While the Guess Who did have several hits in America, they were superstars in their home country of Canada during the 1960s and early '70s.
The roots of the Guess Who can be traced back to the late 1950s, when singer, Allan Kowbell led the group as "The Silvertones". The band played local gigs in and around the Winnipeg area and after a series of personnel changes, the band consisted of Kowbell, guitarist Randy Bachman, drummer Garry Peterson, bassist Jim Kale and keyboard player Bob Ashley.
Heavily influenced by British records, the boys wanted to take on a more 'English sounding name'. Emulating one of their favourites, 'The Shadows', they settled on 'The Reflections'. Kowbell, as the front man and lead singer, also felt the need to change his name. As a long time fan of 'The Chad Mitchell Trio', he stuck 'Chad' in front of his real first name, and the band became 'Chad Allan and The Reflections'.
Soon, they were the most popular rock band in the city, covering top forty material at a variety of local events and got the attention of Herb Britton, music director of CKY radio. At Britton's urging, they traveled to Minneapolis to record their first demo and were signed to a modest contract on the 'Canadian-American' label. The first single release from those early tapes was called "Tribute To Buddy Holly" with an instrumental called "Back & Forth" on the flip side. The record did well locally, rising to number 7 on CKY's listing in February, 1963, though actual sales were few.
Having a record on the radio boosted the band's fortunes and they were signed to back-up Bobby Curtola on a short tour. Around this time, Quality Records showed some interest and invited the boys to record another single. Back in Minneapolis they cut four tunes, all of which were released on two 45's and again managed only regional interest.
At the dawn of the 'British Invasion' in 1964, Winnipeg radio and TV stations jumped on the band wagon, promoting dances and teen events, and once again, Chad Allen and The Reflections were the top draw. Taking advantage of having friends in the right places, the band approached Bob Burns, the host of a Saturday afternoon dance program on CJAY TV, and asked him to manage them. Around the same time, they returned to the studio to record another single for Quality, "Stop Teasin' Me" and "A Shot Of Rhythm and Blues". This time, the record did a little better, reaching out to other regions of Canada and charting briefly on Toronto's RPM list. They were close to success, and they knew it. All they needed was the right song.
In December, 1964, lacking the funds to return to Minneapolis, the group entered the TV studios of CJAY-TV and recorded "Till We Kissed" for the 'A' side and a song that had been a part of their act for many years called "Shakin' All Over". The recording was credited to the band's new name, "Chad Allan and The Expressions".
When George Struth of Quality Records heard both sides of the single, he was immediately impressed with "Shakin' All Over", a hard driving rocker with all the makings of a hit.
Fearing that the effort would be dismissed in the wake of British records, Struth came up with a plan to garner some interest by radio program directors. A number of promotional copies were pressed with just a plain white label, the song title and the words 'Guess Who', implying that the disc may have been the product of someone more famous.
His plan worked. Radio stations across Canada picked up on the "mystery record" and it soon began to chart in every major Canadian market. By January, 1965, it had reached the top spot on the country's most important record chart, RPM, in Toronto. Chad Allan and the Expressions had done the impossible, a Canadian band had the number one rock and roll song in the country. Offers for personal appearances came from coast to coast and the band toured the country. Back in Winnipeg, they were now celebrities wherever they went and autograph sessions followed every show. By June, the single had cracked the American market, selling a quarter of a million copies and reaching number 22 on Billboard's chart. The band themselves though collected only $400 in royalties.
Quality Records now wanted the band to record an entire album, but, in order to fall in line with the name on the single, asked them to change their name to "The Guess Who". They reluctantly agreed to the name change and headed back to Minneapolis to complete the LP. The material they chose were covers and originals from the band's stage show, but none had the raw power of "Shakin' All Over". The album, with its jacket proclaiming "Guess Who? - Chad Allan and The Expressions", was released in late 1965 and met with limited success. A second single, "Tossin' and Turnin'" went to number 3 on Canada's record charts.
The band received a call from Paul Cantor of Scepter records, inviting them to come to New York to meet their staff writers. The company teamed the band up with some young song writers and had them record a song called "Hey Ho, What Ya Do To Me", which couldn't match the enthusiasm of "Shakin' All Over" and failed to make the Billboard Top 100. It did however catch on in Canada and gave the group another hit, reaching number 3 on the nation's top chart. Undeterred, Scepter still wanted to release an album to cash in on "Shakin's" success. A combination of new recordings and a couple of tracks salvaged from their first Canadian album made up the new LP. From this, the label released another single, called "Hurting Each Other" which cracked the Canadian Top Twenty, but failed to chart in the States. The same song would be a hit for The Carpenters years later.
