Rock Legend Burton Cummings Of The Guess Who, Discusses His Classic Hit Songs And His Upcoming Solo Album

Burton Cummings
Burton Cummings
(photo credit: Shillelagh Music)

Canadian singer/songwriter Burton Cummings has long been known as the lead singer, co-songwriter and keyboardist for the classic rock band, the Guess Who. His powerful, soulful lead vocals can be heard on such ‘60s & ‘70s hits as “American Woman,” “No Time,” “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “Share the Land” and “Clap for the Wolfman.” He also had a big solo hit with his song, “Stand Tall.”

Cummings, who is now 76, has had an impressive 60-year career in the music business. He was only 21 when he had his first hit “These Eyes,” with the Guess Who. He teamed up with guitarist Randy Bachman to write the group’s hits. Then in 1970 after Bachman left the band, Cummings continued as the Guess Who’s leader until they broke up in 1975.

This year (2024) will show that Cummings’ career is still going strong. He’s about to launch his 60th Anniversary Hits Tour, which will include many concerts in Canada and the U.S., and continue into 2025.

SPECIAL FEATURE: STREAMING AUDIO
Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Burton Cummings of the Guess Who, who tells how he co-wrote their classic hit, “American Woman.”

On top of this, Cummings is excited about the upcoming release of his first new album in 16 years, called A Few Good Moments. This album will be released later this spring, and it contains many new Burton Cummings songs written by himself. Cummings says that he has taken his time with this new album, to make sure he’s releasing an album that he’s very proud of.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Cummings. But before we get started, here’s a rundown of his success with the Guess Who and as a solo artist.

Born and raised in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Cummings was just 14 when he joined the local band, the Deverons. He became known as a talented young singer, and he was eventually invited to join the Guess Who. When he and Randy Bachman met, they realized that they could become a good songwriting team. Soon after, they started creating hits for the Guess Who, with “These Eyes” being the breakout single.

Burton Cummings live
Burton Cummings performing live
(photo credit: Luciano Bilotti)

The Guess Who continued with several hits including “Laughing,” “Undun” and “No Time,” and then they released their biggest hit, the rock anthem “American Woman.” Featuring an intense, soaring vocal performance by Cummings, “American Woman” became an instant classic in 1970, and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song had such a compelling impact, that in 1999 Lenny Kravitz recorded the song and it became a worldwide hit for the second time.

The Guess Who continued having hits in the early ‘70s with “No Sugar Tonight,” “Share the Land,” “Hand Me Down World” and “Clap for the Wolfman,” before the band broke up in 1975.

Cummings then launched a solo career which got off to an excellent start. His solo debut album, Burton Cummings, became an immediate success and contained the Top 10 ballad hit, “Stand Tall.” He subsequently released five solo albums that were all certified platinum in Canada. His other solo hits were “I’m Scared” and “You Saved My Soul.”

With his solo career, Cummings has released about 10 albums, including My Own Way to Rock (1977), Dream of a Child (1978) and Plus Signs (1990). And between 1976 and 1990, he released over a dozen singles that were hits in Canada.

Here is our interview with Burton Cummings. He tells how he co-wrote the hits for the Guess Who, incuding “American Woman.” He also discusses his upcoming new album and his 60th Anniversary Hits Tour.

DK: Early in your career, how did you join the Guess Who?

Burton Cummings: I was in a band called the Deverons, in Winnipeg, and we were just teenage kids. Then their singer was going to go back to university, so they needed a new guy, and I happened to be there. At that time, we were one of the better local bands in Winnipeg, and I was developing a reputation as a singer. So I was in the right place at the right time.

DK: How did you first connect with Randy Bachman and decide to write songs together?


Here’s a video of the Guess Who’s performing their hit,
“American Woman.”

Cummings: I knew that Randy was always trying to be a songwriter. He had written a couple things early on that made it to the radio in Winnipeg. And I knew Randy was a very good guitar player, and there was talk around that he wanted to be a songwriter. And the thing is, when he and I got together…he’s a guitar player and I’m a keyboard player. We balance each other off quite well. And we would come to each other with pieces (of songs), and 90% of the time the pieces would fit together well.

DK: Did you write more of the melody and lyrics, and Randy wrote the music?

