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A hometown hero sings his heart out

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There were hundreds of people at St. John's High School's 100th anniversary gala dinner and dance Saturday night at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, but there was only one most popular former student.

Guess who?

For an hour and a half, Burton Cummings sang the songs that were the soundtrack of growing up in Winnipeg during the late 1960s and early '70s.

"I was nervous," Burton told me later.

If he was, it didn't show.

What did come through, as loud and clear as his still strikingly strong voice, was how thrilled he was to be headlining the reunion and singing for the kids he went to school with.

What also came through was how much he still loves what he does, which probably accounts for his energy.

An energy you could see dripping off perspiration-matted hair and down his face.

For a guy who'll be 63 on New Year's Eve, Burton Cummings still comes across like the wonder boy he was, singing in operettas and rock bands in high school.

Just an older version of that wonder boy.

Burton seemed more pumped this time than when he was 38, performing at the high school's 75th anniversary.

Or so someone who saw him back then was telling me.

What's changed?

A lot, actually. His career has endured, even flourished in recent years, which has to make a difference in how he feels about life in general.

But I think he also finally feels as if Winnipeg appreciates him, which he didn't 25 years ago.

Burton has a community club named after him and of course a theatre, but more than that it's the way he seems to feel more at home now -- here at home.

There's something else, though, which was clearly on display Saturday night.

He laps up the audience's adulation.

As he and his Toronto-based backup group the Carpet Frogs took the stage Saturday night, I watched from near the back of the cavernous room as people were drawn to him like iron filings to a giant magnet.

Or worshippers to an icon.

Burton has a prodigious memory and he loves to use it to reminisce, which he did Saturday night. He talked about how he struggled in school, about the girl who dumped him in high school.

And he recalled as a kid singing on the St. John's High School stage that's still there more than 40 years later.

As I suggested, he's still singing like a kid. He sang again Sunday night at The Pony Corral Pier 7, and Monday he was scheduled to be picked up by private jet and flown to perform at what sounded like a private party in Victoria.

Sunday's performance at The Pony was just as energetic as Saturday's but it had a different feel. There were about 300 fans packed on the Pier 7 patio where Howard Mandshein from 92 CITI FM handled the MC honours.

That gave it a very up-close-and-personal feeling. The occasion Sunday night was local dentist Lorne Acheson's 50th birthday, and while the birthday boy paid for the band, he said Burton "just showed up."

As did Burton's longtime agent, Los Angeles-based Lorne Saifer.

"I'm lovin' this," Acheson said as Burton played on. So was Burton.

He was still singing as strong as ever and still signing a St. John's T-shirt for a guy who followed him from the reunion to The Pony.

When he finished, my wife's cousin, Pony Corral owner Peter Ginakes, brought Burton by to say hello.

We hadn't spoken in 14 years, not that I was counting. It was there, as he stood with a towel wiping the energy from his brow, that Burton mentioned how nervous he'd been when he took the stage at the reunion gala the night before.

Then he said he was asked to say a few words at the Passing of the Torch ceremony Sunday afternoon.

And there he was.

Standing on the St. John's stage where he starred as kid, while at the same time he was bottoming out in the classroom.

Going nowhere.

Nowhere, but the top of the charts.

As he stood on that same stage speaking Sunday morning, Burton was overcome.

"I started to cry," Burton said.

I didn't ask why.

I didn't have to.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2010 B1

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