Gary James' Interview With Garry Peterson Of
The Guess Who
They are probably best known for hits like "American Woman", "Share The Land" and "These Eyes". Calling Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada home, The Guess Who have enjoyed international success and recognition. And the good news is they're still rockin'! Drummer Garry Peterson spoke with us about the band he helped put together.
Q - I actually saw your band back in 1975 and I believe The Strawbs opened the show for you.
A - Oh, God. (laughs)
Q - Do you by chance remember that tour?
A - No. It could've been just an isolated date. It didn't necessarily have to be part of a tour. But yeah, Domenic Troiano would have been in the band, playing guitar with us at that time.
Q - With all this talk about the recession, has this affected the bookings for The Guess Who?
A - Well, we do between, this band now, forty to fifty dates a year. I think we're already at forty-two (in 2011). It may be a little bit harder 'cause we may be four dates short of what we did last year or next year (2012) we might be five dates over. It's within four or five dates. So, I don't think it's affected us a great deal.
Q - Lucky you! And you're comfortable with that schedule, aren't you? You wouldn't want to double the dates?
A - No. Being in your 60s and traveling is not as easy as it was in the hey-day of the band. Airline travel is a nightmare now compared to what it was.
Q - These days the venue probably supplies all the back line equipment you need.
A - Yeah. We do, I like to call it command stuff. We take minimal personal equipment like guitars. I'll take my snare and my cymbals. Pretty well all the rest of the stuff is supplied via companies in each area that specialize in all different brands of equipment. I mean, I'm a DW Drumming endorser and I never have trouble getting a DW set. So basically it's nothing like it used to be when you were playing on rented equipment. It's more or less a given now. Although you do run into the odd batch of sets of drums or amplifiers if it's not properly maintained by the company, but most of the companies are on top of that because there's so many more acts doing that now. The whole business has grown up, whereas they used to have Studio Rentals before. Studio Rentals was purely for studios, right? Now his company, Studio Rentals, are all over the place and they specialize in 'live' performances. It's a whole different world.
Q - And so where do you perform today? All over the world?
A - It's mostly the U.S., although recently we've had a few shows in Canada. With our band not being the original band, it's been a little bit difficult for us to get people to want to book this band in Canada, The Guess Who being virtually a part of Canadiana. On the other hand, this is such a good band, I think that once people see the band and indeed the audience sees the band... We just played a show outside of Toronto and it was actually a Country event that went on for four days. We played that and we had like 35,000 people. They loved the band and it was the biggest Thursday night they ever had in the twenty-six years they've been running it. That was kind of an eye-opener for us and was quite gratifying to see that. I think we will make more in-roads into Canada. What we've done now is we've just finished recording three new songs that were written for the band by our lead singer Derek Sharp. He's just mixing them now, so I think that's probably one of the ways we're going to kind of legitimatize ourselves in Canada. It's by having new material to go along with the traditional hits that The Guess Who has.
Q - Besides yourself, who else is an original member in the group?
A - Jim Kale. So that's 50% (laughs) of the original band. You know what I mean? We do have at least two of the guys out of the four originals.
Q - I believe there's a law here in New York State that says you must have at least two of the original members in a classic band in order to book them.
A - I don't see how they can enforce that law, because if an individual owns the name and the trademark, they're allowed to use it in any way they choose. Jim and I do own the name and trademark, duly registered in the Federal courts of the U.S. and Canada. We have the documentation. So I'm just wondering how they would go about enforcing that law. It seems they would be in conflict with the law of the land, but who knows? (laughs) It doesn't make sense in a sense because if a company created a product, would they have to have the original guys alive who created it? Or could that product go on?
Q - Ruth Handler, who came up with the Barbie doll, died and the company lives on.
A - So there you go. It seems a restriction of trade issue, but I guess that's why the States have their individual laws. It's interesting. We do have 50%, so...
Q - When you record these days, you're putting this out on your own label?
