The Guess Who - Canada's First Supergroup (Part One)

The first of two shows about the Guess Who, the first Canadian band to have a million-selling record. The first Canadian group to have a number one hit on the Billboard Top 10. Winnipeg's own Guess Who. They weren't originally called the Guess Who. That was a promotional stunt by their record company who wanted to create a buzz. They...
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The first of two shows about the Guess Who, the first Canadian band to have a million-selling record. The first Canadian group to have a number one hit on the Billboard Top 10. Winnipeg's own Guess Who.

They weren't originally called the Guess Who. That was a promotional stunt by their record company who wanted to create a buzz. They didn't print the name of the band on the label. They simply wrote: Guess Who? The song on the record was a hit. The name stuck. The question mark didn't.

Hear all about the birth of Canada's first supergroup: The Guess Who.

Guess Who - Untitled - Sized.jpgWhen music fans think of the Guess Who, two names come to mind: Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman. Together, they wrote most of the band's most recognizable songs. But their relationship was tempestuous. They fought constantly. And just as the band was at the top of the charts, Randy Bachman quit.  

PHOTO [Right]: Bachman-Turner Overdrive in the 1970s. (The Canadian Press/HO)

But the band played on. There have been dozens of band members over the Guess Who's long history- including a line-up that includes neither Bachman nor Cummings. It's just part of the long and winding story of the Guess Who: a story that according to Burton Cummings is full of payola, luck, pizazz, schmaltz and lies.

Guess Who - 1 - burton - sized.jpgEarly Days
The Guess Who started life in Winnipeg as Chad Allan and the Expressions and recorded a cover version of Johnny Kidd's Shakin' All Over. Burton Cummings joined the Guess Who in 1966 and soon replacing lead singer Chad Allen.

The Guess Who struggled in the early years. They released a number of singles - all of which flopped. One of the Guess Who's earliest songs, recorded in Minneapolis in 1966, was called His Girl.

Disastrous Trip to the United Kingdom
Things were not going well for the band at this point. None of their songs charted and the group was over-exposed in their hometown of Winnipeg. In an effort to kick-start their career, the band went on a promotional trip to the UK. It was a flop. It left the band broke and ready to throw in the towel.

PHOTO [Above]: Burton Cummings singing lead, as the group performs at the Wayne & Shuster Comedy Special in December 1969. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

But at that point, the Guess Who got a much-needed break. CBC Radio hired them as the house band on The Swingers, a new daily radio show.  They were also hired for CBC Television's program Let's Go.

Guess Who - 1 - Show of Week - AGAIN.jpgLet's Go and The Swingers were CBC's brush with hipness. Think of it as the 60's version of Q. Instead of Jian Ghomeshi, the host of The Swingers was Dave Brodie. We had a taste of that grooviness from November 1966.

PHOTO [Right]: Guess Who on the CBC Television variety program 'Show Of The Week' on May 13, 1968. (CBC Still Photo Collection/Roy Martin)

The band's regular appearance on The Swingers gave the group the exposure it needed. It caught the eye of a young record producer from Toronto called Jack Richardson. Richardson was so impressed with what he heard that he mortgaged his house to bankroll a recording session.

These Eyes
From it, came a song called These Eyes, that in the spring of 1969, hit the top ten in the US and sold over one million copies. Canada was thrilled with the success of the home-grown Guess Who. And so was Winnipeg, the band's hometown.

It was a huge breakthrough not only for the band, but for Canadian music. In 1970 the Guess Who was on a show called Bright Lights, a radio special about the Manitoba music scene.  We had a clip from that.

When the band made it big, the Canadian music business was still in its infancy. There were no CanCon requirements which meant that Canadian radio stations had no obligation to play Canadian music.

Jack Richardson, the producer of the Guess Who and owner of Nimbus 9 Records was one of the early risk-takers who believed in Canadian musicians. He talked about his decision to back the band. 

Guess Who - Album - AGAIN.jpgA string of hits followed, including their biggest, American Woman.

The Story of American Woman
American Woman was the band's biggest song ever, and their only number one hit in the US.

That song spent three weeks on top of the Billboard chart in May of 1970. It became an iconic song of the early 70's and the American Vietnam anti-war movement.

But American Woman almost never was. Burton Cummings tells the story of the humble beginnings of the band's biggest song. The story goes that the band was doing a live jam at a concert at a curling rink in Waterloo Ontario. Cummings began improvising a song to liven up the crowd. In our clip, he picked it up from there.

Shortly after its release, The Guess Who was invited to play at the White House. Because of its supposed anti-American lyrics, President Richard Nixon's wife Pat asked that they not play American Woman. The band always denied that the song had an anti American sentiment.

Jim Kale, bassist of the group and co author of the song said "The popular misconception was that it was a chauvinistic tune, which was anything but the case. We came from a strait-laced, conservative, laid-back country, and all of a sudden, there we were in Chicago, Detroit, New York - all these horrendously large places with their big city problems. After one particularly grinding tour, it was just a real treat to go home and see the Canadian girls we had grown up with." The song 'American Woman' went on to have a second life in 1999 when Lenny Kravitz recorded it.

After that, Undun. The story goes that Randy Bachman wrote it after hearing a Bob Dylan song that included the phrase "she was easily undone." Undun tells the story of a girl who slipped into a coma after doing drugs. The song structure is based around new jazz guitar chords Bachman had learned from his friend the guitarist Lenny Breau. Bachman has said that Undun is his favorite song from his time as a member of The Guess Who.

Guess Who - 2 - Burton Solo - sized.jpgBreaking Up is Hard to Do

Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings' song-writing skills had taken the band from Winnipeg to the big time. Their string of top ten hits sold millions of copies. The money was flowing in. The fans were eager for the next song. The world was their oyster.

So what did Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings do next? In true rock and roll style they had a big fight and broke up. One of Canada's greatest song-writing duos was no more - at least for a while.

But you'll have to wait until next week to hear more in part two of this show.

PHOTO [Right]: Burton Cummings pursing a solo career. (CBC Still Photo Collection).

We'd love to hear from you - with your Guess Who memories or favourite songs. You can write to us at Rewind at Or leave a comment here.


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