Burton Cummings brings long list of pop hits to Caesars

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

It’ll take Burton Cummings a solid two hours to play the hits he racked up with The Guess Who and as a solo act when he plays Caesars Windsor’s Colosseum on Friday.

It would be a much shorter set if it wasn’t for Detroit-Windsor, and specifically, the powerhouse 1960s-’70s pop radio station CKLW. For it was CKLW’s early and constant play of the Guess Who’s “These Eyes,” a decision made by music director Rosalie Trombley, that propelled the Canadian group into American stardom.

The song, with its impassioned lyrics sung by a 20-year-old Cummings with more soul and heartbreak than he could possibly have known, captured the ears of CKLW’s many listeners in Metro Detroit, northern Ohio and beyond. That prompted RCA to sign the band in America, and they become one of the best-selling acts of the ’70s.

Cummings, 68, appreciates the Detroit-Windsor springboard that led him and his Guess Who songwriting partner Randy Bachman into the record books.

“That changed our lives forever,” Cummings said of CKLW’s airplay.

“Detroit was a pretty major market, so once it got onto the charts in Detroit, that was one of the reasons that Jr. Walker & the All Stars recorded ‘These Eyes’ in 1969,” the singer added. “Radio was still pretty segregated then. Once Jr. Walker recorded ‘These Eyes,’ it got into a lot of urban centers that maybe the Guess Who version wouldn’t have.

“It was a huge thing for us, to have a major Motown star record our song.”

But it wasn’t overnight stardom. “RCA worked that record like crazy,” Cummings said. “But once it did happen, ‘These Eyes’ was a monstrous record for us. It’s been played in North America over four million times now.”

As for how he managed to channel such adult angst before he could legally buy a Molson’s: “It was all hypothetical,” Cummings said, laughing. “It is a pretty mature song. I wrote the lyrics — Randy (Bachman)’s never been John Lennon as far as lyrics go, so I always did most of the lyrics. It wasn’t until years later that I started writing specifically about people.”

Cummings grew up in Winnipeg in a single parent household, after his mother, Rhoda, left an abusive marriage when he was just a year old. They moved in with his grandmother, and his mom encouraged his piano lessons, paying for it all with her salary from Eaton’s department store. He sang in the church choir and had the tenor lead in two Gilbert & Sullivan operettas as a teen.

But it was pop music that obsessed Cummings. He is still a walking repository of pop song lyrics, and will break into a few bars of old songs such as Bobby Rydell’s “Forget Him.”

By 1966, Cummings was seasoning his strong voice, playing one-nighters around Canada with the Guess Who.

“We were playing every single night, sometimes as many as 15 cities or towns in 15 nights,” he said. “And I was singing four hours a night in those days. It really toughened me up, I think that’s where you get your chops! We were learning how to survive, working all the time.”

Cummings will be inducted as a solo act into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame during Junofest celebrations in Calgary, Alberta, March 28-April 3 (he’s already in as part of the Guess Who). The honor will be telecast as part of the Juno Awards on April 3 (on CBET Windsor Channel 9 in Metro Detroit).

“That’s a pretty big deal, because I’m the first one being inducted in the new building (in Calgary),” the singer said. “With the new building being christened, it’s nice for me to be part of an evening that’s a little more special than usual.”

Also being honored with a special achievement award is CKLW’s Trombley.

Cummings credits Trombley with encouraging him and Bachman to write. “She said, ‘You guys could be a great writing team.’ We really took that to heart, patterning ourselves on the great songwriting teams like Lennon & McCartney, making time to get together to write songs. At a very, very malleable time, when we were easily influenced, she whispered the right things in our ear.”

The list of hits they wrote after “These Eyes” is epic by any standards. “American Woman,” “Laughing,” “No Time,” “No Sugar Tonight,” and yes, “Clap for the Wolfman.”

There won’t be any computer trickery when Cummings delivers those songs in Windsor next week. “No no,” he said. “I like to honor the music. We try to sound like the records. Everything we do is totally organic, there’s no sampling, nothing is triggered.”

Although Cummings has been touring mostly recently, next year, for Canada’s 150th anniversary, he could reunite with Bachman, although that relationship has been up and down.

“If Randy and I are still healthy and touring, I think the offers will start coming in,” Cummings said. “We did an album a few years ago, ‘Jukebox,’ and picked songs from when we were young guys, to do, using modern technology. It was really good.

“We may do something together, we may not. Who knows? That may be over.”

Burton

Cummings

9 p.m. Fri.

The Colosseum at

Caesars Windsor

Tickets: $25 Canadian, at Caesarswindsor.com