A - No. This is the first time we've done anything like this. We're not 100% sure what we're going to do. I know one thing, we've had great reaction to the songs. We're playing two out of the three every night in our show and people are reacting to it, which is a very good measuring stick amongst all that hit material in the show. If you have enough nerve to put it in, it's on. You get a good test for it amongst all the material that everybody knows. But I think what we're really going to do is finish the three songs, which should be finished by the end of this month (September 2011) and then think about doing three more and then three more and then when we have about twelve or fifteen songs, maybe we'll talk to a record company or decide to put it out as a package. We really have no plan other than we've wanted to record. We have a lot of material. Once we get the group of songs together, it'll become more apparent of what we should do with it. We're not in a big hurry. (laughs) We've taken this much time to create new material, but I think we finally have the band right now that we're comfortable with doing this. All the other permutations after 1975 didn't really bear any fruit, so it's kind of taken this long to get the right singer and the right talent together in my opinion.
Q - You toured the U.S. in 1965 as part of Dick Clark's Caravan Of Stars tour. Who else was on that tour?
A - There was no tour. (laughs) We didn't do anything with Dick Clark until the 1980s actually. The only kind of tour we did like that, but it wasn't a Dick Clark Cavalcade, we would have loved to have done one, but never gotten invited to do one; we did a tour that was headlined by The Kingsmen on that tour. I can't remember how many dates it was. It was maybe thirty dates, something like that. There was The Kingsmen, us, Barbara Mason, Dion And The Belmonts. Then at different times we had like Sam The Sam And The Pharaohs and The Turtles come on to the tour and come off the tour. That was the biggest thing we'd ever done as far as someone would term a Cavalcade of bands. That was about 1965. But you know how things go. It was a Cavalcade Of Stars. It's the old telephone game. By the time you end up reading it, it was a Dick Clark Cavalcade Of Stars. (laughs) You dig? It got changed by someone along (the way). We didn't do Dick Clark's Cavalcade Of Stars. I've read that before. I'm here to tell you since I'm the longest existing member of the band and the only one in the band who played on every Guess Who record. I was there and I didn't do any drugs, despite what Randy Bachman says.
Q - I haven't seen anything to that effect.
A - He left the band because the band was doing too many drugs. (laughs)
Q - I interviewed him and I don't believe he even mentioned anything like that to me.
A - Well, he's mellowing in his old age.
Q - Was touring America in the '60s a problem for The Guess Who? Randy Bachman said an American or English group could get a visa to perform in Canada in a few hours. A Canadian group had to wait three to six weeks to get U.S. visas. Why was that?
A - It's a bit of a dramatic way to look at it. I mean there's always been issues between the two countries. I don't know how Randy would know how to get one in Canada. He never had to get one, (laughs) if you think about it from that point of view. Yeah, you had to get your visa to work in the States. I think when we first started working in the States, we didn't even know that. We just came in and tried to go across the border and then found out you can't do it that way. So, it's a little bit harder because you had to prove there was some reason for the Immigration Department to let you in. In other words, you'd be taking a job from an American citizen, correct?
Q - That would be their thinking.
A - That would be their thinking. Unless you could prove you were unique unto yourself. No one else in this country could provide what you provide. If you had a hit record, you could do that, couldn't you?
Q - Yes, you could.
A - No one else could create this hit record because this is us. It was kind of that mentality in those days. And so I think the union takes a larger hand, the American Federation Of Musicians, and makes it much easier to be able to do that. We did have trouble, but once we found the right people, we were then able to get the right paperwork to come into the States. I don't know that it caused us any problems with records because by the time "Shakin' All Over" in '65 was out, we already had H1 status in the United States. We'd worked through the right people. He (Randy Bachman) may have been telling more of an exciting story to make it sound a little bit more difficult than it actually was. When you deal with the tax department, what's it like? It's government! (laughs)
Q - He went on to say a way around that situation was to renounce your Canadian citizenship and become an American citizen.
A - I think he was referring to one incident that we had like really, really early in the game. His is correct in that they wanted that sort of thing. That was during the Vietnam War. We found out that if we actually did keep those visas, we could be drafted. That was something we didn't want obviously because this wasn't really our country and we didn't understand the war, so we handed those visas in. He may be referring to that situation. We actually did go home and turn them in after they said you have to register for the draft in the States. They said we want you to go to the first draft board when you cross the border, Noyes, Minnesota, and register for the draft. We just did the gig, came back and handed in the visas. I think we were going down to Texas at the time. There was some of that complication early on in the visa. There's now a reciprocal treaty with Canada and the States which probably has grown out of all these very early times.
Q - In 1966, you were playing the same venues as Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell was a Folk singer. The Guess Who are a Rock 'n' Roll band. What kind of places were you playing back then?
