Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman have been rivals and bandmates, off and on, for almost six decades.
They’ve had success away from each other. Bachman-Turner Overdrive scored big hits in the mid-1970s after Bachman left the Guess Who in 1970 and he continues to perform and record as a solo artist.
Cummings began his career with the Deverons, which had a strong following in the city in the early 1960s before the Guess Who snapped him up in 1965. He had a string of successful solo albums after leaving the Guess Who in 1975.
But it’s together when Bachman and Cummings have had their most success. They’ve toured together as Bachman Cummings, and Saturday they once again team up for the Unite 150 concert at Shaw Park and prove they can create more special moments together than they have apart.
"The two guys have very different personalities and that seems to work in rock music," says Robert Lawson, author of the book Wheatfield Empire, a deep dive into the recording history of the Guess Who, BTO and Bachman and Cummings’ solo careers that came out earlier this year.
"They don’t have to be best friends but they do work together really well. Considering how long they’ve been working together, on and off, that’s a testament to their talents."
"The two guys have very different personalities and that seems to work in rock music." –Robert Lawson
Bachman Cummings is set to release a seven-disc box set in October, titled The Collection, which will include the first five Guess Who albums, Wheatfield Soul, Canned Wheat, American Woman, Share the Land and So Long, Bannatyne, as well as a disc of BTO classics and another from Cummings’ best songs of his solo career.
It was to coincide with a U.S. tour that has had to be scrapped because of rising COVID-19 numbers and border restrictions.
To set up their Unite 150 appearance Saturday night, which is being livestreamed at manitoba150.com, here’s a toe-to-toe comparison of two friends and rivals who headline the show.
Born: Winnipeg, Dec. 31, 1947
Time in the Guess Who: 1966-1975
Beyond the Guess Who: The Deverons, before he joined the Guess Who, and his solo career, which began shortly after he left, and Bachman Cummings.
Reach (top-10 songs): Undun, Takin’ Care of Business, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, Hey You, These Eyes, No Time, Laughing (co-written with Randy Bachman); American Woman (co-written with Randy Bachman, Garry Peterson and Jim Kale); Clap for the Wolfman (co-written with Bill Wallace and Kurt Winter); Share the Land, Star Baby, Stand Tall; I’m Scared, Break it to Them Gently, I Will Play a Rhapsody, Fine State of Affairs, Take One Away, and Free.
Knockout punch: Cummings has made his career with his voice, and the world heard how much vocal range he had in 1969 with the Guess Who hit These Eyes. The way he compresses "These eyes have seen a lot of loves / But they’re never gonna see another one like I had with you," into a such short space of song is a highlight, and he sang something similar in 1976 with his solo hit Break it to Them Gently ("Break it to them gently when you tell them that I won’t be coming home again.").
Lawson says Cummings’ decisions in how he presents his vocals has made him one of rock’s most recognizable voices.
"One of my favourite examples of making a really interesting choice is in Break it to Them Gently, where his voice actually cracks at one point," Lawson says.
"Almost any other singer would want to do another take of that and I especially think a singer of Burton Cummings’ stature would want to do another take of that. But I think he knew it revealed the vulnerability of the character in the song, so he left it in, which is kind of a brave choice."
Favourite instrument: In a 2012 YouTube video recorded in a "secret location," Cummings sits down at his Nordheimer upright piano that he says is more than 100 years old and plays portions of several of his songs he wrote on it. He lists song titles that go back to the Guess Who’s 1971 album So Long, Bannatyne, when it sat at his old house at 89 Landsdowne Ave. as well tunes from his first three solo albums.
"I just love the way it sounds. I sit at this piano... and I go back through time and stuff like this starts happening," he says before singing and playing the Guess Who track She Might Have Been a Nice Girl."
Born: Winnipeg, Sept. 27, 1943
Time in the Guess Who: From 1962 (first as Allan and the Silvertones, renamed the Guess Who in 1965) to 1970
Beyond the Guess Who: Brave Belt, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bachman Cummings and solo.
Reach (top-10 songs): Undun, Takin’ Care of Business, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, Hey You. These Eyes, No Time, Laughing (co-written with Burton Cummings); American Woman (co-written with Burton Cummings, Garry Peterson and Jim Kale); Let it Ride, Roll on Down the Highway (co-written with Fred Turner).
