…At seventeen, Burton Cummings was already a local star with his band The Deverons. He had talent, good looks, a teen following, and one of the most exciting live shows in the city with Burton able to win over even the toughest audiences to his side through his antics, jumping about on stage and standing on pianos. There were other keyboard players, some more talented on their instrument than Burton, like The Shondels’ Mike Hanford, but no one could hold a candle to Burton’s stage dynamics and youthful punk bravado.
Born on New Years Eve, 1947, Burton Cummings grew up an only child on Bannerman Avenue in Winnipeg’s tough, multicultural North Ed. His father abandoned him and his mother Rhoda before he was one, and so the two of them moved in with her mother and father, the Kirkpatrick’s. His grandfather died when Burton was seven. Rhoda Cummings worked at Eaton’s downtown department store in the finance department, and though her single income was meager, she managed to provide her son with everything he needed for a proper upbringing, except a father. “You can’t miss what you’ve never had,” related Burton in a 1981 interview. “So I didn’t miss having a father, except on Father’s Day when all the kids in class were making cards for their dads and I’d get bummed out because I didn’t have a dad to make one for. Or the first day of school when you had to stand up and say what your dad did for a living. That was a nightmare for me. I didn’t have the guts to say I didn’t have a father, so I’d make something up.” Still, he grew up amid the comfort of a close-knit extended family that enjoyed get togethers where everyone played something, mostly piano, as did his mother who also sang. At a very early age, Burton began piano lessons. “I started piano at age four. I loved rock ‘n’ roll but I didn’t much care for classical piano. I hadn’t put the two together yet. But the minute I found out I could play Diana by Paul Anka that was it. Next thing I knew, my mother couldn’t tear me away from the piano.”
In school, Burton starred in three productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at St. John’s High School and sang in the church choir. His interest in popular music was piqued at a tender age, fostering both an obsession and a dream. “I started buying records very young, about seven or eight years of age. My mother had a pile of 78s, forties and fifties pop stuff like Teresa Brewer, Perry Como, Patti Page, and Gail Storm, so there were lots of records in the house. I was fascinated by records very young. You could hear it, put the needle back and hear it again and again. I had stuff like the Kingston Trio, The Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton, Everly Brothers stuff. My mother gave me Hound Dog and Don’t be Cruel for Christmas one year, so I must have been seven or eight then. Once I started buying records I went nuts. I would cut lawns and deliver newspapers to save money to buy more records. I remember fats Domino blowing me away. He had such bounce to his voice and I’d never heard anyone talk like that. People in Winnipeg didn’t talk that way. I started thinking, ‘What a great way to make a living, making records.’”
It was Burton’s alto saxophone, however, not the piano, that brought him his first taste of being in a rock ‘n’ roll group. That group was The Deverons, formed at St. John’s High around 1962 by Burton’s classmates. “Ed Smith and I were really good buddies from school,” recalls Burton. “We were inseparable. Then suddenly he started going to these band practices and I was really jealous. I thought, ‘Shit, I’d like to be in a band too.’ But, no matter how much I hinted, I wasn’t invited.” Undaunted, Burton started hanging around their practices, gradually insinuating himself into the fledgling group, first on saxophone, then a bit of piano, and finally as lead vocalist and front man. “They were really into The Ventures and Fireballs, guitar instrumental stuff. Lead guitarist Derek Blake was an instrumentals freak. I had joined the band playing a bit of sax. There were hardly any vocals, it was mostly instrumentals. I would come out and to maybe Wild Weekend by The Rebels on sax, maybe Crossfire by Johnny and The Hurricanes, and sing Walk Right In or Come On Let’s Go by Richie Valens and maybe a Buddy Holly song. Then I’d have to leave the stage. I didn’t like having to leave the stage. So one night instead of leaving I went over and started playing the piano along with their instrumentals, just acoustically and I liked it. I knew all kinds of things to play like Telstar, Bumble Boogie, and Baja. And the kids went nuts! Suddenly the repertoire grew by a hundred songs. After that I went out and bought a fifteen dollar De Armand violin pickup for the piano, fastened it to the back with thumb tacks and plugged into one of the guys’ amps. Now I didn’t have to leave the stage. From that moment on, the band became mine.”
