On Saturday, the Winnipeg-born singer-songwriter Burton Cummings is to be inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in a ceremony at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre hosted by Howie Mandel. Other inductees include physician and astronaut Roberta Bondar, doubles-tennis player Daniel Nestor, actress Sandra Oh, comedian Russell Peters and the late writer Mordecai Richler.
Cummings, 63, already an inductee as a member of the Guess Who, spoke to The Globe recently from Los Angeles.
Burton Cummings, your voice is a medical marvel. Any explanation for why it’s lasted intact all these years?
I certainly haven’t lived the life of a Buddhist monk. But I’ve always sung. I think of my voice as a muscle, that you have to use it a lot. When I’m not touring, I sing at home, either at the piano or I’ll pick up my guitar, singing old Buck Owens songs. Also I quit smoking three years ago, after being an idiot from the time I was 14 years old until I was almost 60. I’m reaping the rewards of that.
Still, I spoke to Joan Baez about her voice. She blames her lowered pitch on gravity, which you’ve seemed to defy so far.
The biggest compliment I get is that I don’t sound like anybody else. I think I value that as the highest compliment.
Compliments, awards, record sales, sidewalk stars – you’ve built up quite the résumé. Of all your achievements, which are you most proud of?
I must admit, last year, the Order of Canada was pretty overwhelming. When I got to Ottawa for the presentation, I found out who some of the other recipients were. I got to hang out with Mario Lemieux that day and Ivan Reitman, the film producer. It hit me pretty hard that I was in good company.
Getting that recognition alongside Mario Lemieux, are you a hockey fan? You must be happy about Winnipeg getting its team back.
I am. I still have a house in Winnipeg. I get to come back and sing the anthems again. I did that a lot when the Jets were there, particularly when the American teams were there. I got to sing both anthems. I adopted a style for the anthems – all I did was plagiarize Marvin Gaye, really. He did The Star Spangled Banner like a tremendous R&B dance record, back in 1983 at an NBA all-star game. I heard it on a box set, and I was just mesmerized. It was just brilliant. So I just copied it phrase for phrase, note for note.
It’s not an anthem, or maybe it is, but what about singing American Woman these days? The United States has been humbled.
It really has. But I wouldn’t read any new meaning into it, and I don’t know if people would either.
It’s not a political song?
No, it was more observational. The Guess Who had been touring in the States a lot. We were playing in a curling rink, on the exterior of Toronto. It was just jammed on stage, and I came up with the lyrics in the moment. What I was saying was, “Canadian women, I prefer you.” I looked out at the girls in Canada versus all those American girls we had just seen, and it seemed like the girls were fresher and younger. They didn’t grow up quite as fast in Canada.
But, ghetto scenes and war machines?
It was a particularly bad time of escalation. 1970 was probably one of the worst years for the Vietnam War. People read political references into the song that weren’t necessarily there. But I guess it did sound anti-American.
What songs are you most proud of?
For my solo career there are a couple, Break It to Them Gently and I’m Scared. They’re two of my better written songs as a solo artist. As a member of Guess Who, I think No Time was the best thing we ever did. It was a pivotal song in our career. Up until that point we’d only had soft records. These Eyes and Laughing were good songs, but soft. When No Time came out, we were taken more seriously as a band from that point on.
So how much time is left for Burton Cummings?
Here’s the thing: I’ve always told my manager that when it gets lame, I’ll quit. I’ll know when it’s time to step down from the stage. I don’t want to go out and be one of those tired old failures just trying to cash in on earlier days. But people say I sound as good as ever now. We tape our shows every night. I listen to them, and it doesn’t sound lame to me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Burton Cummings plays Toronto’s Massey Hall on Sept. 29 as part of the Canada’s Walk of Fame Festival ( canadaswalkoffame.com).