Knockout punch: Fans on Saturday will be keen to hear the opening riff from American Woman, like rock fans have since the song came out in 1970 and has been covered many times since. He says the first famous notes emerged after breaking a string during a 1969 gig at what once was the Glenbriar Curling Club in Kitchener, Ont. He was retuning his guitar and a music legend was born.
Lawson agrees, but says to watch out for Bachman’s solo on the original version of No Time, which is on the album Canned Wheat.
"His guitar solo on that is almost heavy metal, before heavy metal existed. It’s an emotional, aggressive, yet still musical guitar solo," Lawson says. "They toned it down for the re-recording, which makes sense, because they wanted a hit with it."
Favourite instrument: Bachman has owned hundreds of guitars over the years, including more than 300 Gretsch guitars, 75 of which he sold to the Gretsch Foundation in 2008 and have been part of museum exhibitions.
His most famous axe is a 1959 Gibson Les Paul he bought in 1967 that he created the opening notes to American Woman. It too sits in a museum, at the National Music Centre in Calgary.
"It’s valued at, guess this, over one million dollars," Bachman says. "These guitars are so rare plus mine has the pedigree of playing on American Woman that they asked me to donate it to the museum for safekeeping."
Rock royal Randy Bachman has fond memories of Winnipeg's music explosion in the early 1960s, marvels at easy stage relationship with Guess Who partner Burton Cummings
Pandemic rust was the No. 1 worry for Randy Bachman in the days leading up to Saturday's Unite 150 performance with Burton Cummings.
The Guess Who stars played songs and connected with fans on their respective social media sites in the past 18 months, but they hadn't been together on stage since Bachman was a surprise guest at a Cummings show in Toronto on Aug. 16, 2019.
And that was only a three-song cameo.
"We spent a long time on the phone, working out a set list, and we go in Monday afternoon for our rehearsal and we look at each other and say 'Do we really need to practise? Not really, let's go through the set'," Bachman says of the session that took place at Burton Cummings Theatre.
"So we start with No Sugar (Tonight) and New Mother (Nature), and Laughing and (Clap for the) Wolfman and You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet. We're looking at each other smiling. Our managers are in the audience saying, 'You guys are incredible.'"
They went through the whole list, what Bachman called "28 monster-hit songs," from the Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Cummings' solo career, and he said, "all the speed bumps were gone."
Things went so well, he says, that the other elephant in the room — the decades-long rivalry between Bachman and Cummings — failed to emerge.
"No matter what goes down between us, when we go out on stage together, there's this weird magic thing that happens, we don't know what it is. We both kind of sheepishly smile about it," Bachman says. "It's kind of like (Mick) Jagger and (Keith) Richards. When they get together, there's this chemistry, like Stephen Stills and Neil Young. They fight like brothers and when they get on stage and play it's magical.
"It's going to be a great celebration for me and Burton coming home, playing at Portage and Main."
"No matter what goes down between us, when we go out on stage together, there's this weird magic thing that happens, we don't know what it is." –Randy Bachman
Shaw Park, which is only a block or so from the famous Winnipeg intersection, is the site of the Unite 150 show that is the centrepiece of Manitoba 150 celebrations Saturday. The afternoon and evening concerts bring together the past, present and future greats of Manitoba music in a single day.
The diverse lineup would get attention even in places outside Manitoba. Besides Bachman Cummings, it includes: Tom Cochrane and Chantal Kreviazuk, who rocketed up the charts in the 1990s and 2000s; Portage la Prairie country-rockers Doc Walker, who are performing with Sierra Noble; legendary children's entertainer Fred Penner; actor-musician Tom Jackson; and Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter William Prince.
It also includes a host of newer, potential-laden Manitoba performers including bilingual artist Kelly Bado, rap group the Lytics and jazz guitarist Jocelyn Gould, a recent Juno winner.
"The world knows Winnipeg because of this music — (Cochrane's) Life is a Highway, and Chantal and her hits and all the BTO and Guess Who hits. It's a real great celebration for Winnipeg and Manitoba and for us," Bachman says.
"I've been to record stores all my life because I like collecting records. I'd be in Germany on a BTO tour in the '70s or '80s, and when you go downtown (to a record store) in Hamburg, or Frankfurt, or in Norway, Sweden or England... at the back of wall is a map of Canada. They'd have cities circled. Saskatoon, a little arrow that says Joni Mitchell. Winnipeg is circled and it says, Guess Who, Neil Young, BTO.
"The world has admired Canadian music because of our differences, and our differences come, I think, from the ethnicity of our families."
Geography also plays a big role in how Manitoba music's industry began and continues to thrive. It put the onus on Manitobans to make their own music in the 1950s and '60s, the beginnings of rock 'n' roll, and that culture continues today with country bands, folk singers and rappers, he believes.
"Winnipeg is very remote. To go somewhere it's a 300 or 400-mile drive," he says, remembering listening to radio stations from across North America late at night on an old crystal set he called a Rocket Radio, where he heard famous performers that inspired him to get into rock 'n' roll in the late 1950s and early '60s.
In 1962 Bachman joined Allan and the Silvertones, led at the time by Chad Allan. They became Chad Allan and the Reflections, then Chad Allan and the Expressions before finally going with the name the Guess Who in 1965.
He remembers when there were 100 to 150 teenage bands during the mid-1960s that were entertaining kids in school gyms and while there were rivalries among bands, there was camaraderie, too.
"Jim Kale had a Fender concert amp that had two channels and two inputs in each channel, so you could plug four things in," Bachman recalls of the fellow Guess Who founding member. "One you'd plug in your microphone... the other one you'd plug in your guitar and the other you'd plug in a bass. This amp was loaned to every band in Winnipeg.
"We loaned each other records and we traded guitars and amps. It was a big brotherhood of dreamers. We all wanted to be like Cliff Richard and the Shadows, to be like Elvis or be like the Beatles. A whole city full of dreams."
"It was a big brotherhood of dreamers." –Randy Bachman
That spirit continued in the city long after: two award-winning performers, Royal Canoe and Begonia — who also plays in the evening portion of Saturday's show — collaborated on the single Fussin' in 2017.
When Royal Canoe performed at an outdoor show at The Forks in February 2020, they asked Begonia — the stage name for Alexa Dirks — if they could use a special vocal pedal she used on her 2019 critically acclaimed album Fear. It added to the shimmering sounds of the Royal Canoe concerts and the recordings wound up becoming the 2020 EP Glacier.
The collaborations seemingly never end for Bachman. Besides performing with Cummings, the Guess Who and BTO, he teamed up with Young, his teenage-years music pal, on the song Prairie Town (remember the refrain "Portage and Main 50 below"?) and more recently his son, Tal Bachman, who joined his dad's touring band for a series of shows.
Father and son are also recording a new album together, which Randy has titled Bachman and Bachman. And he'll get to watch Tal play the Unite 150 afternoon concert.
"I'm thrilled Tal is on the show," father Bachman says. "He's born in the North End, just like Burton and I."
Burton Cummings looks back 45 years after his first solo album (in a 'godawful suit') and forward to Unite 150 performance with Guess Who mate Randy Bachman
Burton Cummings will have a couple of good reasons to celebrate when he hits the stage at Shaw Park Saturday night, closing out the daylong Unite 150 Concert.
First, the event celebrating Manitoba’s 150th birthday was originally planned to take place 14 months ago, but the pandemic put things on hold. Cummings and co-headliner Randy Bachman, his old Guess Who bandmate, are champing at the bit to perform in front of a live audience again after COVID-19 wiped out a scheduled, 50-date Bachman Cummings tour.
Second — and the reason we reached out to him at his home in Moose Jaw, where he’s lived since 2017 — this summer marks the 45th anniversary of the release of his self-titled debut album, which contained the worldwide top-10 hit Stand Tall.
Does it feel like 45 years have passed since he flew to Los Angeles to work on that project with legendary music producer Richard Perry, whose resumé at the time included collaborations with industry heavyweights such as Carly Simon, Diana Ross and Ringo Starr?
"It depends on the day of the week," he says. "Sometimes it feels like a million years ago and other times it seems like last week. I’m in my 70s now and have a few more aches and pains than I did when I was in my 20s. But it was a phenomenal experience, one I’ll never, ever forget."
In case you’re not up on your Guess Who trivia, Cummings left the band in 1975 following the release of Power in the Music, a lacklustre effort that peaked at No. 63 on the Canadian sales charts.
He retreated to a "little hippie house" he owned on Lansdowne Avenue, a few doors down from where he grew up. He wasn’t sure what his next move was going to be, necessarily, but after watching contemporaries of his such as Stephen Stills and Neil Young enjoy success on their own, he figured that would be a logical step.
One problem: he was terrified of working outside a band setting for the first time in his life.
"As a solo performer you get all the accolades when things go great. When things go bad, mind you, you’re saddled with all the baggage," he says.
"Not to sound cocky, but I was aware millions of people around the world were familiar with my voice through my work with the Guess Who. But did they know who Burton Cummings was? Would they buy ‘his’ records? That was the million-dollar question."
"As a solo performer you get all the accolades when things go great. When things go bad, mind you, you’re saddled with all the baggage." –Burton Cummings
It was October 1975, he surmises, when he began booking time at Roade Recording, a state-of-the-art, 16-track studio on Grosvenor Avenue, to lay down demo versions of fresh songs he’d been working on. Those included I’m Scared, Sugartime Flashback Joys and Your Back Yard, the latter a piano-driven romp he wrote in honour of his musical hero, Fats Domino. The majority of the sessions occurred in the wee hours of the morning, the only time musicians he’d enlisted to lend him a hand were available.
"I was working with Gord Osland (drums) and Ian Gardiner (guitar), both of whom at the time were playing in the pubs every night with Greg Leskiw in, I believe, Mood Jga Jga," he says. "The two of them would finish their last set at 1 a.m., then head over to Roade where we would proceed to go all night, sometimes till eight in the morning.
"It was a magical time when we not only worked on songs for my first album, but also Break It To Them Gently, I Will Play a Rhapsody... lots of stuff that would surface a year or two later."
Cummings credits childhood pal Lorne Saifer, his personal manager since the mid-1980s, for what happened next. American-based CBS Records was preparing to launch a new label, Portrait Records. A few, well-placed phone calls from Saifer led to Cummings securing a contract as Portrait’s inaugural recording artist. The next thing he knew, he was boarding a flight to California, armed with the demos he’d recorded in Winnipeg.
"I wasn’t too sure about Stand Tall but Richard (Perry) assured me it was a smash hit the first time I played it for him on a piano at his lawyer’s place," Cummings says, adding the decision to end the record with a lounge-style version of Bachman’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet was all his.
The two were feuding at the time and his slowed-down rendition was meant to be sarcastic. That "backfired," however, when radio stations began playing both versions back-to-back, which resulted in healthy royalty cheques being fired off in Bachman’s direction.
"I got really lucky after the album came out, landing a spot as the opening act for Alice Cooper, back when Alice was one of the biggest acts on the planet," he continues. "Our styles weren’t the same, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it exposed me to 20,000 people a night for however many months, which really helped break the record south of the border."
Of course, Burton Cummings was as big a hit at home as it was in America. Cummings laughs again, recalling the subsequent Juno Awards ceremony, when, at the start of the evening he was named Canada’s most promising male vocalist, a feat he followed up 90 minutes later by taking home the statuette for the country’s most outstanding male vocalist, to boot.
"Never let them tell you that things don’t happen fast in Canada," he deadpanned while accepting his second trophy of the night.
Cummings, who to this day regrets the "godawful" suit he sported on the cover of his first album, a brown-and-black striped number augmented by an open-collar, floral shirt, says if it wasn’t for "this damn virus," he’d have a new record in the bag already.
"I have 14 or 15 great songs, everybody who’s listened to them loves them. Except my band and crew are in Toronto and for the longest time, I couldn’t get there if I wanted to. The financing is all in place though, and it shouldn’t take long once we put our minds to it."
As for what fans of the various iterations of his and Bachman’s equally storied careers can expect to hear at Shaw Park, he says those in attendance will easily be able to sing along, from the opening number through to the encore.
"Bachman Cummings is recognizable hit records, all night long. We do Guess Who stuff, BTO stuff, my solo stuff... it’s a full evening’s entertainment, that I can guarantee."
By the way, if you weren’t fortunate enough to snag tickets to the show, there’s still an opportunity to see Cummings live in the flesh this weekend. All you need is a healthy appetite.
"When I come home to Winnipeg my taste buds go crazy, man," he says. "I head straight to the old Junior’s (VJ’s Drive-In) across from the CN station, then to the Marigold in St. Vital and finally to Hy’s downtown. Even though the original Hy’s (Kennedy Street) is long gone, the food there is still great."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.