Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. In this essay, I delve into the work of a group that is considered royalty in its native Canada, and revered among many U.S. fans as one of the best Top 40 hit bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s: The Guess Who.
I have always loved the songs of The Guess Who, and the amazing rock vocals of Burton Cummings. When tunes like “Undun” or “Hand Me Down World”
or “Albert Flasher” come on the radio, I am instantly transported to 1970-71, hanging with friends and driving with my girl around the east side suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.
To me, their records were perfect little pop songs, carried either by Cummings’ rollicking piano and distinctive voice or the stinging guitar riffs of Randy Bachman (at first) or Kurt Winter. Between 1969 and 1974, The Guess Who was Canada’s biggest success story, scoring 10 Top 20 hits in the US and twice that number in their native country. Their albums performed less well (only three reached Top 20 status in the US), which isn’t really all that surprising, as the group was, from the outset, a singles band.
“We had our eye on the Top 40 charts,” Cummings reflected. “That was our goal, to have a hit single in the US. Once we did that with ‘These Eyes’ in early 1969, Randy and I gained the confidence to write more in the same vein, and then they became hits too.”
Soon, recalls Bachman, “It was like we were finishing each other’s sentences. I’d play Burton a whole song of mine, he’d play me a song of his, and we’d say, ‘Let’s make mine the verse and make yours the chorus,’ and vice versa. Sometimes we had heard songs we wanted to imitate, something by Lennon and McCartney, or Brian Wilson, or even Burt Bacharach and Hal David. We liked to rock, but we enjoyed writing ballads too.”
Few people would claim that The Guess Who catalog had a lot of emotional depth. The lyrics were often quirky, sometimes even a bit lame, but when put to irresistible melodies as sung by Cummings, it didn’t seem to matter. Consider, for instance, “Rain Dance.” What are we to make of these words? “Fifi said to Don the baker, ‘Can you show me how to make another bun, Don?’, And I’m still standing with my next door neighbor saying, ‘Where’d you get the gun, John?’…” Cummings fashioned such a memorable melody line that the song ended up at #19 (in Canada, it reached #3).
There were instances, though, when Cummings came up with lyrics that had substance, like on the melancholy piano ballad “Sour Suite,” a minor hit which touched on the sad feelings of an off night and depressing memories the next morning (“I don’t want to think about a runaway dad that took away the only thing that I’ve ever had, don’t even miss him this morning, I don’t want to think about a cold goodbye, or a high school buddy got a little too high, I can’t help him out this morning…”)
So let’s answer the question many people have always been curious about: Why “The Guess Who”?
Originally, Bachman (then only 16) had formed a group in 1962 with drummer Garry Peterson and bassist Jim Kale, with singer/guitarist Chad Allan as the front man. Using the common naming format of many rock bands of that period, they called themselves Allan and The Silvertones. They soon morphed into Chad Allan and The Reflections, and gained some notoriety in Canada, mostly in and around their home base of Winnipeg in the central Canadian province of Manitoba. By 1965, they changed their name to Chad Allan and The Expressions because a US band called The Reflections had scored a Top 10 hit with “Just Like Romeo and Juliet.”
As Chad Allan and The Expressions, things started happening when they recorded a cover version of “Shakin’ All Over,” a 1960 hit in England by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. The Expressions’ label, Quality Records, frustrated by the inability of Canadian groups to break into the American market, came up with an idea: They chose to credit the record to (Guess Who?), hoping it would be better received if it was thought to be by a British Invasion act. Sure enough, the song reached #22 in the US in early 1965 and went all the way to #1 in Canada. The band’s real name was revealed a few months later, but disc jockeys continued to announce the group as The Guess Who, which effectively forced the official name change.
In 1966, Cummings was added on keyboards and backing vocals, but then Chad Allan chose to leave the band, which put Cummings at the forefront as lead singer. This new lineup kept the momentum going in Canada with several Top 20 singles, including Neil Young’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” the eventual Carpenters’ hit “Hurting Each Other” and two Bachman compositions, “Believe Me” and “Clock on the Wall,” but they all stiffed in the US and elsewhere.
Once Bachman and Cummings put their songwriting talents together in 1968, something clicked. “These Eyes” zoomed to #6 in the US, followed by “Laughing” at #10 (a chart topper in Canada). “Undun” did less well, stalling at #22, but “No Time” reached #5 in the US and was another #1 in Canada. This was all in the space of 10 months.
(“No Time” had actually been first recorded in ’68 with a weird intro, a longer guitar break and an extended vocal section at the end. This version rarely gets heard, but you’re in for a real treat — you can hear it on the Spotify playlist at the end of this essay. Cummings’ vocals and Bachman’s guitar are both amazing here).
