Back in May, I had the distinct honour of being invited to a private reception for Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
As Charles worked his way through the crowd chatting politely with whoever was in front of him, he came upon me. Introducing myself by stating I was a music historian, I then asked him if he recalled attending a concert by Winnipeg's greatest musical ambassadors, the Guess Who, at the White House in the summer of 1970. He paused to reflect for a few seconds and then said he did remember the event.
Charles, along with his sister, Princess Anne, attended two Guess Who concerts that summer, the first in Winnipeg, the second two days later at the White House.
The first was organized by the Manitoba Centennial Corporation as part of the province's 100th birthday. Along with the royal siblings, 275 young people from across the province were chosen to attend a dinner and dance at the International Inn's Hollow Mug dinner theatre. Besides the Guess Who, Monty Levine and his orchestra and the Mug's repertory singers, the Internationals, also performed.
Under the headline "Guess Who'll Be There," the Winnipeg Free Press reported the event. "Prince Charles and Princess Anne, both bona fide members of the under-30 club, will attend a jam session of one of the top commercial rock groups here tonight. Winnipeg's The Guess Who, creators of Canada's first-ever number one world hit, American Woman, will give their first royal performance as the Prince and Princess turn on to the contemporary sound of heavy rock music."
Indeed, Guess Who singer Burton Cummings gushed about their impending concert. "Mr. Cummings said the group would like to sing American Woman because the song is identified with the musicians and their success. But he added, 'Some people consider it political. We won't do it if we're asked not to.' Mr. Cummings said the musicians were 'really digging the fact we'll be playing for the Queen. We've always wanted to play for the Queen.' When informed that Prince Charles and Princess Anne would be in attendance but not Queen Elizabeth, he said, 'Ah well, I'm a big Commonwealth fan, that doesn't matter.' "
The following day, the newspaper interviewed several young people who were in attendance. Loree Shinoff, 19, was seated next to Charles at the head table and noted he talked continuously throughout the evening. "He said he was looking forward to their trip to Washington Thursday but feared insinuations of a relationship between himself and 'the Nixon girl.' " she revealed. "His charges said he just loves to dance but felt he couldn't dance to the kind of music the Guess Who played."
Marcia Lester, also 19, noted Princess Anne "appeared to enjoy the dinner and the entertainment but felt the Guess Who's last number, American Woman, and monologue ran a bit too long."
At the end of their set, Guess Who bassist Jim Kale announced to the royals, "We'll see you in Washington."
Tricia Nixon, youngest daughter of then-president Richard Nixon, was a Guess Who fan and had personally requested the band be invited to perform when the prince and princess visited the White House. Prior to their July 17 appearance on the White House lawn for a royal reception, the band's management received a formal request from Helen Smith, press relations director for first lady Pat Nixon. Smith asked that the band refrain from performing American Woman "as a matter of taste." Also performing that evening were Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, whose set list was deemed suitable. "I had mixed emotions about the White House," Cummings reflected years later. "It was strange. All the guests were white, all the military aides were white in full military dress, and all the people serving food were black. It seemed terribly racist. And the way the White House was landscaped, it kind of looked like you were in Alabama in the 1840s before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It left a bad taste in my mouth. They wanted a Commonwealth act when Charles and Anne went there. We were the token Commonwealthers."
Also in attendance was oldest daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower and her husband David Eisenhower, grandson of the 34th American president. Cummings was seated beside Edward Lear of the Learjet family and evangelist Billy Graham's daughter. "It was the so called upper crust aristocracy of America," Cummings observed. "Very stuffy, boring people. We were told not to play American Woman, but we played Hand Me Down World. We thought we were just as cool for doing it."
Guitarist Kurt Winter, a roguish everyman who wore the same striped trousers on his first U.S. tour, was persuaded to change from his usual ripped Garnet T-shirt to a decent dress shirt. His striped pants remained, however.
"Kurt, bless his heart, didn't even remove his cowboy hat in the presence of royalty," Cummings wrote years later.
The long-held rumour Winter urinated on the White House lawn remains unconfirmed. Cummings and guitarist Greg Leskiw received a private tour of the White House, spending an hour poking into rooms not usually open to the public.
The contradiction inherent in the Guess Who's appearance at the Nixon White House was not lost on Leskiw.
"Here was one of the most hated politicians of the hippie generation, and your subculture tells you this guy is bad," he mused. "Then someone says, 'Do you want to play the White House?' But we all wanted to do it, because it was something very few people get to do."
Sign up for John Einarson's Off The Record music history classes at mcnallyrobinson.com.