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Burton Cummings – These Eyes Have Seen a Lot of Life

Updated: Apr 20

Burton Cummings

These Eyes Have Seen a Lot of Life

by Ronald Sklar

“I realized very early that records are forever,” says forever-certified record-maker Burton Cummings. As the frontman (lead vocals, piano, keyboards, guitar) for The Guess Who, he created more than thirteen knockout punches of Top 10 singles between 1969 and 1975.  Included in this soundtrack of your life are “American Woman,” “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “Undun,” “No Sugar Tonight,” “Star Baby,” and “Clap for the Wolfman.” 

“When you have hit records, you often don’t realize the trickle-down effect they have on people,” he said. “I had somebody tell me on social media that they used one of my songs at a funeral. It’s always very humbling to me and I’m always just a little bit surprised. That’s the thing about hit records: they’re forever.”

Close competition on those record charts included work from other forever-hitmakers like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Three Dog Night. Not too shabby for a group from Canada; by 1970, The Guess Who sold more records than the entire Canadian music industry combined. This is despite the dopey name, which was dreamed up by a record executive who thought he was being clever. The name “The Guess Who” would generate curiosity, he figured. Maybe people would think they're from England, like The Who. Turns out it was less about the gimmicky name and more about the music, which was original and timeless. 

“The odds of making it from Winnipeg were incredible back then,” Burton says. “That was something very new for Canada.”

Even more incredible was Burton achieving that world record while still a teenager. 

“We all have that same childhood dream,” Burton says about first hearing his songs played on the radio. “The dream had come true. For me, it was almost unreal, because I was not even twenty-one yet when we had our first gold record. It was all like Cinderella time.”

He remembers exactly where he was when he heard his first hit, “These Eyes,” played on the radio. He was in the backseat of a limo, crossing the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan, going to some promotional event. The song was broadcast while he gazed at the twinkling skyline of the metropolis. 

"I'm this guy from Winnipeg looking at all these skyscrapers and suddenly hear the DJ say, 'There's that great song by Canadian rockers The Guess Who,’” he says. "It was a tremendous moment for a kid from the prairies listening to my first gold record. I thought, 'Am I dreaming this?'”

Burton gives equal credit to his former creative partner, Randy Bachman, who later formed the ‘70s band Bachman Turner Overdrive (with their uber-classic hit, “Taking Care of Business”). 

“It was easy to write with Randy and I think he found that with me too,” Burton says, “because we would come to each other with half songs. Between the two of us we would finish them. I think we complemented each other because I am a keyboard player, and he is a guitarist. There was that yin and yang right there.”

Burton is still writing and performing; in fact, he’s launching a 60th anniversary tour this year (“I have over two hours of hits to do,” he says), along with a new album on the way.

“I’m always writing,” he says. “I’ve got tons and tons of songs that no one has ever heard.”

That may change as new generations stream and download The Guess Who’s can’t-miss catalog, filled with songs that were made in the ‘60s and ‘70s but don’t necessarily sound like they were. See for your damn self: play it for a young'n and watch their reaction.

“I heard ‘No Time’ the other day and it didn’t sound fifty years old to me,” he says. “It didn’t sound that ancient and antiquated.”

That’s because “No Time” kicked the ass of the unforgiving test of time, along with the other tracks. Yet despite the rare achievement, he’s sensitive about being pigeonholed as a walking time capsule. 

“I’m at an age now where I don’t want to put something out that will sound soggy in a few years,” he says. 

Arguably, The Guess Who’s most recognizable song is one that Burton thinks maybe had fallen just shy of the bull’s eye.

“I was never really one-hundred-percent happy with ‘American Woman,’” he says. “I was very impressed with Robert Plant, and I wanted the song to be a screamer. I never thought I quite nailed it.”

He also feels the song is somewhat misunderstood. 

“It was never meant to be political,” he says. “It was an accident that happened at the right time. That song just played into that point in history. What was in my head was something more like: Canadian woman, I prefer you. I came up with the words on stage, trying to make everything rhyme. I was just trying to make it all rhyme. Randy’s riff was easy to sing over.”

That’s how it goes when you’re creating songs that endure – they come to you. And after the hits stop coming, all you can do is keep on keeping on: 

“I’m still writing music and I have a great band,” he says. “I’m still doing what I’ve always done. I’m just getting a little older.”

Find out more about Burton Cummings here

Copyright ©2024 All rights reserved. Posted: April 16, 2024.

Photos ©2024 Shillelagh Music, B. Kelly and Maureen Lilla. Courtesy of Big Hassle Media. All rights reserved.

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