about. First, I can’t thank you enough for wearing the Wire’s “Blah Blah Blah” T shirt on the cover of “The Guess Who: Running Back Thru Canada CD!
Burton: Goodness, is that yours? Sam Boyd gave me that.
Mb: Sam and I are old acquaintances and when you were in town on that tour, I dropped down to say “Hi” and gave him T-shirts for everyone.
Burton: I still have that shirt, as a matter of fact! I’ve worn it several times on stage, because I like it!
Mb: Well as a segue, how was that tour? Must have been pretty magical.
Burton: Ya, that was great. Big crowds and a lot of press, a lot of hype! It really worked and we caught it all on camera in Winnipeg. That was just remarkable because we thought it was ruined by the storm and the storm made the video far more dramatic than it ever would have been. We knew, if we were going to film that, and capture it in one night, it had to be in Winnipeg. It had to be where all the songs were written that made us what we were.

Burton Cummings appears at
Showplace October Tuesday October 11,. 2016