A - Well, I don't know where you got that information from. Is that from Randy as well?
Q - Not from Randy.
A - I don't know whether I could accurately say. We played clubs. The most unique thing we played were ballrooms. They used to have these ballrooms where the Big Bands used to come to play. They would hold like a thousand people. In the early days of the band in '65, we would play those kinds of rooms because they were now changing from Big Bands to Rock. As you can see, The Surf (Ballroom), Buddy Holly played with The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens the night before the plane flight. We've played there several times. We played most of the clubs. Now whether Joni Mitchell would play those kind of clubs, I have no way of knowing. Chuck Berry, Little Richard played all those and it went into our era from the '50s to the '60s and there's still many of those venues around today. We also did play colleges at that time, when we first had "Shakin' All Over". We did some military base stuff. I remember meeting a lot of the guys coming to and from Vietnam. The state of mind they were in. They were scared when they were just about to go over and they were really screwed up when they came back. We were doing one of The Animals' songs, "We Got To Get Out Of This Place" and we had to play it at Rantoul Air Force Base nine times that night at the show.
Q - They liked that song.
A - Yeah. We got to get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do. (laughs)
Q - Was it the producer of this TV show Let's Go! who told you to write and perform your own material?
A - His name is Larry Brown. He went on to CTV to produce all of the Canadian Football. I don't think he was the one who told us we should do that. The band always, if you go back before "Shakin' All Over", we had three albums on Quality Records, before we had the TV show with Chad Allen. We were always recording. So that kind of flies in the face of somebody telling us it's time for you to write new material and record. We were always doing that. But I think what Larry said to us, and he said this in an interview and that show in Canada, Let's Go!, we played the latest hits from that week. We were a great copy band. We could play The Beatles. We could play anything. It's too bad CBC didn't keep those tapes They re-recorded over them. That's a shame. His comment was "When I met The Guess Who, we told them what they would play on the show." In other words, you'd play The Box Tops' "The Letter" this week or whatever it was. And he said "By the end of the show, The Guess Who were telling us what they would play." That show was our training ground. We further learned our craft there and it gave us money, a steady source of income along with our 'live' concerts on the weekend, to give us the luxury of developing new material. I don't think anybody actually told us to do that. We always knew that. If you're a musician and a creator, that's one of the things you want to do. Nobody can tell you to do that. (laughs) If they need to tell you, you should be in a different business. But what happened on that show is, we'd gone over to England before that show. We were supposed to have recorded an album and do a tour. When we got over there the deal was so bad it was almost like slave labor. They said "OK, you don't sign this record contract, you don't have no tour. Nothing." We said "Thanks very much, but no thanks." So I think we came back from England in early 1965, in the hole, about $25,000 in debt. And that television show saved us. It both saved us financially and gave us the freedom to create new material and as Larry said later, tell them what song we would play on the show. Larry was a smart guy. He was a good guy. He could see the talent of the band. When you have something like that, you don't legislate it. You gently guide it and allow it to create and that's why the show was successful.
Q - The late, great Lillian Roxon said this about The Guess Who: "If ever there was a band who needed an ACCU lawyer to defend them from overt discrimination, it was The Guess Who. The band first came to light in the late '60s, in the days when a good Rock band wasn't supposed to have catchy hit singles. The Guess Who did of course have hit singles, lots of them. As a result, they just never caught on with the serious music crowd." By serious music crowd, she was referring to readers of publications like Rolling Stone magazine. What do you think of that quote?
A - Well, she should be downloading all thirteen of the Guess Who albums, which are on iTunes, and not listen to the hits. When a cut comes along that's a hit, skip it. Go to the next cut.
Q - If she was around today, I'm sure she would do it.
A - I think if she would listen to The Guess Who, I could play you cuts from those thirteen albums that you wouldn't know who it was. What I'm saying is, because we had hits, they didn't listen to the other stuff on the albums. They couldn't get past the hits and because there was AM and FM. We were AM artists. I defy you to take any contemporaries of The Guess Who from that era and find a song like "She's Come Undone" on any of their albums. But "Undone" is an out and out Jazz tune. How did that become a hit and what kind of a bubblegum group had a song like "Undone" with a flute solo? I mean, a Jazz flute solo!
Q - The criticism you could make of Lillian Roxom's criticism is when a record company signs an artist, of course they want the artist to have a hit!
