the rapper

Burton Cummings, never noted for his shyness, has been everywhere lately, promoting yet another collection of new live recordings of old favourites. Haven’t heard enough versions of American Woman, Canadian radio listeners? Here’s another for you to enjoy.

This week, on the heels of much positive press, Cummings’ comeback hit a small snag in the form of founding Guess Who bassist Jim Kale’s acidic comments, published in the Winnipeg Free Press. Burton, it seems, has been critical of Kale’s steadfast refusal to relinquish possession of the Guess Who name. For 35 years, many a Cummings/Bachman-less tour and a few best-forgotten albums of new material, Kale and drummer Gary Peterson have, to all intents and purposes, been The Guess Who. As you read this, the pair (and whatever hired-hands are available) are likely preparing to take to the stage of a casino not near you.

(And, if I may digress — and I nearly always do — I am reminded of a chat I had some years ago with Gary Peterson, for the purpose of a Canadian rock-and-roll retrospective published in the Sun. I had little trouble tracking down the bona fide Canadian music legend and made arrangements for him to call me for an interview. He called. We chatted. He had much to say about the band he has called home for five decades. And, a month later, he called again. This time, it was to inquire as to why my number had appeared on his long-distance bill. I reminded him of our conversation and he went back to checking his bill. I was surprised, frankly, to not receive another call a month later, with a similar question. And, presumably, each month after that. He may also be wondering when the Sun is going to send him the five copies of the article he had requested during our initial conversation.)

Kale told an interviewer he resents Burton’s public panning of The Guess Who of today, and noted he intends to keep the group alive despite (and seemingly almost because of) his former bandmate’s objections. “I’m his karma,” Kale said of his status as Cummings’ favourite mistake.

Still, Burton has so far done a fine job of reminding us of his status as Canadian rock royalty, wisely including 13 Guess Who classics among his latest live album’s 18 tracks. And as the pats-on-back flourish, there is no denying the musical-comfort-food quality of the man’s voice. But amid the celebrations of the man’s career, one legitimate claim to fame is getting short shrift, it seems. For Burton Cummings, if nothing else, can justifiably claim the title of rock and roll’s king of the ad-lib. The Guess Who’s greatest songs were littered with the vocalist’s spontaneous (or semi-spontaneous) bursts of memorable meandering. Rare is the Cummings recording that does not feature a joyous exclamation — or several — from Cummings to enhance the mood. And we’re not talking about the alarmingly profane, misogynist and all-out offensive exhortations at the heart of The Guess Who’s Live at the Paramount album. No, we’re talking studio recordings, a medium that for most singers calls for adhering strictly to the script. Not for Cummings.

And what value is there in a studio ad-lib? I direct your attention to Levi Stubbs’ unforgettable call to “Just look over your shoulder!” in The Four Tops’ Reach Out, I’ll Be There. Or to young Michael Jackson’s unforgettable plea to “Just look over your shoulder!” in The Jackson 5’s I’ll Be There (even if you don’t reach out). Would either song have been the same without it? I think not. Conversely, this blogger has always felt that Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ otherwise-superb If You Don’t Know Me By Now suffers ever so slightly for Harold’s inability to ad-lib much beyond “If you don’t know me!” and “No you won’t!” So yes, dammit, ad-libs matter. And Burton’s matter more than most. For one thing, they distract us from sometimes-appalling lyrics.

True, once The Guess Who called it a day (or, um, left its future in the capable hands of Jim Kale), Cummings noticeably reined in his outbursts, often resorting to carefully-crafted embellishments such as the list of early rock-and-roll titles in My Own Way to Rock or the bizarre ensemble cries of “Roll the old lady!” in Break it to Them Gently. But by then, Burton had already made the ad-lib his own. Little more needed to be said. And, as a career-retrospective that features only five solo numbers to 13 Guess Who songs demonstrates, Cummings subsequently said little of note.

In 1972, the immortal (though in fact dead) Lester Bangs proclaimed Cummings to be “the rightful and unquestionable heir to Jim Morrison’s spiritual mantle.” He also called The Guess Who “real punks” with “class up the ass.” And if there was not one shred of sincerity in Bangs’ words of praise, it hardly alters the fact that such praise was offered. So there.

And so, in tribute, let us revisit seven great Cummings ad-libs. People like lists, I’m told. More on that later.

Heartbroken Bopper (1972)

“Oh, you’re shuckin’! Oh you’re dancin’! Oh you’re movin’!” Yes, there is much to do with a heart. Broken. Bopper. And, as is so often the case with Cummings’ rants, he saves the best for the fade: “You’ve seen better days!” Brilliant.

Hand Me Down World (1970)

“I don’t really need it and I’m not gonna take it!” And so forth. As if the song were not already profound enough.

Guns Guns Guns (1972)

“And I’m weepin’ for you, Mother Nature.” He can, to borrow a phrase from Neil Diamond, even sing it with a cry in his voice. But talking it is better.

Those Show Biz Shoes (1973)

The lengthy faux-blues finale to this tune is little more than a showcase for Burton’s ad-lib acrobatics. Hell, he appears to have written but one line for the occasion: “Thank you for those show biz shoes.” But as the song drags on (and on), we get to visualize Burton “going dancing,” “get(ting) to Heaven” and even “walkin’ over Heaven” in his cherished show biz shoes. At one point, finally having temporarily exhausted his supply of quips, he resorts to an enthusiastic “Oh… I love my show biz shoes!” And, after a short break, he’s back with more, as usual saving the best for last: “Gettin’ gold records in my show biz shoes!” Well played, Burt, well played. It also makes up for the line, “For trees it may be a breeze.” But Burton sings that line, rather than speaking it. So you know it’s just meant to be filler until he gets to the good stuff.

No Time (1970)

It really doesn’t get much better than Burton’s Beat-style rap of, “I got no/Time got/No time/Got no/Time got/No time,” which, of course, comes with the fade. An earlier recording is a little rougher, with Burt condemning his “woman’s” silly games and such. But, as the tentative ad-libs of American Woman and These Eyes demonstrate, the frontman had not yet hit his stride.

Bus Rider (1970)

“Ooh, little man riding upside-down!” Which means what, you ask? Rock and roll! That’s what.

Dancin’ Fool (1975)

“I’m a dancin’ fool, I’m a dancin’ fool, I’m a dancer!” Repeat. The end was near. But what a ride.

Also, honorable mention to the curious Hamba Gahle-Usalang Gable, a hypnotic hippie ditty from 1973’s Artificial Paradise that strings together Zulu phrases with bits borrowed from other exotic languages. When it comes time to interject, does Burton allow his unilingual limitations to discourage him from a bit of Zulu scatting? Hey, this is Burton Cummings we’re talking about! Long may he ad-lib.

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