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Interview with Burton Cummings, Canadian Music Hall of Fame Recipient 2016

By Breanna Mroczek

Burton Cummings

Burton Cummings is the 2016 Canadian Music Hall of Fame Recipient at the 45th annual Juno Awards.

The Juno Awards are being hosted in Calgary, AB on Sunday, April 3, 2016, and this year the Canadian music awards show will have lots to celebrate.

2016 has officially been declared — by Calgary’s esteemed Mayor Nenshi — as the Year of Music in Calgary. If Year of Music was a music festival, then the headliners would be Juno Week (March 28 – April 3, 2016) and the opening of the National Music Centre in Studio Bell (Summer 2016).

The 2016 Canadian Music Hall of Fame (CMHF) recipient will be the very first CMHF recipient to have their award plaque displayed in the new National Music Centre — and the winning artist is Burton Cummings. Cummings called Where Calgary from Los Angeles, en route to perform a series of shows in Las Vegas, to chat about the upcoming Juno Awards celebrations and his career.

“This [award] is very nice. This is different [to win as a solo artist]. It’s an honour and I’m not accepting it lightly. It’s harder to earn these as a solo artist. When The Guess Who was finished I didn’t know what was next. I left the safe cocoon of a band to be a solo artist. It’s a scary step. It was all new and different to me, but I didn’t stop performing and creating and here I am now. And the fact that this award will be placed in the new building gives it more perspective. This is not just another Junos. This is a really special christening, an evening that’s more special than usual.”

Cummings, who will officially be awarded this accolade during a tribute montage during the live Juno Awards broadcast, is no stranger to the Juno Awards. He’s hosted four times (a record in itself) and won five awards, and he’s already part of the CMHF as part of The Guess Who band, which was awarded the honour in 1987. This time, he’s earned the award for his work as a solo artist.

“The year I co-hosted the Junos with Alan Thicke [in 1983] we held up Toto’s album IV and we basically said: ‘Ladies and gents, this is a compact disc. This is the way the music industry is going.’ We showed the audience a CD for pretty much the first time, and that moment has always stuck with me. When I think about it now — that was pretty historic.”

Accepting his CMHF award on April 3 will be a memorable moment for Cummings, adding another milestone to his Juno Awards show memories. In 1977, Cummings was established as a notable Canadian musician with The Guess Who, but had just started his solo career the previous year with his hit songs “Stand Tall” and “I’m Scared” on his self-titled album. That being the case, he was nominated for Most Promising Male Vocalist of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year — and won both.

“When I got up on stage to accept [the second award] Male Vocalist of the Year, I said to the audience ‘don’t let anybody tell you things don’t move fast in Canada. I went from most promising to best in 50 minutes’.”

Cummings’ career in music has now spanned five decades, an experience he describes as “dream fulfilling” and “fascinating.”

“My mom used to play 78s — my dad left when I was about a year [old] — and my mom worked at Eatons and every morning before work she would play her 78s for me, and I loved that. I loved the freezing of time, that you could play the 78 over when it was over. From a young age I thought it’d be terrific to be one of the guy’s making those records. I did that. I even got to meet the guys who made the records I would listen to. I was listening to guys like Bobby Darin and Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon and eventually I grew up and met these guys. I’ve got a poster on my wall of Bobby Rydell that he’s signed “Thanks for being a fan.” I was a kid delivering papers, delivering the Winnipeg Tribune for 45 cents, to save up and buy his records for 90 cents each. It’s nice to have gone into the business and succeeded. When I was in my first band [The Deverons] I never would have dreamed this. I never would have dreamed I’d be one of the lucky ones to have a career that would allow me to go on stage by myself year after year, there’s so few of us that get to do that.”

Even though Cummings’ is skeptical about the way some contemporary artists are performing their music, he says “there’s always room for something fresh.”

During his 50 years in show business, Cummings has seen a lot of changes in the industry regarding how music is produced, performed, and consumed.

“I remember the days when lots of people were selling millions of albums a week. That’s just not the case any more. You can name most of the artists that are selling millions of records in one sentence. These days you pretty much have to have live chops to exist, because you can’t rely on record sales any more. My live shows are completely organic. We use absolutely no sampling, no tracks. Not even any percussion. Anything we do, my band [and I], is live. I’m proud of that. We’ve been called an organic band and I like that. There’s so much machinery used now. We do a lot of live shows and everything is played and sung live.

I love the two hours I spend on stage [during a show]. I just turned 68 so it’s the other 22 hours that are a little tougher now. But the fact that I have this pile of songs that people know, that are in people’s heads and memory banks, I love singing them and watching people’s reaction. As long as we still sound like the records, I’m proud of that. My manager and I talk about it all the time — we say ‘you know, when it gets lame we won’t do it any more.’ But judging from the reaction these days to our live shows, it’s anything but lame.”

The Juno Awards committee — and millions of fans, many of which are ready to applaud him at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on April 3 — certainly don’t think so. The music industry may be ever-changing, but Cummings’ talent hasn’t.

One thing that hasn’t changed in Cummings’ eyes is the thrill of selling hundreds of thousands of albums — “the Gold records are still as pretty as the day you get them, they always will be beautiful” he says.

If you want to see Cummings perform live, see him in Calgary on June 6, 2016 at the Grey Eagle Resort & Casino.

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2 responses to “Interview with Burton Cummings, Canadian Music Hall of Fame Recipient 2016”

  1. Kevin Suter says:

    Great article, Thanks. Burton is a class act that sounds as good now as he did at 18.

  2. Rachael Frey says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Kevin!

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