A - That was the era, especially that era. But I'm saying the hit part of the musical community didn't listen to some of the stuff we were doing on albums. It's totally bizarre. It's totally off the wall. And I think that now that you're doing this interview, I think you should go on iTunes and download every one of our albums and listen to them, I mean truly listen to them. Not the hits. Listen in between the hits and then you tell me if what I'm telling you is the truth.
Q - And every other person who is reading this interview should do the same.
A - Exactly. That's what I tell kids today. Yes, the hits are great. They're fine, but they've been force fed to you by radio, by the media. Go and listen to "Straight And Out" by The Guess Who.
Q - Second quote from Lillian Roxon: "The Guess Who left behind a legacy of Gold singles, tons of them, but little else. Unlike most of their peers of the late '60s and early '70s, they never made an impression on the concert going public. They started off and wound up being as a uniquely faceless band." Faceless is a term Rolling Stone magazine used to describe Journey, Foreigner and Styx in the early 1980s. Journey just had the highest attended grandstand concert at this year's (2011) New York State Fair. Do you understand the criticism that is leveled at a group when they're called "faceless"?
A - I think for some of these people, they don't do their homework. Like I said, go listen to the thirteen albums and tell me about the rest of the music other than the hits. You can't crucify a band for having hit records. That's the kind of machine driven music society is in right now, or have been for many years. That's what it's about; having hit records. The Guess Who was "faceless" because The Guess Who didn't live in L.A. The Guess Who didn't live in New York City.
Q - And if you had, would that have meant you'd be out partying every night?
A - Maybe, or maybe the machine would have had more access to us or might have wanted to have more access to us. We lived in Winnipeg. C'mon! (laughs) That's like living in Fargo. Who's gonna be excited about that? It's all about perception. Our thing was to remain in Winnipeg and not become part of the scene. Because we weren't part of the scene, we were faceless. We were really The Guess Who! Even all the British acts that came over here (the U.S.) were from London. Where'd they go and live? If they lived in the States, they lived in L.A. or New York. You go where the hype is. We didn't. We were what what's-his-name from Rolling Stone said. We were a maverick band. We didn't follow the pattern that everybody took. Even Neil Young left Winnipeg. Where did he go? He went to L.A.! Buffalo Springfield. Where'd they come from? Neil Young was in the Buffalo Springfield. How'd he get a higher profile than The Guess Who? He did that.
Q - You said Canadians won't accept anything in Pop music unless it has been accepted in the U.S. Is that still the case?
A - Well, you know I think that's probably less today, but you have to understand when we grew up, when they programmed a radio station in Winnipeg, it was programmed from New York, what they were listening to in New York. So, here's this country, Canada, living in the shadow of this big brother who makes Pontiacs and Chevrolets and Fords. So what do Canadians buy? Pontiacs, Chevrolets and Fords. What else do they make? Oh, General Electric refrigerators, Norge refrigerators. Viking. Do I have to go any further?
Q - I got your point.
A - That's the point. Music was no different. We're virtually a bedroom community of the United States. What ever the trends are in the United States, Canadians conservatively pick them up.
Q - Aren't you happy to see a Canadian, Justin Bieber, now leads the way in Pop music?
A - I'm happy to see that Michael Buble is such a great artist. That's what I'm happy to see. There's always been talent in Canada. Monty Hall is from Winnipeg. They guys who started K-Tel Records are from Winnipeg. Look at the comedians from Canada. Should I go through those?
Q - I've got a good idea who they are.
A - Yeah. There is talent, but our population when I was growing up was twenty million and it was two hundred million in the United States. You've just got a lot more of everything here. (the United States) So naturally, and since we are the two largest trading partners in the world, we're going to adopt all the successful things from the United States. It's very easy to do and maybe not develop your own stuff. Why do you need to develop your own stuff? It's ready made here, (the U.S.) McDonalds, Burger King. How many great Canadian restaurant chains do you know of?
Q - None.
A - (laughs) OK. That's the whole thing, right? Canadians are a poor man's Americans. I don't know. We have a lot in common. There is a distinct difference in the two countries in some respects, but for all intents and purposes we could be one country, which is why I hold citizenship in both countries. Canada was my mother that gave birth to me and nurtured me and I made all my fortune and fame in the United States, which is my father which has kept me all those years. So it's like having a mother and a father and I love both countries dearly.