Then came the strange case of “American Woman.” The band had returned to Canada after a long string of American shows, and at a small hall in Ontario, they were taking the stage after a brief break. Bachman was tuning his guitar after replacing a broken
string and realized he was playing a new riff. The other members returned to the stage and joined in, creating a jam session in which Cummings improvised lyrics about how homegrown Canadian women were preferable to American girls. A couple of lines (“I don’t need your war machine, I don’t need no ghetto scenes”) were interpreted as anti-American, but as Cummings said, “It was just a sentiment I ad libbed that night. The Vietnam war was raging at the time, and we had a lot of draft dodgers in the audience.”
The band recorded the song a week later and, despite the apparent putdown (“American woman, stay away from me”), the song zoomed to #1 in the US and Canada, as did its flip side, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature.”
Festering underneath this success, though, was increased tension between Bachman and Cummings. Bachman had chosen to avoid drink and drugs and had even converted to Mormonism, while Cummings was more of a wild child (as were Kale and Peterson). According to “Bachman,” the recently released documentary, “I had become the group’s de facto manager. I was handling our business affairs, counting the money, constantly up in the morning, going to the bank when it opened, coming back, and then getting [the other band members] out of bed, nursing their hangovers and driving them to the next gig. When you do that 300 days a year, it takes its toll.”
Bachman had been suffering painful gallbladder problems and needed surgery, but the touring prevented him from getting the care he needed. Things came to a head in May 1970, when Bachman played his last show with The Guess Who at New York City’s Fillmore East. “We hit No. 1 with the American Woman album and single, and now we’re suddenly headlining. I said, ‘Okay, guys, I need to go home for two weeks. I have an operation scheduled.’ They said, ‘Great, well, we’re gonna keep going.’ I said, ‘Am I coming back?’ They said, ‘No, we’re kind of glad you’re gone.’ They were into the drug culture, I wasn’t. So I was glad to leave, but I was sad to leave. This had been my life. I had run this band.”
Bachman’s place was quickly filled by guitarist Kurt Winter, an old Winnipeg friend who offered not only great guitar work but wrote some memorable tunes like “Bus Rider” and “Hand Me Down World.” Because The Guess Who’s radio hits kept on coming almost
seamlessly, the casual listener took no notice of Bachman’s departure. Winter became Cummings’ new songwriting collaborator, and they teamed up on “Hang On To Your Life,” “Rain Dance,” “Heartbroken Bopper” and “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon.” Alone, Cummings came up with “Share the Land,” “Albert Flasher,” “Glamour Boy” and my personal favorite, 1974’s “Star Baby.”
I couldn’t help but feel sad that The Guess Who’s final chart success was the insipid “Clap for the Wolfman,” a tribute of sorts to the radio legend Wolfman Jack. To my ears, it’s boring, and pales in comparison to almost any other track in The Guess Who’s repertoire.
By 1975, Cummings decided to give a solo career a try, effectively ending the band’s run. Kale bought the rights to the name and continued assembling various Guess Who lineups to hit the road and even record albums over the ensuing years, but none could manage much success.
Cummings’ first attempts at going it alone did all right, with “Stand Tall” (#10 in the US), “I’m Scared,” “Break It to Them Gently” and “You Saved My Soul” all reaching the charts, but it didn’t last long. Still, he stayed active in the business, writing and producing and occasionally performing. He even participated in a few Guess Who reunion concerts,
with and without Bachman in the lineup, which is fairly remarkable, considering the way they parted ways in 1970. Naturally, those shows generated the most enthusiasm from the public.
Said Cummings in 1986, “Sometimes when you leave a well-known band, it’s almost immediate death. Lots of people have tried it and fallen by the wayside. I’m pleased that there are still people who like me or my songs or the way I sing them. Some of them like me well enough to come see me perform. And I do sing quite a few Guess Who tunes. Hey, those were some great songs. I was the band’s singer, and I wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, so why would I avoid performing them? Certainly the audience wants to hear them.”
As for Bachman, he struggled upon leaving The Guess Who in 1970 because industry folks couldn’t understand why he would leave a group just as it had attained a #1 album and single. But he soldiered on, first putting together a country rock band called Brave Belt with old colleague Chad Allan, and when that didn’t pan out, he recruited his brothers Tim and Robbie and bassist/vocalist Fred Turner to form Bachman-Turner
Overdrive in 1973.
BTO enjoyed a very successful run for a few years, churning out solid pop rock hits like “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Let It Ride,” “Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “Hey You.” (Me, I always favored the sultry, jazz-inflected “Blue Collar” featuring Turner’s vocals.)
So… Is the story of The Guess Who compelling? Perhaps not. Is their body of work “extraordinary, influential or consistently excellent”? Hmmm, not so much. But nevertheless, I just go crazy when I hear “These eyes have seen a lot of loves but they’re never gonna see another one like I had with you” and “I was a workshop owner in the gulch for the people and I offered myself to the world,” dammit! And I have a hunch that many of my readers share my affection for the songs of The Guess Who. I hope the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below (which includes a few solo Cummings and BTO selections) hits the spot for you this week.