By December 1965, the rigors of touring and homesickness began to wear on the some of the band and keyboard player Bob Ashley decided to leave the group. The remaining members would look no further for his replacement than 17 year old Burton Cummings. Burton's highschool group, The Deverons had become a major attraction on the teen club circuit and the strength of his voice was well known on the Winnipeg music scene. Giving his band two weeks notice, Cummings quickly accepted the invitation and by his 18th birthday, early in 1966, he was a member of The Guess Who.
"Hurting Each Other" was still on the charts when Cummings was brought on board and by February, the band was back in the recording studio, working on an album called "It's Time" and a single entitled "Believe Me". Their efforts again reached the top ten in Canada but flopped stateside. Burton's first opportunity to sing lead on a recording would come on a tune called "Clock On The Wall" that climbed to number 16 on Canadian record charts. It was just a taste of things to come.
Now growing unhappy with the new harder edged sound the band was taking, Chad Allan was also growing tired of touring, driving and hotel rooms. He had recently married and by May of 1966, he quit the Guess Who. He returned to school to complete his degree and played in local bands before hosting a TV show called 'Music Hop'. He had been out of the band a full four months when the next Guess Who single, "And She's Mine" made it up to number 32 in Canada.
When their contract expired in the fall of '66, Scepter Records declined to re-sign them and the band would face the beginning of a long dry spell. The Guess Who decided to produce their next album themselves and chose a song called "His Girl" for their next single. As usual, the record did fairly well in their home country, but was ignored in the U.S. It was, however noticed in England and with some strings dubbed into it, reached number 45 on the British charts, a feat unheard of by a Canadian band. Manager Bob Burns quickly arranged a tour of England, but when the band arrived on the other side of the Atlantic, the bookings had fallen through and they returned to Winnipeg broke and humiliated. The band and Burns had an angry falling out and parted company.
The Guess Who went back to what they knew best, playing one-nighters anywhere they could get work. Around this time, the band teamed up with Don Hunter, a businessman turned manager, who was determined to turn their fortunes around. He secured a contract with Coca-Cola to record commercial jingles for radio air play. The results kept the band in the public eye over the next year with catchy commercials and in the spring of 1968, the CBC offered them a spot on a weekly music show called "Let's Go", that was hosted by their old friend, Chad Allan. The gig paid $1100 a week, lasted for two seasons, and helped the boys get back on their financial feet again. The show was also a perfect showcase for Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman to display their songwriting talents.
Following an album that featured The Guess Who on one side and an Ottawa band called The Staccatos on the other, the record's producer, Jack Richardson offered Quality Records $1,000 for the Guess Who's contract. Anxious to rid themselves of the band, Quality took the offer and Richardson went about forming his own record company called "Nimbus 9".
With no U.S. deal in place, the first release for Nimbus 9 called "When Friends Fall Out", failed, as did it's follow up, "Of A Dropping Pin", despite both being fine recordings. Mortgaging his own home, Jack Richardson decided to book some time in a more professional recording studio and took the band to New York's A&R records, with producer Phil Ramone. With nearly $10,000 invested in tapes, Richardson began shopping them around and eventually struck a deal with RCA. For a title of the new album, the band used the words of an unfavourable reviewer who described their music as "Wheatfield Soul". It was from this 1968 album that the face of Canadian music would change forever, with the release of Bachman / Cummings composition, "These Eyes". The single was slow to get airplay in Canada and by the time it did, it had already hit number one in the States and been certified 'gold'. Burton Cummings would later recall: "We fought RCA tooth and nail not to release that as a single because we wanted to be a rock band." The album reached number 45 in the U.S. and stayed on Billboard's charts for nineteen weeks.
Follow up singles such as "Laughing", "Undun" and "No Time" provided a long string of further hits, and the band would finally have a U.S. #1 single in March, 1970 with "American Woman". An album of the same title, also entered the U.S. Top 10 and is widely considered to be The Guess Who's finest achievement.
Randy Bachman however, was tiring of the group's lifestyle (a dissatisfaction fired by his Mormon beliefs) and left the group. Bachman invited his old friend Chad Allan to become lead vocalist in his new band "Brave Belt". The band released two albums for Reprise but their leanings toward a progressively heavier sound wasn't suited for Allan and he quit.
After leaving Brave Belt, Allan pursued many musical endeavours including writing gospel music, hosting a children's TV show in Winnipeg, and forming his own record label called Seabreeze Records from which he released several singles and an album that didn't fare well.
Bachman eventually formed "Bachman-Turner Overdrive", who enjoyed many years of success and hit records that included "Let It Ride", "Takin' Care of Business", "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet", "Hey You" and "Lookin' Out For Number One".
The Guess Who replaced Bachman with Kurt Winter and Greg Leskiw, and their combined talents brought the group further success with "Share The Land", "Rain Dance" and "Albert Flasher". By 1972 Leskiw and Kale had also departed to be replaced by Don McDougall (guitar) and Bill Wallace (bass). McDougall's tenure lasted only until 1974, when Domenic Troiano (ex-James Gang and Mandella) was drafted as the group's sole guitarist, as Kurt Winter also left. These extensive line-up shuffles seemed to undermine the group's progress, though they still put hit records on the Canadian charts with "Star Baby" and "Glamour Boy". They enjoyed their last hit in 1974 with "Clap For The Wolfman", with disc jockey Wolfman Jack.
By the following year Cummings had disbanded The Guess Who for a solo career. His initial anxiety about setting off on his own was laid to rest upon the release of his first album, "Burton Cummings", in 1976. It was an immediate sensation, and yielded the singles "I'm Scared" and "Stand Tall", both million sellers. His 1977 release of the album "My Own Way To Rock", produced a successful single release of the same name. Both of these albums eventually reached double-platinum status, but the best was still to come.
1979's "Dream Of A Child" was an unprecedented smash. Based partly on the strength of the single "Break It To Them Gently", Dream Of A Child became the first Canadian album to ever achieve the triple-platinum plateau, and earned Burton a Best Album "Juno Award" (Canada's Grammy) in the process. The next five years saw Cummings expanding his horizons. In addition to releasing three albums, "Woman Love" in 1980 , "Sweet" in 1981 and 1984's "Heart", all of which went gold, he starred in the 1980 film "Melon" and earned an ACTOR award as Best Male Variety Performer for his work in the CBC Special "Portage and Main" in 1982. In 1983 he reunited briefly with the original Guess Who line-up, which resulted in a double-live LP and a pay-TV concert special. After a recording hiatus of six years, Burton Cummings returned with "Plus Signs" in 1990, his seventh solo album and his Capitol Records debut.
His former colleagues attempted several unsuccessful reunions in his absence, and in 1987 Cummings and Bachman toured together as The Guess Who for the first time in years. However, when Kale and Peterson enlisted a few helping hands to record "Lonely One" in 1995, as the first new "Guess Who" album in fifteen years, the critical reaction was negative , with one magazine describing the contents as 'pathetic and desperate'.
The Guess Who continued to tour however and over the years, the popularity of the group increased tremendously due to the strength of "classic rock" radio and the highly regarded reputation of their live show. Performing nearly 200 shows a year, The Guess Who became a popular draw once again on the American music scene.
Burton Cummings continued to tour with his one man show called "Up Close and Alone", in support of the outstanding album by the same name.
At the urging of Manitoba's Premier, Cummings joined original band members, Randy Bachman, Gary Peterson and Jim Kale for a concert at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg in the summer of 1999. The four song appearance made the four a reported $50,000 each. Things went so well that, after months of negotiations, The Guess Who re-united once again. However, original bassist, Jim Kale, was asked to leave the group early in May, 2000. Family problems led to his increasing absence and his efforts at rehearsal were said to be unacceptable.
Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Gary Peterson, Don McDougall and Bill Wallace started in St. John's Nfld. and began to tour across Canada. By the end of summer 2000, the band had grossed approximately $6 million in what was easliy the most lucrative Canadian rock tour of the year.
The band set out on a 41 city tour for 2001, on a bill shared with Joe Cocker, ahead of a newly released CD called "This Time, Long Ago". The album is a collection of cover songs from the group's early days as a 'garage band combo', that includes their British recording sessions plus performances from TV appearances.
2001 also saw The Guess Who awarded doctorates from the University Of Brandon (Manitoba) and being inducted into Canada's Walk Of Fame in Toronto.
On November 23rd, 2004, Burton Cummings' new single, the Bob Dylan written "With God On Our Side" debuted at 21st spot on a Canadian music internet music chart.
In February, 2005, Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Unfortunately, all was not well with the rest of the band. Bachman and Cummings started taking action to reclaim the rights to the band's name, owned by bass player Jim Kale. The pair continued to work on new music as well as playing occasional shows as The Bachman-Cummings Band. Cummings also made appearances at various Canadian casinos as a solo performer.
March, 2006 brought Cummings and Bachman together again for a TV special called First Time Around, where the the veteran singer-songwriters performed some of each other's songs for the first time on stage. The concert contained tunes featured on a new compilation disc called "The Bachman Cummings Songbook", a combo platter of hits from three stages in the duo's musical careers -- Guess Who songs from the '60s, Cummings' solo projects and Bachman's work with his post-Guess Who band, Bachman Turner Overdrive.
In February, 2007 the duo announced the release of a new album called "Jukebox", which hit stores in June. Burton Cummings explained: "We each picked a bunch of the stuff we loved when we were little ... records we loved when we were coming up and stuff we had a real affinity for." The final track list includes Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie", Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", Sam Cooke's "Good Times" and Edwin Starr's "Agent Double-O Soul". We didn't have the time to sit down and write new songs," said Cummings. "And honestly, we weren't interested. Because we've seen what happens to artists from our era. We saw The Bee Gees put out a brilliant record that went nowhere. We saw ELO come out with a new record that went nowhere. We didn't want to fall into that trap. Let's face it; we're not going to compete with Britney and Beyonce and DMX and Jay-Z. This is a different world."
Fortunately, Cummings' attitude toward new material changed after Bachman suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him from touring in November, 2007. With plenty of time on his hands, Burton undertook a new solo album, on which for the first time in his career, he would write all of the material on his own. The result was a 19 track opus called "Above The Ground", his first studio album of new material since 1990's "Plus Signs". Released on November 4th, 2008, the new effort showcased lyrics that give longtime fans a sense of his rocky relationship with stardom. "I think what happened is, five or six years ago I got to a point in my life where I started being more appreciative of what I did have and started worrying less and less, if at all, about what I didn't have," said Cummings. "Once I got to that point, life got a little bit less complicated mentally for me and I think that's where I am now and probably where I'll stay." As an over-view of his career, Burton admitted, "I've been knocked down a few times career-wise and I've had unbelievably heart-breaking failures - things that I put out that I thought were going to just take the world by storm and they did exactly the opposite."
Gary Peterson and Jim Kale carried on as The Guess Who with Carl Dixon (ex-Coney Hatch) as the group's lead singer through 2008. Sadly, he was injured in an automobile accident which left him unable to perform with the group.
On December 30, 2009, Cummings was named an officer of the Order of Canada by Governor General Michaelle Jean. The Order of Canada is one of the country's highest civilian honors, and was established in 1967 to mark a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to community, and service to the nation
In 2010, Randy Bachman once again teamed up with his old friend, Fred Turner, although they were not allowed to appear as B.T.O. or Bachman-Turner Overdrive, as those names had been signed over to Robin Bachman and Blair Thornton. He is also a national radio personality on CBC Radio One, hosting a weekly music show called Vinyl Tap.
Burton Cummings kicked off a new round of tours in July, 2011 and received a star on Canada's Walk of Fame on October 1st of that year. His 2012 projects included a book of poetry, a "Live at Massey Hall" recording and a summer solo tour.
When asked about another reunion with Randy Bachman, Cummings said that it was doubtful that the pair would work together again as Randy had made commitments with Fred Turner. Saying that he respected his old friend, Cummings wished Bachman and Turner all the best. As for reuniting with former Guess Who band mates Gary Peterson and Jim Cale, Cummings made his feelings about them perfectly clear, saying the only way he would speak to them would be "in a court room." He went on to say he thought that what the duo had done to the Guess Who name "is a disgrace." Slated to sing the national anthem at the 2012 Grey Cup in Toronto, Cummings was looking forward to issuing a new album in 2013, saying "I'll be recording 'til the day I die."
As of 2014, The Guess Who continued to perform live dates across North America on a regular basis. The current line-up consists of Derek Sharp (vocals, guitars), Will Evankovich (guitars, backing vocals), Leonard Shaw (keyboards), Jim Kale (bass) and Garry Peterson (drums).
Be Sure To Read Gary James' interviews with
Randy Bachman and Gary Peterson