By Marissa Soumalias
Burton Cummings was just seventeen when he became lead singer of the Guess Who in 1965, joining Randy Bachman, Jim Kale and Garry Peterson. With songs like “American Woman,” “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” and “Share the Land,” success was imminent for this brown eyed Winnipeg native as his sound advanced to the forefront of a new generation in music that gained interest from across the world.
Cummings can sing like only few can on the planet. His body of work is impressive and stretches over fifty years transcending genres and generations.
He has always trusted in the music. Never doubting the road he is on despite the bumps and blocks encountered along the way.
“The music keeps me going” he told me, “and sometimes, struggles are exactly what we need in our life.”
Cummings spoke about one of his biggest solo hits titled “Stand Tall.” “I wrote it about an eight year love affair of mine,” he said. “She left me and married someone else. Just like that. Broke my heart.”
The lyrics to “Stand Tall” shed light on a very emotional and personal state of reflection for Cummings. The song is about losing the one he loved and his need to be strong minded and clear headed in order to overcome the pain. A frame of mind Cummings credits his mother for.
“My mother was so very wonderful and so very strong,” he told me. Cummings’s mother was abused by his father and in a time where being a single mother was unheard of, she still had the strength and courage to leave him. Burton was only one year old.
“People don’t change.” He told me. “They just become a clearer version of who they really are. It’s a damn good start being able to recognize what makes you happy and writing [Stand Tall] helped me figure that out.”
Cummings still has countless fans expressing their gratitude about the song he had written in heartbreak over forty years ago. “A few years back, a guy came up after a show with tears in his eyes telling me ‘Stand Tall’ helped him through his darkest time. Saved him from suicide.”
We discussed the evolution of music into a digital era and how there may be a modern day misconception of what really defines success. Is success measured by radio plays and YouTube hits or is success measured by the message; the timeless social connection behind the music? Cummings believes that as musicians, there is an unspoken responsibility to make records that make history. He encourages and urges young artists to write their own music and use their own ideas.
Cummings reveals there are two things that will make a hit song last forever. “You have to write a killer hook and you have to pull from your own experience or opinions.”
His method for lasting success is simple. Write a song that can surface thirty years later and still be relevant.
Cummings closes every performance with his 1970’s hit “Share the Land.” A song, he says still has the same effect and meaning to people it did when he first sang it forty-three years ago.
“’Share the Land’ still has optimism for the future and when I look out at the crowd, everyone holding hands and wanting to believe we are inherently good, the message still makes sense to me. The lyrics could have been written last night.”
I attended the Burton Cummings Live at Massey Hall show in September and experienced the therapeutic exchange of energy between performer and audience first hand. “I won’t stop until I got nothing left in me,” he said with no signs of slowing down.
Interesting enough, Cummings seems to keep getting better with age. The loudly sung life lesson of always doing what you love at every stage of your life.
Unassuming of the imprint Cummings leaves on his fans, he downplays his star persona. “I’m flattered but all I do is write and sing songs,” he said, claiming Terry Fox and Marc and Craig Kielbuger are the real champions to look up to.
So much in fact, after recently meeting the Kielburger brothers at the 2013 Canada’s Walk of Fame celebrations, Cummings plans to get involved with them on a philanthropic level. “I was just blown away by the work they have already accomplished internationally with Free the Children and at such a young age. These guys are going across the world and saving countless lives. They are the real heroes.”
Marissa Soumalias is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @Msoumalias.