Burton Cummings reflects on solo career ahead of Canadian Hall of Fame honour
Burton Cummings at Massey Hall in Toronto on Oct. 22, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
David Friend, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, March 30, 2016 6:31AM EDT
TORONTO - Burton Cummings was once a Canadian music rebel, but these days he's just happy to be considered one of the survivors.
Reflecting on an industry in which rock legends are constantly tested by their personal highs and lows, the 68-year-old former Guess Who frontman says he's lucky to still be around to witness his induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame on Friday in recognition of his 40-year solo career.
"You know what man, I'm healthy, I'm still around and I can still talk about it," he says. "A lot of my friends are gone."
After decades of steady radio play, comeback tours and the occasional burst of new material, the Winnipeg-born singer will be the first artist to join the hall of fame's new home at the National Music Centre in Calgary.
The Juno Awards will also close Sunday's telecast with a tribute to his solo career, which includes eight studio albums and memorable songs like "Stand Tall" and "I'm Scared."
While it's not the first time he has graced the Canadian Music Hall of Fame - the Guess Who was inducted in 1987 - Cummings says recognition for his solo work is particularly important to him.
"First of all, this one's all mine," he says.
When Cummings left the Guess Who he was riding high on the band's unforgettable hits like "These Eyes" and "American Woman," two songs that would forever tether him to his bandmates whether he liked it or not.
Coming to terms with that caused him some trepidation, at first.
"I thought about all these people that had left groups and gone solo - some of them you never heard from them again, some of them had remarkable careers," Cummings says, on considering his prospects after the Guess Who disbanded.
"I had to put my head down and keep going."
Growing up an only child might've prepared Cummings for some of those solo challenges, he thinks.
His mother Rhoda left an abusive relationship when he was just a baby and Cummings grew up without knowing his father. He was raised partly by his grandmother while his mother worked shifts at the Eaton's department store.
"I spent a lot of time with myself playing in my own head," Cummings says.
"My mother had (vinyl records) so the house was constantly full of music. I'm the last cusp of the generation that can remember before television."
It wasn't until after the Guess Who had scored a number of big radio hits that Cummings finally met his father, who struggled with alcoholism.
"It was one of the worst nights of my life," he remembers. "He came back - I was about 23 or 24 - and had no idea that I had any success.
"He asked me, 'Anything I can do for you? Can I get you a pair of pants?"' he pauses.
"It was pretty crushing, it took me a while to get over that."
Over the years, Cummings saw his father a few more times, but the two never fully reconciled.
"I don't want to sound bitter," Cummings adds. "I was very successful at the time and I didn't want that dragging me down."
Cummings was feeling alienated from his bandmates before the Guess Who eventually disbanded in 1976.
Randy Bachman had left nearly five years earlier, which meant he was without his closest ally on the road.
After a pile of songs Cummings wrote for the Guess Who were rejected by his bandmates, he decided it was time to direct his creativity elsewhere.
"I'll never know how I stayed that long," he says. "If I knew back then what I know now ... I would've left long before I did."
Going solo sparked a new creative period for the singer, who churned out six albums in the first 10 years of his solo career.
Two of those albums were crossover hits in the United States, fuelled partly by the magic touch of producer Richard Perry, who had already worked with Carly Simon and Art Garfunkel.
Cummings says working in Perry's famed recording studio introduced him to the rockstar lifestyle of the late 1970s.
"There was cocaine everywhere in Los Angeles - it was absolutely the city of blow," he says.
"Those first few years I spent in L.A. it was a very strange place."
While he participated in cocaine "to an extent," Cummings says his stamina for the drug wasn't "like the L.A. hardcore folks."
Instead he found other ways to indulge as he racked up soft-rock hits like "Break It To Them Gently," "Fine State of Affairs" and "You Saved My Soul" in Canada.
Some of those party nights led to comments he would later regret. In a 1980 TV interview with Brian Linehan he lashed out at women with the types of disparaging remarks that have become rockstar cliches.
Cummings says he's still trying to live that moment down.
"Too much booze, too much dope, too much success. Just living too hard," Cummings says.
"I made the mistake so many of us have: I partied all night and left the party at quarter to nine in the morning after drinking 30-year-old scotch. You should never be filmed on camera in that kind of shape."
In the years that followed, Cummings recorded a few more albums of new material but has spent much of his time catering to the insatiable demand for his early solo work and tracks he wrote with Bachman in the Guess Who.
While the hitmaking duo has collaborated over the years, their personalities clash, Cummings says.
Some fans are calling for a Bachman-Cummings reunion next year to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday. It's a possibility Cummings hasn't ruled out.
"If Randy and I are both still alive ... I never say never," he says.
"I'll have a great time for the two hours on stage, but I won't be hanging out with him ... we're just too different."
For now, Cummings plans to enjoy the recognition for his solo work in the hall of fame.
"It's more special to me than the other one," he says.
"This means I've done something: I've made my own decisions."