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Keeper of the keys: Burton Cummings on Rock and Roll piano, and 50 years of timeless songs

Cummings and his All Star Band the Carpet Frogs are heading out on tour — “Burton Cummings and Band Unplugged — the hits like you have never heard them before”
Burton Cummings and his All Star Band the Carpet Frogs are heading out on a Canadian tour, called “Burton Cummings and Band Unplugged — the hits like you have never heard them before.” They play Trail May 31, and Cranbrook June 2 and 3.

If you listen to some of those old R&B and Rock and Roll records from yesteryear — the ‘50s and early ’60s — you can hear how the piano is the central instrument. A driving, pounding, yet melodic full sound, the piano was the instrument that first gave Rock and Roll its jump.

Burton Cummings might agree with that. And he should know — the singer and front man for Canada’s great band The Guess Who is not only one of Canada’s great Rock and Roll pianists, singers and songwriters, but was inspired by some of those players who were inventing Rock and Roll and setting the world on flame with it.

“When you think of Rock and Roll piano, some of the biggest stars of early Rock and Roll were pounding the piano — Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lewis — they were all players who pounded the hell out of the piano,” Cummings said. “Those were the guys who really caught my eye in the early days, especially Fats Domino.

“I do remember seeing Fats Domino and his whole band when I was a kid. They came to Winnipeg, to the old Winnipeg auditorium. And it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. He had about eight guys on stage, and he just pounded the piano. It was tremendous.

“I must have everything he ever recorded. People ask, who’s your all-time favourite artist — the Beatles, obviously, blew me away. But Fats Domino, when I was a little kid, he drew me to the radio.”

Fats Domino was from New Orleans, and it was the New Orleans sensibility that was one of the influences Cummings brought to Chad Allen and the Expressions in the early ’60s, then the Guess Who, and later to Cummings’ long solo career.

“I listened to a lot of New Orleans music,” he said. “I love Lee Dorsey [Dorsey had a huge hit — “Ya Ya,” in 1961], with Allen Toussaint on piano. That was all New Orleans stuff.”

It could be a stretch in the ’50s and early ’60s — and maybe still is — to equate the classical piano lessons we took as kids with the pulsing excitement of Rock and Roll piano, based in Blues, Barrelhouse, R&B and Jazz — coming to Canada from steaming joints in places like New Orleans. But it certainly reached Cummings in Winnipeg.

“I took lessons for many years,” he said. “But then when I started hearing Fats Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis —and Little Richard was pounding — then I heard piano in a completely different light.

“I had a piano teacher who was very old school. She didn’t like the Rock and Roll stuff, and didn’t encourage any of that. Even though I was starting to write songs — trying to write songs — from a very early age.”

But the grounding in theory Cummings learned from the Royal Conservatory did in fact serve him well, giving him an “understanding of the mathematics of music — the threes and fives and eights and nines — all of that related, and it probably made me a better writer.”

The piano is a rich part of the Guess Who sound, not to mention that stream of hit songs from Cummings’ solo career. But in the Rock and Roll explosion of the 1960s, the piano was gradually supplanted by the electric guitar as the rock instrument that gets the press.

“The Beatles had a lot to do with that,” Cummings said. “The Beatles and the British Invasion, because all of a sudden, any four guys, in any small town in any place in the world — you need a drummer, a bass players and two guitar players, and that’s it. And that’s what the Beatles did. They started that business all around the world.”

Those 88 keys haven’t gone away, though. And they’re important as ever. For hundreds of years, the piano was the composers’ instrument. And there’s no better instrument for writing music. Certainly Cummings has generated a lot of music on the piano; a lot of songs over the past 50 years, so many of which have become classics.

There’s the part of the creative process where you have finished your piece of art — like a song — and send it out into the world, where it takes on a life of its own, growing, and coming back to visit over the years. Cummings has 50 years of writing songs, and putting them out into the world. He reflects on his writing career:

“Some of it I’m very proud of, some of it is a little embarrassing now, because it sounds so adolescent. But it’s like anything else. You start out doing something, and if you continue at it you hopefully get better, right?

“I think my songwriting got better as I got older, purely from the living experience. The more you live the more you learn. And I think I got to be a better songwriter later on. You take some of life’s ups and downs, and you work it into your thinking system.”

There are some songs he says have stood up pretty well.

“There’s a song of mine, ‘I’m Scared,’ which is a lot of people’s favourite song I ever wrote. ‘Break It To Them Gently’ has stood up very well. Of the Guess Who songs, I think ‘No Time’ still sounds good to me. It doesn’t sound old or archaic to me. ‘No Time’ is still a pretty good rock and roll record.

“‘These Eyes’ — that was our first big record, 1969 — so that’s over 50 years ago, and I still hear ‘These Eyes,’ and I still hear ‘Laughing,’ I still hear ‘American Woman’ all the time, just because it’s one of those records they’ll always play. I hear ‘Share The Land’ quite a bit.

“One I hear quite a bit is ‘Albert Flasher.’ Maybe because it’s so short, and radio stations don’t mind putting it on. It’s only about two minutes, you know. Albert Flasher has been on the radio for a long time!”

And there is still an audience for those songs, so many written by Cummings, and some also co-written with the likes of Kurt Winter, Randy Bachman, and Domenic Troiano. And like those songs the audience crosses generations.

“The thing is, as each year passes, your audience as well is one year older,” Cummings said. “So when the songs came to them, at some point in their lives, the songs mean more to them as time goes on. I’m that way with the other artists I listen to. I can still get lost in the Beatles’ records.

“I’m on my third generation of fans. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been on the radio for 50 years. Not everybody gets that, and I don’t take that lightly. I’m very grateful for the career, and particularly for the songs that have never gone away.”

Cummings is hitting the road for a Western Canadian tour with a band that should be legendary in their own right — The Carpet Frogs — a Toronto-based rock band that’s toured with Cummings and Randy Bachman, and who backed up Cummings on his album “Above the Ground.” Nick Sinopli (percussion), Jeff Jones (bass), Michael Zweig (guitar), Tim Bovaconti (guitar) and Sean Fitzsimons (drums). Ladies and gentlemen, The Carpet Frogs.

“They’re tremendous players,” Cummings said. “And another thing I like about them is that when we’re on stage — there’s six of us — they all sing. We have some times we have six vocals going at once. And I’ve always been a stickler for making the songs sound like the records. And with all those voices and two guitars, we can pretty much sound like the records again.”

The Covid pandemic, and the shutdowns it entailed, was notably hard on performing artists, and especially for singers. Cummings has been working to get his singing voice back in fettle.

“I’m trying to sing about 45 minutes every night, getting the chops back. The two years off from Covid was terrible for singers. You can’t lie around for two years, and then get up suddenly start hitting your notes again. It was terrible for me. But the chops are coming back.”

Burton Cummings and the band take the stage Wednesday, May 31, at the Charles Bailey Theatre in Trail, and Friday and Saturday, June 2 and 3, at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook.

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998, and has been part of all those dynamic changes the newspaper industry has gone through over the past 20 years.
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