Cummings: I think it was a shared path down the middle, because sometimes he would have an idea for lyrics. But mostly I was the lyric guy, and a lot of the melodies were left up to me because I was the singer. But Randy always had a million guitar licks that we could build songs around. So it was fun writing with Randy—we would come to each other with pieces, and those pieces would complement each other and we would have songs done.

DK: Early on, you had a big hit with the song, “These Eyes.” Can you talk about writing that song?

Cummings: A lot of people still ask me, “Oh, who was it that broke your heart? Who was it with These Eyes?” We were just young guys. We hadn’t lived long enough to have those heartbreak experiences…that was all hypothetical. Randy had some ideas for the song…he wanted to call it “These Arms,” but I never liked that idea. So we changed it to “These Eyes.” He had a couple of pieces—he had an idea for the piano riff, and then I had that fast part in the middle. That was all mine (he starts singing, “These eyes have seen a lot of loves, but they’re never gonna see another one like I had with you”).

It’s quite simple to explain—we were just putting pieces together. We both listened endlessly to the radio, and we were influenced by a lot of different kinds of music. And in Winnipeg, we were lucky. Every Sunday morning on CKY Radio (in Winnipeg), there was a show called Hits Around The World, and the disc jockey would come on, and he’d play us the stuff that was happening in England and in Australia. And it was tremendous that we got to hear that stuff. We were hearing all of that in our hometown of Winnipeg. There were three radio stations, and they were all competing for the audience. So we heard endless different types of music. We were exposed to all of it and it really helped our songwriting.


Here’s a video of the Guess Who’s hit, “These Eyes.”

DK: Your hit song “No Time” was more rock, and I read that it’s one of your favorite Guess Who songs. How did you and Randy write this song?

Cummings: Randy had that great guitar riff which starts off the song (he sings the riff). At the time, I was still living with my mother and grandmother. Randy came over, and we sat at my mother’s piano. I remember that he played that guitar riff, and I think he also had the idea for the hook, “No time left for you.” And I started singing over that.

I like “No Time” very much because the hit records we had before were a little bit softer. “These Eyes,” “Laughing’ and “Undun” were softer records, whereas “No Time” was a rock & roll record. And I think we started getting taken a little more seriously as a band when “No Time” came out. I still like “No Time.” Heck, I heard it on the radio here in Canada the other day, and it still sounded good to me (laughs).

DK: Your biggest hit with the Guess Who was very rock—“American Woman.” Can you tell the story about how you and the band wrote that song?

Cummings: We didn’t really write it. We were doing two shows one night, way back in Ontario about 1969. And between the two shows, I was outside, bartering with some kid who had some old Gene Vincent records. I was trying to cut a deal with this kid, and all of a sudden I hear this big guitar riff that the guys had started up. Then I said to this kid, “Man, I gotta be inside; I’m supposed to be onstage.” So I ran in, and Randy had started that riff, and he had the other guys playing along with him. He had laid down the whole riff. Then I started making stuff up out of the air. It was one of those Bob Dylan stream of consciousness moments. I was just trying to make things rhyme at first (he sings “Colored lights can hypnotize, sparkle someone else’s eyes, I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes”).

When the record came out in 1970, the Vietnam War was at a pretty bad point of escalation. And people read all kinds of political inferences into the song. It was never meant as a political song. We had been touring the States, and I noticed one thing, being a young guy from Canada. I noticed that in the States, the girls seem to try to grow up faster. They wore more makeup younger, and they tried to be older when they were younger. And when I came back to Canada, it seemed like the girls weren’t trying to grow up so fast.


Here’s a video of Burton Cummings & Randy Bachman performing
their Guess Who hits: “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “Undun”
and “No Time.”

So when I was making those words up, I looked out at the crowd and I thought to myself, I made this comparison in my head, and I thought to myself…”Canadian women, I prefer you.” But what came out of my mouth was “American woman, stay away from me.” Then I just started making things up, and it ended up being a Cinderella story, becoming a monstrous hit record. We had no idea that it was gonna be that big a record.

DK: One of my favorite Guess Who songs is “Share the Land,” which you wrote by yourself. What inspired you to write this song?

Cummings: Well, it was the hippie days. I think the Youngbloods song “Get Together” had become an anthem at the big pop festivals. And I was trying to think along those lines…you know, all of us living together in peace. It’s one of those songs that I didn’t think about it too much when I wrote it. It sort of rolled out. I had that hook, (he sings) “Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand, maybe I’ll be there to share the land, let me give it away…” I had that in my head very early, and I built the rest of the song around that.

DK: Around 1975, the Guess Who broke up. Was that because you were ready to start your solo career?

Cummings: The Guess Who had run its course. It broke up in 1975, and that was the end of it. And I was anxious to see if I could compete as a solo artist. We had all watched Neil Young leave Winnipeg and end up in the Buffalo Springfield, which was a huge band. Then when we saw Neil leave the Buffalo Springfield, I identified with him being in a successsful band, and then going out as a solo artist after that. So I had my hopes very high when the Guess Who broke up.

DK: After you started your solo career, you had a big hit with “Stand Tall,” which I liked. Can you tell the story of how you wrote “Stand Tall”?

Cummings: It’s one of those heartbreak songs. I had been with the same girl for many years, then she left and married somebody else. And late one night, I was just boo-hoo-hoo all over the piano keys, as I say on the stage sometimes. It’s one of those heartbreak songs inspired by real life, and the words basically speak for themselves.


Here’s a video of Burton Cummings performing his hit, “Stand Tall.”

DK: Then in 1981, you had a solo hit with the song, “You Saved My Soul,” which was written for a movie. Can you talk about writing this song?

Cummings: I did a film in 1980 called Melanie. And because I was playing a singer/songwriter in the movie, they asked me to write songs for the movie. One of the songs I came up with was “You Saved My Soul,” and I still hear it on the radio quite a bit today.

DK: As a solo artist, you’ve released many albums. For casual fans who know the Guess Who hits but might not be as familiar with your solo work, which of your solo albums should they check out first?

Cummings: There’s a solo album called Plus Signs, which I still believe in. I like the songs very much. And one of my albums in the new century was called Above The Ground, and it’s a double album. There’s about 18 songs on there, and it’s a nice collection of songs.

Speaking of albums, I’m finishing up a brand new album. It’s called A Few Good Moments, and I think it’s a very good collection of songs. You know, I’m at an age now where I don’t want to put out something that’s going to embarrass me in a few years down the line. So I’m very confident with these new songs, and I’m very happy with the lyrics. I’m not writing teenage love songs. I’m well into my 70s now, and these are more songs about growing and living life, as opposed to just love songs.

DK: Your new album is called A Few Good Moments. Is there a song on the album with that title?

Cummings: Yes, there’s a song called “A Few Good Moments,” and it’s the first song on the album. It talks about the deaths of some famous people—the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King, The hook of that song is, “A few good moments from a few good men could undo a lot of harm that’s been done.” It talks about the mistakes that mankind has made, and how we need good leaders to put us back on the right course.

DK: I read that your new album is your first studio album in about 16 years.


Here’s the audio of the Guess Who’s hit, “Share the Land.”

Cummings: It’s been quite a while. I’m always writing songs and I’m always arranging things. I’ve written two books of poetry that have been released, I’m re-releasing some of my older albums, and I’ve been touring a lot. We did over 30 live shows last summer, so I’ve been busy. But now I finally have this great collection of new songs. I finally got off my ass and went back in the studio and got them down, and I’m very happy with the way they sound.

DK: The Guess Who waa the first Canadian band to become popular in the U.S. and worldwide. What was it like to be one of the first artists to represent Canada in such a big way?

Cummings: Well, we were very proud. We used the Canadian flag as our backdrop onstage for years. We went down and did that in Australia and New Zealand, and we played in Japan. We did a lot of playing internationally, and we were very proud to take the Canadian flag with us everywhere.

DK: You’re about to launch your 60th Anniversary Hits Tour of the U.S. Can you talk about your new tour?

Cummings: I have a great band, which has been the same band for many years now. When we do the songs, they sound like the records. So I’m very happy to be with the band. We have a two-hour show—it’s all hit records. It’s mostly songs that people recognize. And we’ve been getting a tremendous reaction to the live shows. So I’m really looking forward re-entering the States and singing my songs.

Everybody says that I still sound like the records. And that’s one thing that all singers want to hear…that they still sound like the records that were on the radio.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima