Keys to suc­cess

Pi­ano-play­ing rocker Cum­mings had stel­lar solo ca­reer, too

SundayXtra - - WORLD -

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

KEVIN FRAYE

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