A highlight of this weekend's St. John's High School Centennial will be a gala dinner Saturday night featuring Burton Cummings at the Winnipeg Convention Centre.
This event stirs up fascinating memories for some students -- like me -- who remember the one other time Cummings performed for his classmates only -- a concert that has slipped under the radar of rock reporting on Winnipeg's illustrious music history.
The year was 1968 and the venue was also very small (the gymnasium at old St. John's Tech). Admission was ridiculously low (25 cents!) and it was a "sock hop" after school featuring soda pop and blue jeans instead of a fancy dress-up dinner selling high-priced booze with an admission price of $105.
But the biggest change will be the mood Burton Cummings carries on stage, and it is here we can really see the difference 40 years can make.
It's hard to fathom, given their decades of success, but The Guess Who were playing the two-bit St. John's gig because they desperately needed whatever cash they could scrounge. The band was just coming off a "tour of England" with their drumsticks between their legs because a phoney promoter had left them high and dry. After investing thousands of dollars in equipment and travel chasing some vague promise of a tour with legendary British band The Who (which sort of made sense, but really? A show featuring The Who and The Guess Who?)
"Not just new guitars and amps," Cummings said in an interview last weekend. "We even bought thousands of dollars in new clothes. Matching three-piece suits! A new light show! We wanted to look good!
"Bob MacGregor, the owner of The Stag Shop, let this rock band go wild up and down the racks and rack up a big pile of debt!
"We thought we were going to meet Paul McCartney and George Martin, but our only brush with fame was meeting The Who when they lip synched a video of My Generation."
The British tour ended up a whodunit with nobody doing nothing and The Guess Who were deeply in debt and close to folding.
The British flop was especially hard on Cummings because he was the new guy in the band, replacing Chad Allen who had led the band to some success with Shakin' All Over.
"The Winnipeg Free Press had pictures of us at the airport leaving for England on its front page and some people expected us to be the next Beatles," Cummings recalls. "I just wanted to hide from everyone when we got back."
Cummings was at least five years younger than the rest of the band and he hadn't shared in the Shakin' All Over success. Experienced and already somewhat jaded, the veteran bandmates could shake off the British fiasco more readily and they didn't share their lead singer's fear of failure.
Fortunately, the CBC TV had a weekly teen music program called Let's Go that provided a salary ("scale" but sizable) to The Guess Who for performing as the house band. Cummings has that incredible voice -- but the show's popularity was largely due to how remarkably close the band covered hits of the day.
"The debt must have been going down because, in those days, we just put all the money in a pot and paid each member $250 a week. That's a lot better than the 50 bucks a week I got when we started."
-- -- --
So Cummings had recovered somewhat as the band scraped by playing gigs like the sock hop at St. John's.
But instead of returning a handsome high school hero, Cummings was somewhat bitter because of the band's failure to break through with him as lead singer. And so, after playing The Guess Who's single at the time, Flying on the Ground (Is Wrong), written by fellow Winnipegger Neil Young, Cummings sarcastically remarked, "I want to thank my mom, and two of my aunts for buying that record. They were about the only people who did."
Then, when the band tried to re-create the studio version of When Friends Fall Out, Randy Bachman realized he couldn't get the sound he needed from the lethal combination of his amp, the PA system, the sound guy and the gymnasium's acoustics. Bachman frantically but unsuccessfully tried to get the attention of Cummings, who was bellowing out the chorus, bassist Jim Kale and drummer Gary Peterson, and the song came to an embarrassing, amateurish end. Cummings was livid.
Some in the audience scoffed.
The band patched together a solid rendition of their local hit His Girl and packed up their own equipment (there were no roadies yet).
-- -- --
Fortunately for The Guess Who, CBC Producer Larry Brown made the crucial decision to let them play some of their own material on Let's Go.
"This is where it becomes like, a Cinderella story," Cummings recalls. "Record Producer Jack Richardson heard us play These Eyes and he loved it so much, he invested his own money to fly the band to New York and record Wheatfield Soul, which was produced by Phil Ramone, who went on to work with people like Paul Simon and Billy Joel.
"These Eyes was a huge hit. Then No Time made the rock magazines like Rolling Stone."
American Woman set a record for Canadian longevity atop the Billboard charts (which wouldn't be broken until Nickelback came along). The Guess Who made millions and Cummings would go on to a successful solo career. Now he even has his publishing rights in order and likes to joke that Lenny Kravitz, who recorded a funky version of American Woman, bought him a house on Park Boulevard in Winnipeg.
On Saturday, Cummings will perform at a gala dinner to celebrate St. John's High School's centennial. Despite dropping out in Grade 11, Cummings has often said his alma mater holds a special place in his heart.
"I am really looking forward to this gig. All of the members of my first band, the Deverons, went to St. John's High School. There are good friends I hung around with who I am going to see for the first time in a long, long time... and it's probably the last time I will ever see them," Cummings says ruefully. "So I'm bringing the whole band (the Carpetfrogs nowadays) and we're really going to rock the place out."
Don Marks is a St. John's alumnus (1968-70) who traded his Epiphone guitar for a motorcycle after he heard Are you Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix.