A song born from an impromptu onstage jam at an Ontario curling arena would become the Guess Who's crowning achievement.
American Woman topped the North American charts 44 years ago this week, selling some two million copies. It has since been anointed Canada's greatest recorded single. Yet at the moment of their greatest triumph, with a coveted Billboard No. 1 record, the band was in turmoil.
Following a nasty confrontation in a New York hotel room on the afternoon of May 16, guitarist, songwriter and de facto bandleader Randy Bachman was out of the Guess Who.
"One of the saddest events in Canadian music was when Randy left the Guess Who," says veteran Canadian music journalist Larry LeBlanc. "Randy got a real shellacking in the music press when he left the Guess Who."
Writing in Creem magazine the following month, journalist Ritchie Yorke summed up the stunned reaction in the music world.
"You could compare it to John Lennon having left the Beatles two weeks before Rubber Soul was released. In terms of musical potential and financial prospects, Bachman's action was one of sheer madness.
Nobody but a fool would change teams halfway through a football game when the team he was then on was 30 points ahead. Yet Bachman did it, and full points to him for guts if nothing else. One day we will find out why Randy Bachman left the group, thus committing what one can only describe as the major folly of rock music in 1970. Why?"
Why indeed. The band had become a divided camp with Bachman on one side and Burton Cummings and Jim Kale on the other. Garry Peterson, Bachman's longtime friend, remained neutral. Lifestyle issues and the accoutrements of the rock-star life were at the crux of the rift.
As their record producer, the late Jack Richardson noted, "There was a tension within the group in those days.
Whether Randy realized it or not, he often tried to impose his mores on the rest of the band, no smoking, no drinking, no drugs and all that. And with rock 'n' rollers, that's the wrong approach to make. That was one of the catalytic elements that contributed to the split."
Bachman's conversion to the Mormon faith had driven a wedge between him and the others. In a Hit Parader magazine interview conducted in mid-1969, Cummings downplayed the growing tension.
"The members of the Guess Who never have been and never will be in love with one another. We get along alright, though.
The point is that even if you hate each other's guts, you have to forget it, keep the thing going. We all respect Randy's outlook. He married a Mormon girl and he's very much into religion and that whole trip." Bachman had presented his songwriting partner with a copy of The Book of Mormon which Cummings put in his freezer and never opened.
"To the other guys I was Mr. Straight," states Bachman, "the parent, the narc. I remember Burton telling me, 'You're nothing but a f ing narc. Leave us alone.' Drugs were the norm. I was branded a loser, an outsider, because I didn't do drugs."
Bachman also had health issues. Suffering from recurring gall bladder attacks, he needed to be home to get proper medical care, not on the road supporting their hit single.
The band agreed and recruited a temporary replacement, American guitarist Bobby Sabellico, to join the tour. Bachman would rejoin the band for the final tour date at New York's legendary Fillmore East.
Back in Winnipeg, Bachman recuperated. He also set in motion plans to produce an album for RCA Records by local band The Mongrels.
With this in mind, he flew out to New York a day early to meet with records executives. When his Guess Who bandmates got wind that their guitarist was negotiating contracts while they were playing gigs with a replacement, the poop hit the fan. Months of pent-up acrimony exploded.
"I think we were in Springfield, Mass., within driving distance of New York," recalls Garry Peterson.
"The other guys got me up and they knew exactly where he was staying in New York. We drove there, arriving around nine in the morning and went straight to the hotel.
He had already gone to the meeting, so we sat there in the lobby waiting for him to come back. Randy walked in, we went upstairs and Burton said, 'Randy, we don't want you in the band anymore.' And he said 'That's OK, I was thinking of leaving.' He was fired before he could say he quit. It was very tough on me, because we were the closest. I think if Randy would have said, 'I'm sorry. I made a mistake,' I think Burton and Jim would have accepted that and we could have carried on."
In the emotionally charged atmosphere of that hotel room, such an outcome was unlikely. Bachman was accused of manipulating the band's schedules for his own benefit. The die was cast.
Nonetheless, the Fillmore gig remained. Bachman played his heart out that night, but nothing could change the outcome. At a post-concert celebration at Sardi's restaurant hosted by RCA Records, the band glumly posed for photos.
"I was aware there was a dichotomy of lifestyles within the group," states RCA executive Don Burkhimer, "Randy being a Mormon and the others not adhering to the same scruples. But I didn't think it would affect the continuation of the band as it was because they were having so much success. When I found out that night that Randy was leaving the band, I couldn't believe it. It came as quite a shock to me. I talked to Randy, trying to convince him to stay, but it was a done deal. I had a great deal of concern for the future of the band. The Guess Who was never the same."
While the Guess Who regrouped with guitarists Kurt Winter and Greg Leskiw, Bachman formed Brave Belt, which ultimately morphed into Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
By 1974, BTO was the biggest success story in music, with Bachman earning another coveted No. 1 single on the Billboard charts with You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet. By that point the Guess Who's fortunes were ebbing despite a return to the pop charts with Star Baby and Clap for the Wolfman.
With Peterson and Cummings the only remaining members from the band's heyday, the Guess Who folded the following year.
In retrospect, what the music world gained from Bachman's bombshell exit from the Guess Who was another solid gold Canadian group. But Bachman had something to prove. Written off as a straight guy in a drug-drenched business, he dispelled that sentiment. The bitterness and recrimination from that May 16 confrontation, however, would be long-lasting.
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