By 1964 The Deverons were more than North End favourites having recruited members form St. Boniface and St. James. For Burton, music had become both his obsession and salvation. “Music was the only think in my life once I was in the band. I just ticked off the minutes in school from Monday to Friday. I couldn’t care less about anything until four p.m. on a Friday, the it was. ‘We’re on tonight!’” Still just high school kids, they were a major attraction on the community club circuit and frequent performers at the recently opened downtown teen nightclub J’s Discotheque. Arriving at the venues early, Burton would check out the usually well-worn and out-of-tune upright pianos at community clubs, locating the dead notes in order to work around them. As fellow Deveron Bruce Decker remembered it, “Burton had to make all sorts of chord inversions around the dead or out of tune notes on these lousy pianos but he was such a good player that it never passed him.” Burton himself helped to put a few pianos out f their misery with his Beatle boots. “All the community clubs hated me because I scratched up their pianos.” In mid 1965, The Deverons were signed to the Reo label, a subsidiary of Quality Records, and released their debut single, a ballad entitled Blue is the Night, backed by Burton’s original composition, the harder edged She’s Your Lover. Burton found the A side on and obscure album by the You Know Who Group. “I must have been the only one to buy their album and Blue Is The Night was a ballad on it played on an acoustic twelve sting guitar.” The Deverons’ arrangement replaced the guitar with Burton’s Hohner portable organ. Recorded in a late night session at CKY radio’s tiny studios, with deejay Darryl Burlington producing, the record became a local hit, selling about 10,000 copies. It success brought the band up a notch or two among Winnipeg bands. “Probably we were next in line with Chad Allan and The Reflections in terms of ranking below,” states Burton. “We were never a threat, they were always a number one, but we were right up there.” The Reflections and Deverons shared a stage together for the first time in mid 1964, opening for Gerry and The Pacemakers at the Winnipeg Arena.
As Bachman recalls, “The hot band in Winnipeg at the time was The Deverons with a little punk lead singer named Burton Cummings. Everywhere they went he got incredible write-ups because he would stand up and dance on the piano. He played a rock ‘n’ roll show at the Winnipeg Arena opening for a much more famous international act. They had a grand piano and he got up and danced on top of it with his Beatle boots, scratching and marring the top of the piano. He got a lot of press for that and was a real little outlaw at the time around the city. And he had an excellent voice. I don’t think there was another choice. We just said, ‘Let’s get him!”
It was late December when the five members of The Deverons journeyed south to Kay Bank Studios in Minneapolis to record their second single, Burton’s and Bruce Decker’s poignant ballad Lost Love. Bob Burns was producing the session, flying there and back while the band traveled the 1000 miles round trip by train. At the session, Bob mentioned nothing of The Guess Who’s current dilemma. Burton relates the tale of his offer to join the band: “I had just come back from Minneapolis. It was freezing cold. The Deverons had gone there for a recording session for Lost Love. Something had gone wrong with the train car that we were returning on and we were five frozen little kids, just a mess. It took something like seventeen hours to get home. I just wanted to get home and go to bed. I did manage to get to bed for about an hour and a half when the phone rang. It was Bob Burns, The Guess Who’s manager, and he said, ‘We have an important meeting and I’d like you to come down to my office immediately.’ My initial reaction was, ‘Good God, can’t this wait a day? I’m exhausted and cold, I’ve got no voice.’ But he insisted it was very important. On the way down in the taxi I figured that maybe The Guess Who were going to use some of their power and experience to help The Deverons, sort of help from the big guys. Then as I got to the office I walked in and Bob Burns was there with Jim, Randy, and Garry. And they just came right out and said, ‘How’d you like to join our band?’ I think I said, ‘Gee, fellows, I’d love to but The Beatles just asked me to join last week’ and I walked out the door. I reacted like a smart ass. I obviously thought it was a cruel joke to play on a young lad. I then came back in and realized they weren’t kidding and I said ‘Yes’ right on the spot. I really didn’t think twice about it. They were the biggest band in the country. Although I had tremendous allegiance to The Deverons, there is that old adage about being true to oneself. I didn’t think about Bruce, Ron, Ed, or Derek, I thought about me. Gift horses are rare animals and you shouldn’t look them in the mouth.” The offer came completely out of left filed but Burton jumped at it, giving The Deverons two weeks notice. They were certainly devastated by the news but bore him no ill will. By the start of the new year and his eighteenth birthday, Burton Cummings was a member of The Guess Who.
Excerpts from American Woman The Story of The Guess Who
Written by John Einarson