Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Guess Who--American Woman (1970)

     The Guess Who's roots go all the way back to 1958 with the formation of Al and the Silvertones with Chad Allan at the helm. A few years later the name developed into Chad Allen and the Reflections by 1962. By this time Randy Bachman was with the group on guitar. Because of the success of a US group called the Reflections, they were forced to change once again to Chad Allen and the Expressions. During this time, they had released a few singles, but had not really made much of a name for themselves.
      This changed in 1965 with the release of "Shakin' All Over", which not only caught on in Canada, but which almost cracked the top 20 in the US. In a ploy to have listeners mistake them for a British Invasion group, the record company (Quality) printed "Guess Who?" on the 45's. No one knows if this had any influence on it's popularity, but before you knew it, DJ's and radio listeners knew the band as "Guess Who". The band's hand again was forced, and the name changed for the last time.
     Late that year, the keyboard player left and was replaced by Burton Cummings, who also shared vocals with Chad Allan. This only lasted a few months before Allen left the band and Cummings became lead singer. The next several years were spent writing and touring. They had a gig on a Canadian TV show called, "Let's Go" where they were the house band. The network wanted them to play covers that were as close to the originals, but also encouraged them to work on their own material as well. This allowed them to get a paycheck, but also to work on songs that would eventually produce fruit by the end of the decade with the album, "Wheatfield Soul" in 1969.
     A classic album, "Wheatfield Soul" and it's follow up, "Canned Wheat" produced four top 40 singles in the US. The peak of the popularity however, was with the number one single, "American Woman" from 1970. In an interview, Cummings explains the genesis of the song:

     "  …it was jammed onstage one night in Mississauga, Ontario, we were playing at a club called the Broom & Stone which was actually a curling rink and doing two shows that night. I guess we hadn’t gotten that big yet. Between the two shows, I was outside bartering with this kid, he had some old Gene Vincent records that I wanted to get for my collection and tried to strike-up a deal with this guy. The next thing I know, it’s time to start the second show and the other three guys have gone back onstage and I hear them start this riff … (Burton began mimicking the opening riff to “American Woman.”) I said to this guy … Oh my God; I’m supposed to be onstage man, I’ve got to run, I’ll see you later about these Gene Vincent records.”
“I run inside and run up onto the stage and just grab a microphone and started singing whatever came into my head; it was all stream of consciousness at the moment stuff … all that stuff about war machines and ghetto scenes, colored lights can hypnotize …it was all just spur- of- the- moment. And nobody would have ever heard it again but there happened to be a kid bootlegging the show that night. This was way back in the 60’s and he had a cassette machine, and those machines were a relatively new invention at that time. But this was 1968, forty-five years ago. We noticed this onstage as the night went on and he still kept recording. So we motioned to our road manager… go get that tape-go get that tape! He got the cassette tape and we listened to it later and heard this jam about American Woman stay away from me. So we actually kind of learned it from that tape, otherwise nobody would have ever heard it again. So talk about a Cinderella story. And that was a monstrous hit record for us; it was number one on Billboard for three weeks. So it was all an accident, I guess the music Gods were smiling on us. The music Gods probably sent that kid with the cassette machine.”
“When RCA heard “American Woman,” the guy that was head of A&R was listening and he threw up his newspaper in the air and said, “That’s a number one record!”" (courtesy of, July 23, to full interview here:  http://ww(

    Bachman left the group because of some physical issues. He was to surface later with his own group, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Am not sure how this effected the writing (him and Cummings co-wrote many of their hits), but they never had the same success after American Woman. This isn't to say they didn't have success as three more top 20 songs would attest ("Hand Me Down World", "Share the Land", "Clap for the Wolfman") , but as the decade of the 70's went on they became fewer and fewer until the group disbanded in 1975.


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