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Burton Cummings: The last frontman standing

Burton Cummings launches the Your Backyard tour in Victoria March 8 at the Alix Goolden Performance Hall.
Burton Cummings plays in Victoria March 8.

Iconic Canadian rocker Burton Cummings still remembers being a gobsmacked kid. In fact, he remembers most everything about his storied life and career.

From growing up in frigid Winnipeg, to a Los Angeles home with a wall full of gold records, Cummings plucks memories from his 67 years on the planet as easily as his fans pick favourite tunes from his long playlist of hits.

It’s his connection to the music and the people who love it that drives him to continue touring and continue expanding his repertoire of talents.

Cummings launches the Your Backyard tour in Victoria March 8 at the Alix Goolden Performance Hall. The tour will take Cummings and his band around the province, including a performance in Duncan March 9, the Okanagan, Lower Mainland and into parts of the US.

Bigger isn’t better

“We’re doing almost like a mini tour of British Columbia,” he says. “We were just in Nanaimo … people were just overwhelming as far as the response and I started realizing, I’ve been on the radio for over 40 years now and it’s a bit of event anywhere I can go, show up and sound like the records – the people just love it.”

He hasn’t been to many small towns recently and decided fans shouldn’t have to travel to take in a good show. “I don’t have to be in a stadium to be happy, I love the theatres. We’ve been doing a lot of theatres lately, also casinos. Suddenly now, in 2015, there’s casinos on every corner so if you’re lucky enough to have a batch of hit records from a certain era … there’s so many places that want me to come in with my band,” he says.

With his visit to the city, Cummings will be in his own backyard as he still owns a home in Saanich where he likes to come and “recharge,” spending three to four months at a time.

He first came to the island in 1966 with the Guess Who. “I had just turned 18. What I still remember to this day is the Victoria Airport, how small it was. It seemed like the runway was almost lined with beautiful, big fir trees. I’d never seen anything like it. …

“It’s changed so much now. The downtown was quaint then – now the downtown has shot up with huge buildings and it’s a different going concern. The property values went crazy, it became like a magnet for Canadians that didn’t like the cold. The Island’s a very special place. I like driving up to Cathedral Grove. That, to me, is a very spiritual experience. Those trees have been around for ever. I’ve sent a lot of people to see that. … I sound like I’m doing a commercial for the Island – I do like Vancouver Island very much,” he says.

Las Vegas, DVD set and the Internet

The former frontman for The Guess Who hasn’t spent as much time as he would like to enjoying his Island paradise lately. He’s been on the road touring, performing in Las Vegas, writing a book of poetry and working on a DVD series which chronicles his last decade of performances.

“I just turned 67 on New Year’s Eve,” he says. “I’m not going to be out doing 200 or 300 dates a year anymore but do a lot of live playing. I’m busy in other ways too – I’m putting out a book of poetry this year. And have been madly working on a video series called Ruff.

“My videographer Lillian has followed me for about 12 years with a camera. It goes back so long it used to be actually film and video, but the last many years it’s been hard drive – that’s how long we’ve been at it and we’re finally getting it all together – it takes ages and ages to edit it all down and pick the nice pieces.”

The plan is a three-volume set, each one about 85 minutes long, to be released simultaneously. “It’ll cover the last 12 to 13 years and actually some archival footage too. Besides the touring and playing and I’m playing semi-regularly in Las Vegas now. It’ll be my third time in a year-and-a-half in May back again at the Orleans – it’s phenomenal, it’s a city under a roof – it’s acres and acres under one roof. It’s the second biggest building in Las Vegas next to the MGM Grand.”

When he’s not on the road or choosing paper for his book of poetry – “We’re trying to make it look and feel special. There would be kind of a fake leather cover and we picked some beautiful stock paper. We’re just trying to make it just very, very special so that you can sit quietly and you can read the words and ponder the words.” – he’s online connecting with people via Facebook.

“I for one, enjoy Facebook, other than the trolls and the haters – which you’re gonna have that anywhere, especially as your numbers ascend and I have now somewhere between 90,000 to 100,000 followers that get alerted any time I do anything – and that’s a lot of people really – I get a minimum of it. But you’re going to have haters no matter what you say. They come on and they take time to berate you and I just think it’s pretty sad if that’s what puts the big buzz in your day.

I do like the social media thing, because I’ve reconnected with people that I might have known like 40, 45 years ago – and that’s great for an entertainer, it’s really great.”

He’s even met some of his musical heroes online.

“On Facebook I’ve got to be friends with Joey Dee and spoke to Scott McKenzie before he passed away. These were people that really influenced me before I’d even cut any records, so in that respect, when you talk about social media’s impact on me it’s been great. I’ve been tracking down these people who I admired and find out most of them know a little bit about who I am so it’s great hooking up with these people.”

Haters gonna hate

His followers come to his defence when his page in invaded by haters, he says.

“My cyber pals (tell) me, ‘We’ve got your back, man.’ It is kind of cool, but a bit soap opera-ish at times, but I do enjoy the interaction. I’m a night guy, I’m a very nocturnal guy and I write a lot of poetry late at night and that’s when I do a lot of talking to the fans – and I don’t even like the word fans, you know, it sounds condescending. They’re followers or cyber friends – and it’s cool, you know. We get into some real-time conversations late at night. Before the Internet we didn’t have any of this. I remember the days, I mean hell, we were riding pretty high in the early ‘70s in the Guess Who days, and we had a fan club, sure, but here’s the difference: back then somebody might write in … and maybe in two-and-a-half or three weeks, if they were lucky, they might get something mailed back to them with a fake signature on it that some secretary would sit and sign pictures.

“The difference now is, I’ll put up something at 2 in the morning and by 2:03am I’ve got responses from Germany and New Zealand – that’s what I like about it, how it’s really shrunk the globe for us.

“It can really perpetuate your career nowadays. I’m getting great reviews online from the live shows as well and that helps the next live show,” he says.

Live and lovin’ it

Contrary to some performers. Cummings loves fans who bring cameras and take photos at his shows. “I encourage people to take all the photos you want and send them to us, we put them up. I’m getting great reaction from fans after the shows, they send us the pictures and it makes my (web) page more interesting.”

He has one goal during his live shows and that’s “knock ‘em out.”

“(We) play all the famous songs people came to hear. I’m a stickler for vocals, you know. I have a band where everybody sings besides me so that layer of vocals is always there. We really do try and sound like the records. That word spreads and I’ve noticed more and more the crowds are getting bigger and people are loving it – so whatever we’re doing, I think we’re doing something right.”

His shows border on two hours and feature his best-known songs. “I’ve been lucky, touch wood. My goodness, I was a smoker for, I don’t even know how long. I smoked for 40 years, maybe 45 years. I finally quit that about four or five years ago. It’s not that my voice cleared up so much, as it became easier for me without tobacco, it became easier, those two hours on stage, because I still do 110 or 120 minutes – unlike many bands, there’s not a lot of long, loose form soloing. It’s basically me, I’m singing for that two hours, so I have to really pace myself.”

Put it this way, I have a new set of heroes. Tony Bennet, Steve Miller, Gordon Lightfoot. Bennet is in his 80s …  Steve Miller I met years ago at a California State Fair, the guy’s like 71 at the time or 72 and he came out and 13 or 14 year old kids were singing along and mouthing every word - that’s a rocker. He sounded great.”

“When I was a little kid that wasn’t 72. At 72 you were at home hunched over sitting … here’s Steve Miller out “Keep on a rockin’ me baby…” and it was just great to see that.

“We just played with Huey Lewis last year at Rock the Park in London, Ontario – same thing. He’s my age and he sounded great. You don’t have to be finished in rock music when you’re 25 or 30.”

On his long list of awards and honours

Cummings says his Order of Canada is in a category by itself.

“When I was a kid the Order of Canada was for people like John Diefenbaker, Lester B Pearson. Randy Bachman and I, within a year of each other, were both inducted into the Order of Canada.

“I was so pleased my mother lived long enough to see that. She was, oh man, that day she was Queen for the day in the old folks home – it was a big deal for me and my whole family, all my relatives, and especially my mom who was in her late 80s by that time. They made a big deal of it on television, particularly in Winnipeg where my mom was in the old folks home.

“It was a big, big deal and the same day I was inducted, Mario Lemieux as well, got his Order of Canada. So I got to hang out with No. 66 for a while. Also the same day Ivan Reitman. I got to talk to Ivan Reitman, for quite a while. This guy’s done amazing films - just tremendous stuff, so that to me immediately surfaces as the biggest deal in the career,” says Cummings.

Touring with the Ringo Starr All Starr Band is also one of the highlights, he says. “Nine months in a private plane travelling all over the world – that was pretty nice – and what a band that was: Timothy Schmit from the Eagles, Joe Walsh from the Eagles, Todd Rundgren, Dave Edmunds, Nils Lofgren, myself, Ringo and his son Zak both on drums, what a band that was. That’s right up there too with the great times.”

Moments in time

“The first really big star I got to sit and talk to was Roy Orbison. I was 15 or 16 in Winnipeg with my first band the Deverons, we opened for him. I got to talk to him later one-on-one for about 25 minutes – I was still a little kid from Winnipeg. It was a big deal to be talking to the Only the Lonely guy. What surprised me so much is that he was a chain smoker. He smoked his Marlboros. Marlboro red package – that was the strongest cigarette on the market at the time. We spoke for 20, 25 minutes and he chain smoked the whole time – it just shocked me as a young guy. If it was Joe Cocker, it wouldn’t surprise me – but a voice like Roy Orbison, I was shocked. But he was so nice to me.”

Later in life he enjoyed a talk with Frank Zappa.

“I also got to sit with Frank Zappa for about an hour one time and ask him about his classical compositions and conducting the symphony orchestra. He was so nice to me. He knew I wasn’t some autograph seeking dork. I wanted to know about his writing approach. I could go on and on. I’ve met a great percentage of my huge heroes.

“My heroes as a kid were varied. Obviously I liked Elvis, and I loved Fats Domino, Bobby Rydell – I was a huge fan of Bobby Rydell. Not long ago somebody that knew him hooked us up on Facebook and he wrote me some nice messages and a friend of his sent me a beautiful picture autographed to me – man if  I knew that when I was a kid of 12 or 13 I never would have believed it.”

A collection of music from Gilbert and Sullivan to Skrillex

“In my hard drive now it’s approaching 270,000 songs on MP3. It’s a true Smithsonian, because there is pertinent artwork for every single one,” he says “It goes back over century. It goes back to 1909 – and you might ask, ‘What do you have from 1909?’ I’ll tell you. I have the original Dixieland jazz band, which was recorded by RCA on those cylinder records. All of that stuff was eventually converted to MP3s. It’s not the clearest, but it’s neat to have stuff from 106 years ago. It’s a massive collection of music, I have soundtracks from great, classic films. I have a lot of stuff from Varèse Sarabande, a wonderful label and that’s all the classical stuff Beethoven and Mozart and Rachmaninoff.

“The collection goes into every small corner of music – and what I go back to more often than anything is my Henry Mancini stuff. Especially the beatnik era, the Peter Gunn stuff from the 50s, man I woulda made a good beatnik. I woulda had a goatee, big, dark glasses, I woulda had a beret on and end up doing impromptu poetry. I always was fascinated with that era – if I was just born about 10 years earlier I would have been right in there. But of all the huge music I have – it’s about a year and a half of music — out of all of that, I still go back to Henry Mancini and the Beatles.”

Cummings is not a big fan of country music, but his collection does include the genre.

“I have some pertinent country, especially some from the golden era 1959 to 1963 when they had all those cross-over records. And I still have a lot of hip hop and rap, I love digital underground from San Francisco and I listen to Jay-Z, purely out of interest. I say to myself: ‘Wow. Does the anger disappear after $400 million? $500 million?’

“Unless that’s just your deal on records. But for somebody with the clout to rent the Louvre for the day – that’s still an awful lot of anger in those records. I Hope I don’t sound too sarcastic but you know exactly what I mean.”

His taste even run to electronic music. “I like Skrillex, I like Deadmou5 – who is Canadian by the way. … I like a lot of stuff. People think it’s nonsense, but it’s very hard to do. … Skrillex was the one that turned me on to it with Deadmou5 … I have every genre in my collection.”

Cummings also has almost every Gilbert and Sullivan recording. “I did Trial by Jury and HMS Pinafore. Tenor lead in both of those in high school. Those were two of the first things I wanted to get. That’s an enormous undertaking for a teenager. It’s pages and pages of dialogue to memorize. These long, flowery speeches. You know Gilbert and Sullivan were so posh with their language: ‘I am poor in the essence of happiness – rich only in never-ending unrest. In me there meet a combination of antithetical elements which are at eternal war with one another,’” he sings. “I had to memorize all that. It’s in there for good.”

Honouring the music

“I go to other people’s shows and if it moves me enough, it’s an amazing emotional experience. If I’m at the centre of that and I can do that for audiences, then I’ve always tried to honour the music,” Cummings says.

“Every time I play that little piano intro to These Eyes a big cheer goes up. All I gotta do is bom, bom, duh, duh, duh, de, duh, duh …” he sings then mimics the sound of a crowd. “You know when you’re a little kid you dream of that. You dream about having one of those.”

Cummings has about 20 of those famous tunes. “We start up No Time and you hear that guitar riff and there’s a big cheer. American Woman all you’ve gotta hear is ‘dun, dun, dunna, dunna, dun, da, dun,’” he sings. “A big cheer goes up. … There’s a song of mine Break It To Them Gently, there’s a little guitar riff that starts it and once you hear ‘dow, dow,’ I hear the cheer go up, so I, I don’t try and hide the fact at all, that I really like that. I like being able to elicit that emotion from people and I think that’s why the music should be really honoured.”

In his show, he sticks to the classics, hits he wrote more than 30 years ago.

“(I don’t play) so much new stuff of mine. I’ve got too many hit records to do that. Once in a while we’ll do a tribute to Buddy Holly, once in a while we’ll do something by J.J. Cale or something by somebody else, maybe Marvin Gaye, somebody that I really like to sing their stuff, but I’m really past the point of shoving new stuff down people’s throats. I know why people are coming to our shows and I don’t mind singing the songs they came to hear. Albert Flasher gets them stomping their feet, we do My Own Way To Rock, people are up dancing, Star Baby, Clap for the Wolfman everybody’s clapping and singing along. The famous songs are fun to do and it’s fun to have that recognition factor and everybody digging it along with you.”