Q - Now, according to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock And Roll...
A - Oh, that great and wonderful institution now. How did they... They were supposed to be a rebellious paper that knocked everything and now they're an American icon. Rolling Stone is just Coca-Cola (laughs).
Q - See, they were the first...
A - Oh, they were the first.
Q - To report on Rock 'n' Roll and Rock in a serious way. But anyway, Rolling Stone said that you appeared at The White House in 1970 and Mrs. Nixon, the First Lady, asked you to delete "American Woman" from your set. Did she tell you that and why?
A - Yeah. I suppose she was smart enough to know, unlike some of the people in this country today (the U.S.), that still think we don't like American women, (laughs) that it was about the country personified as a woman. Since we were entertaining at their home, on their lawn, and they said we'd rather you not have it. We said, well, you know what? We didn't write this song with a political axe to grind. It was merely a comment on what we saw going on down here at the time. You're hiring us for $50,000 or $60,000 to play and if you don't want us to do our number one song, that's fine with us. You're paying for it. We're here to entertain people, not to make people unhappy.
Q - I always thought The White House does not pay for entertainers. Colonel Parker once said Elvis would not perform at The White House for free.
A - They paid us. It cost them $100,000 for the gazebo they set up there that night. We're not gonna play for nothing.
Q - You toured with Three Dog Night from November to December, 1972 in Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Do you remember that tour?
A - Yes, and we were in Japan by ourselves. We joined Three Dog Night in Australia and New Zealand. I remember that very vividly. I certainly remember our flight from Japan. Our last date was Osaka, Japan and we flew from Osaka to Tokyo, Tokyo to Manila, Manila to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Brisbane and Brisbane to Auckland in 36 hours.
Q - That's a long flight.
A - Yeah. well, they had to re-fuel a lot. (laughs) It was a DC-8 at that time. The stewardesses were just whacked by the time we got there. They took us right off the plane to a press conference where Three Dog Night was all dressed up, waiting, beautifully manicured and everything. Here's these Canadian guys after 36 hours of drinking on the plane.(laughs) Everybody wanted to talk to the Tasmanian devils that just arrived. (laughs) That was a funny thing.
Q - Did you return to Australia after 1975?
A - We never returned. I really believe that going overseas, unless you were Elvis or something like that, you couldn't make as much money. So, I think our people that were handling us, maybe to our detriment, didn't promote overseas things. We didn't play in Europe. We never played a 'live' concert in Europe, ever. We're truly an American band.
Q - Are you in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
A - We're not in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. We just did what we do and that's what we did.
Q - But you should be in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
A - It's not that I don't care. It's obviously a great honor, but I think you have to understand your place in the scheme of Pop music history. You have to know what you did and what you didn't do. Now, when you start believing what you think you did; we kind of know what we did. You can't go anywhere in this country (the U.S.) without hearing one of our records on Classic Rock everyday of the year.
Q - That's right.
A - So, what does that tell you?
Q - Burton Cummings, in a concert this year (2011), referred to the current line-up of The Guess Who as "That traveling circus" and advised fans to "do yourself a favor and stay home." I guess that means you won't be sending Burton Cummings holiday greetings this year.
A - Well, no. I guess it's kind of odd that he would have to say that in print, or in any media. Why was he saying that unless we were actually getting to him? That is odd.
Q - You aren't on bad terms with him, are you?
A - Well, I gather we're not on friendly terms. (laughs) I'd say there's fans out there for everyone. Burton has had his chance to be in this band. He left the band in 1975, which is how many years ago?
Q - 36.
A - Wow! So, there's been The Guess Who all this time. I think there's room for everybody. It's just the way the world is right now. The reason The Guess Who is not together is because of ego and greed.
Q - Isn't that the story of most bands?
A - Yeah.
Q - In the beginning it's "All For One And One For All."
A - When money comes along, it's a big difference.
Q - It changes everything.
A - Well, it changes some people. Some people it truly doesn't change. I think those are the people who really know why they're doing what they're doing. It didn't start off for money and although you make money along the way, it's still not about money.
Q - It's about the music.
A - Exactly.
Q - It always has been.
A - And that's why we're successful. This band, quite simply, the band I'm in right now is musically the best Guess Who there's ever been, period. There's enough examples of it on YouTube to go and see. In fact, some of the new music is up on YouTube as well.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection