On Monday, Feb. 20, 1967, family, friends and fans of Winnipeg's Guess Who assembled at Winnipeg International Airport to give the band a rousing send off. Various media were also present to document the moment our local heroes flew off to London, England, to become international stars. "There's a million in bread if we play the gig right," boasted Burton Cummings to a Winnipeg Tribune reporter. Expectations ran high that the quartet was about to hit the big time.
A few weeks earlier, the band's single, His Girl, licensed to King Records in the U.K., had made it to No. 45 on the coveted U.K. pop charts. Elated, manager Bob Burns wasted little time in capitalizing on a potential breakthrough there and entered into discussions with King Records executives to take the group overseas.
The band had good reason to be suspicious of King Records owner Rita King and her business partner, Philip Solomon. Solomon had been manager of Belfast band Them, whose lead singer and songwriter, Van Morrison, insists robbed the group of any money earned. It took Morrison years to extricate himself from Solomon's one-sided contracts. Nonetheless, the two executives painted a rosy picture for the Canadian group.
"We borrowed enough money for airfare, fancy new stage clothes from the Stag Shop, new equipment from Garnet, all totally financed," recalls Randy Bachman. "It cost a fortune to ship our gear over, but we figured we were about to hit the big time. We thought we were going to be the next Beatles."
Their excitement was quickly dashed on arrival in London. There were no screaming fans or media circus awaiting them at the airport as they had been led to believe. Furthermore, there was no tour set up. At Solomon's office, the band was presented with a take-it-or-leave-it contract.
"The proposal was for us to sign with his booking agency and record additional singles on the King label," Bachman explains. "What would we be getting out of this? 'You'll get your weekly salary,' we were told. Selling a million records and selling out concert halls? 'You'll get your weekly salary.' So we told him 'We'll leave it' and walked out."
It was a bold move that left the band stranded in London with no money and a $25,000 debt, but it was the right decision. Two years later, the group would be selling millions of records and topping the charts. Had they signed with Solomon, would that future have materialized?
Returning home two weeks later, tails between their legs, blame was laid at Burns's feet and he was fired as manager.
Recently, I was given access to Burns's file on the London debacle by his widow, Idola. Burns kept every correspondence, telegram and note related to the trip along with his own handwritten account of events. It's a fascinating read that casts new insight into that ill-fated trip.
Burns's management partner, Ray Levin, served as point man for the group in the U.K., and dealt directly with King and Solomon. His correspondences clearly indicate that all was on the up and up and confirmed a tour and further recording dates. For his part, Burns's responses reveal a careful and cautious approach to any U.K. deal. He insisted that the group undertake all costs related to its travel in order not to be beholden to King Records for anything. In a letter dated Jan. 26, Burns urges Levin to "walk with a cautious step. GET IT IN WRITING!!"
Meanwhile Levin's letter of Feb. 3 states that the band has been guaranteed an appearance on BBC TV's Top Of The Pops as well as Sunday Night At The Palladium. It also details U.K. tour plans, including Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh. He writes that Rita King "will definitely make them big in England, Europe and she can also do nothing but good in the States." He even stated King has an "in to The Ed Sullivan Show." Of course, none of these promises was in writing. He also states that King Records had spent $9,000 promoting the single, including £100 a week to Radio Caroline (of which Solomon was an owner). As for the contract between King, Solomon and the band, Levin writes, "I think the contract is completely fair."
Through the band's lawyers, D'Arcy, Irving, Haig & Smethurst, Burns detailed to King the contractual obligations the group had with Quality Records Canada, for which King had little regard.
At their initial meeting with King and Solomon on Feb. 22, Burns and the group were appalled to discover they had been hoodwinked. It was all a sham to get the group to sign an exclusive deal giving up every revenue stream to King and Solomon. However, the group did not turn it down that day. Bob's U.K. notes reveal desperate attempts to make alternate arrangements with other management companies and record labels to salvage something from this disaster.
Time, however, was not on their side. By the end of the week, after a number of exasperating phone calls, Burns cut all ties with King Records. His Girl very quickly dropped from the U.K. charts.
In hindsight, it appears that Levin was duped by a series of false promises intended to snare the Guess Who by playing on their Beatle-like dreams. His naive enthusiasm greased the wheels that set in motion what became a bitter humiliation for the band, leaving them with a crippling debt and resulting in Bob Burns' dismissal.
That the Guess Who managed to rise from this adversity speaks to their determination and perseverance -- and to the valuable lessons they learned on this ill-fated trip.