Is Burton Cummings Rock’s Best Vocalist?

by Kevin Burton

   He croons, he growls, he soars, he swoops, he screams, he quivers. Burton Cummings has a voice made for rock and roll.

   He grabs a song and will, not, let it go. 

   So glad he took up music rather than whatever else he could have pursued as a high school dropout in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

  If you wanted to include him in the conversation of best rock vocalist ever, I would at least entertain the argument.

   Here’s the case made by “BBKron” on the BB Chronicles blog (a high-quality music blog). The writer (can’t find his/her real name) has three criteria on which to measure rock vocal greatness. 

   “They must have a great voice, not just a passable voice…the vocalist must be equally strong on hard-rockin, raucous, screamin’ tracks as they are on soft, melodic, or soaring ballads…(and) they must have their own particular style, quirkiness, coolness that makes the songs uniquely theirs and nobody else’s.”

   “Using those criteria, (Cummings) was the best,” BBKron said.  “There just was no one else like him. He could be surly and mean one minute, and graceful and soaring another, very often within the same song.”

   We’re talking Burton Cummings today not because his first name is my surname, but because “Undun” one of his hits while he was lead singer of The Guess Who, peaked at number 22 on the American chart, thus qualifies for our series.

   Guitarist Randy Bachman wrote Undun after hearing the bod Dylan lyric “she was easily undone” in his song “Ballad In Plain D.”

   Cumming has said Undun is Randy Bachman’s best song and he sings it like he believes that.  In was included on the Guess Who’s 1969 album, “Canned Wheat.”

   “During the Guess Who’s 2000 reunion tour, Cummings declared the song to be one of Bachman’s finest compositions and ‘one of the best songs ever written by any Canadian songwriter,’” according to Wikipedia.

    “Bachman himself has stated that “Undun” is his favorite song from his time as a member of The Guess Who.”

    Maybe it’s something about the bigness of Cummings’ voice but I always thought Undun had to have a major story behind it.

    I thought this woman he sings about was some sort of schemer and deceiver. I thought maybe it was some well-known person, unnamed in the song, that Bachman was taking a jab at. Or maybe it was about an ex of his. 

   I go searching for clues in the lyrics of the middle part, “Too many mountains and not enough stairs to climb. Too many churches and not enough truth. Too many people and not enough eyes to see. Too many lives to lead and not enough time” but there is no help there. It’s just too enigmatic.

   But as it turns out the song is only about a woman at a party Bachman attended, who took acid and fell into a coma. 

   That explains the lyric “She found a mountain that was far too high, and when she found out she couldn’t fly, Mama, it was too late.”

   Undun was originally released as the B side of “Laughing” in 1969, according to Songfacts. As so often happened in those days, disc jockeys flipped the record and Undun began to get radio airplay. That prompted RCA Victor Records to release it as a single in July of 1969. 

  Cummings learned to play the flute for the song. Bachman had encouraged him to play the flute on some of the Guess Who songs to give the band a spicier feel. 

   The fingerings for the flute are the same as for saxophone, except for C. Cummings had played the sax in his former band the Deverons, according to Songfacts.

   The song takes its structure from jazz guitar chords Bachman had just learned from his friend and neighbor Lenny Breau, according to Wikipedia. A number of jazz artist have covered the song.

   The Guess Who also had a song called “Shakin’ All Over,” that peaked at number 22 in 1965.

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