The split between Guess Who frontman Burton Cummings and guitarist Randy Bachman was legendary, as their “musical differences” became well-aired dirty laundry for all to see. Yet both went on to further success—Bachman in the AOR gods BTO, and Cummings as a solo artist. On his eponymous debut, Cummings even took a shot at his larger than life partner with a cocktail lounge version of “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” stuttered lyrics and all.
Cummings wasn’t going to make college girls swoon like Dan Fogelberg or Jackson Browne, but his knack for melody and powerful voice were well handled by pop producer Richard Perry, who even flew in Paul Buckmaster to arrange the strings. While “Your Back Yard” and “Niki Hokey” were the bouncy pop songs that Guess Who fans had come to expect, it was the four and a half minute anthem “Stand Tall” that became the breakout smash that established him as an artist in his own right. The original record was impeccably produced, although the CD format naturally enhances the clarity of the piano and the vocals, always mixed up front in a Perry production. Demos of “I’m Scared” and “Blossom” are included as bonus tracks.
The follow-up record, My Own Way To Rock, did just that. With the feud with Randy Bachman now over (thanks to the BTO cover!), the guitarist joined in on a Bob Seger cover (“Come On By”) and “Got To Find Another Man”, an old co-write from the Guess Who vaults. The title track (bad synth and all) was yet another hot guitar and barrelhouse piano boogie that Guess Who fans could latch onto. Indeed, with covers of The Righteous Brothers and Lieber/Stoller, (“Framed”), and songs like “Charlemagne” borrowing liberally from standards like “It’s All Over Now”, one wondered whether Cummings was abandoning his new direction to return to more rocking roots. (Indeed, the bonus tracks here are live cuts—“Lay It On The Line” and a Little Richard take on “Charlemagne”).
For Cummings’ third record, he took over the production chores himself. Once more, he included recognizable covers that would showcase his voice (“When A Man Loves A Woman”, “Hold On I’m Comin”) and even reclaimed “Guns Guns Guns” from the Guess Who vaults. The band continued to feature studio hotshots like Dick Wagner, Jim Gordon, and despite his later observations (“there really was no need for a white guy from the prairies ever to cover this Sam And Dave classic, but here it is.”), Dream Of A Child went on to win the Juno for the best selling record of the year (1978), and became the first triple platinum release by a Canadian artist. Ironically, the song selection is more scattershot than the previous records, but anyone who pulls out chestnuts by Ray Charles and (here) Bobby Darin as album filler can’t be all bad. The bonus tracks, “Sweet Nothins/Wild Child”, are solid uptempo rockers.
The centerpiece of this series would have to be Woman Love, the record Cummings felt would catapult him into pop stardom. Instead, the U.S. label’s absolute rejection of what the artist poured his heart into affected Cummings physically as well as emotionally. Although there are definitely areas that don’t wear well (synthesizers—who knew?), it’s hard to imagine that a song like “Fine State Of Affairs” could not have found air time alongside Toto, Hall & Oates and other bands mining the corporate airwaves. So instead, Canada got to enjoy its native son’s output while American radio recycled “Stand Tall” and various Guess Who tracks. This mistake would be repeated again and again—Blue Rodeo, Odds, The Pursuit Of Happiness and 54-40 would slay the Great White North while we got—what, Loverboy? But I digress.get past the occasionally dated production technique, and you can enjoy the Steely Dan-flavored “Where Are You” (Jeff Baxter plays guitar all over this record), the funky bounce of “It’s Hard” and the title track, Cummings’ spot-on tribute to Sweet Gene Vincent.
Looking at the cover of Woman Love, one quickly realizes that the Prince Valiant/mullet combo hairdo on Burt’s head did not age well. Cummings, however, did, continuing to issue music and even acquit himself as an actor in a couple of movies. He remains an excellent vocalist and an entertaining live act, whose marvelous sense of humor is the perfect counterpoint to his sometimes pensive balladeering. These releases are a snapshot of a period when this bonafide rock star was able to reach inside and find that it really was a good songwriter stoking the fire all along.