Keys to success
Piano-playing rocker Cummings had stellar solo career, too
ONE week from today, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will induct Winnipeg’s favourite son, Burton Lorne Cummings, into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. This is his second induction into the Hall, having been honoured in 1987 as a member of the Guess Who. This time around, he is being recognized for his post-Guess Who solo career.
Following his gold-plated tenure fronting Canada’s original rock ’n’ roll superstars, Cummings launched a solo career in 1976, beginning with the million-selling single Stand Tall. Gold singles, platinum albums, television specials and multiple Juno awards followed as Cummings became one of Canada’s best-known, most respected and universally celebrated music icons from the latter 1970s through the mid-’80s. For Canadians, Cummings’ music represents the soundtrack to our lives. He is Canadian music royalty.
The criteria for nomination as set out by the academy state a potential inductee’s “first recorded release must have occurred a minimum of 20 years prior to end of day Jan. 1 of the current year.” That means Cummings became eligible for inclusion in 1996. Next week’s honour is certainly long overdue. One wonders what took the academy so long.
The boy from Bannerman Avenue in Winnipeg’s tough North End who, as a kid, spent all his paper-route money on records, notched up some staggering statistics. He’s released 51 albums, 47 singles and earned 23 Canadian gold singles, 22 Canadian gold albums, eight Canadian multi-platinum albums, one American platinum album, six American gold singles, six Juno Awards and five RPM Awards, along with 22 SOCAN Classic and three BMI America awards for his songwriting. He has been honoured with the Order of Canada, the Order of Manitoba, the Order of the Buffalo Hunt and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, and received an honorary doctorate of music from Brandon University. Here in his hometown, both a performing arts theatre and a community centre bear his name. Back in November 1975, one month shy of 10 years from the time he joined the Shakin’ All Over hitmakers, Cummings announced the Guess Who was folding. He indicated he and his bandmates were at odds over the direction of the group, and in the absence of big hits in the previous year or so, it was time to call it a day. It had been a great run. With a voice ranked among the finest in rock music and admirers including Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, expectations ran high throughout the music industry for a stellar solo career. Cummings spent the fall of 1975 working on demos at Winnipeg’s Roade Studios on Grosvenor Avenue before heading south to Studio 55 in Los Angeles to record his debut album under the tutelage of renowned record producer Richard Perry, whose client list included the likes of Barbra Streisand, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Ray Charles and Carly Simon. Famed string arranger Paul Buckmaster, best known for his work with Elton John, was flown in to orchestrate several tracks. Portrait Records, a division of CBS Records, spared no expense, indicative of their firm belief Cummings was going to be a solo star.
Ian Gardiner was playing bass with local band Mood Jga Jga when he was tapped to work with Cummings.
“Late one night, I mean really late one night, I got a phone call from Burton asking me to come to Roade recording to start doing some of his demos,” Gardiner said. “Gord Osland, the drummer with Mood Jga Jga, and I would play our gig at the local pubs and then head over to Roade and play all night with Burton. We wouldn’t get home until early morning, and then do it all over again. I had already played with some fantastic musicians and singers, but with Burt, the bar was raised significantly. All of his vocals were fantastic; you just needed to pick one. This is where I first heard I’m Scared and few others that ended up on his first solo album.” Gardiner ended up in L.A., recording with Cummings. “It was a who’s who of famous people. I remember pouring coffee for Linda Ronstadt when she was recording her new album, and Toto was also recording their first album as well,” Gardiner said. “You never knew who would be called in to do overdubs on the album. Jeff (Skunk) Baxter (from Steely Dan) became a favourite of ours and remains a friend to this day.”
CBS’s faith in Cummings paid off. Mixing original songs with cover tunes (including a poke at former bandmate Randy Bachman), soft numbers with rockers, the self-titled album garnered unanimously positive reviews when it was released in the fall of 1976. The album yielded the lushly orchestrated, million-selling soft rock ballad Stand Tall, a paean to Cummings’ recent breakup with longtime Winnipeg girlfriend Janet Shnider. Cummings earned Juno awards for Male Vocalist of the Year and, in an odd twist given his previous role as Guess Who vocalist, Best New Male Vocalist. He also hosted his first CBC-TV special, with vocal group Manhattan Transfer and Bachman — having exited Bachman-Turner Overdrive — as guests.
Cummings sold his tony Tuxedo residence and moved lock, stock and pinball machines to the L.A. suburb of Sherman Oaks to pursue his career from the centre of the music business. The photo on the back cover of his debut album showed a pensive Cummings leaning on a grand piano in the backyard of his L.A. lawyer, Abe Somer.
“We started the first tour of Canada in Winnipeg, of course,” says Gardiner, “rehearsing at the Playhouse Theatre. All the shows across Canada were sold out, and the reception for Burton was fantastic. It was one of the most amazing times of my musical career.”
However, on his first national tour in the United States, Cummings was booked as opening act for python-toting schlock-rocker Alice Cooper, whose diehard fans had little patience for a Canadian pianoplaying crooner. Cooper and Cummings shared the same management at the time.
“Not a great matchup, as was evident the first night in Madison, Wis.,” recalls assistant tour manager Dave Perich. “The hard-core Alice fans were not impressed and let Burton know it between songs. The hostility continued until Cummings played a Guess Who medley. That’s when the 20,000 people realized who they were listening to. But Burton had to be convinced not to abandon the tour.”
Therein lay the conundrum that posed an obstacle to Cummings’ solo American fortunes. While millions of Americans were familiar with the Guess Who’s impressive catalogue of hits, few knew the name of the man who co-wrote and sang them. Cummings’ name did not resonate. Furthermore, with the success of Stand Tall, his record label wanted Burton-as-Barry Manilow, the soft-rock piano man, while he wanted to rock. Cummings’ followup album, again produced by Perry, was a bold statement of his intent. Released in 1977, the title track, My Own Way to Rock, offered little doubt how Cummings wanted to be regarded. The album was met with rave reviews and multiple hit singles, including the title track, Never Had a Lady Before and Timeless Love, and platinum sales in Canada solidified Cummings’ stature as a bona fide homegrown hero. But south of the border there was no hit single, and sales lagged.
Nonetheless, Cummings remained busy. As Gardiner recalls, “In between tours we would do all of the big TV shows, including Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Midnight Special, Solid Gold, The Merv Griffin Show and a host of others.”
Cummings’ 1978 album Dream of a Child was a