Ironic as it sounds, it was Canadian radio's long-standing distain for home-grown talent that helped launch the greatest Canadian rock band of all time.
Back in the glory days of rock 'n' roll, when the Beatles-led British Invasion was in full swing, DJs from St. John's to Vancouver showed little interest in promoting Canadian talent. Their philosophy was simple: American music was good; British was even better.
Sure, the occasional Canadian artist - Toronto's Pat Hervey, Vancouver's Terry Black - could make a regional stir, and Canadians who had fled to the States - the Four Lads, the Diamonds, the Crew-Cuts - earned national airplay. But, apart from teen crooner Bobby Curtola, there was no such thing as a coast-to-coast Canadian star.
So, in 1965, when five lads from Winnipeg, known locally as Chad Allan & the Expressions, recorded a cover version of the British hit Shakin' All Over, Quality Records producer George Struth pinned his hopes on a marketing ploy. Promotional copies of the single were mailed to stations across the country with simply "Guess Who?" printed below the title.
Struth hoped that DJs would think they were listening to a mysterious new British band and air the song. Never did he suspect that the name, minus the question mark, would also stick.
In hindsight, Guess Who might, indeed, be an ideal moniker, given that the band has endured about a dozen personnel changes during the past four decades.
Their story begins in 1962, when Winnipeg teenagers Randy Bachman (lead guitar), Bob Ashley (piano), Jim Kale (bass), Garry Peterson (drums), and Allan Kowbell, aka Chad Allan (rhythm guitar and lead vocals) joined forces to form The Expressions.
Signed to Quality Records, they made a brief name change to The Reflections, then switched back when a Detroit group of the same name hit it big with the Top 10 hit (Just Like) Romeo & Juliet. Noted for its tight sound, and Bachman's superb guitar work, the band earned significant local success but had to wait three years, until the Shakin' All Over/Guess Who? ploy, to score a hit.
A year later, the band underwent a dramatic, and ultimately highly profitable, shift. Allan and Ashley were out, keyboardist/vocalist Burton Cummings was in. Several poor-selling albums - now valuable collectors' items - followed and, in 1968, Quality sold the Guess Who's contract to the fledgling Toronto-based label Nimbus 9 Records for a mere $1,000.
A few months later, the album Wheatfield Soul, featuring eight original Bachman-Cummings compositions, was in the can, and had been licensed to RCA in the States. American listeners liked what they heard, and the album's debut single, These Eyes, climbed to No. 6 on Billboard and became the Guess Who's first million-seller in April 1969.
Impressed with the boys' stateside success, Canadian radio programmers showed renewed interest in the band they'd briefly loved then rejected back in '65. For the next five years, the Guess Who would remain equally popular on both sides of the border.
Eleven months after These Eyes hit the charts - a period filled with such follow-up million-sellers as Laughing and No Time - the Guess Who became the first Canadian-based band to earn a No. 1 hit in the U.S. Ironically, the song that took them to the top was American Woman, a no-holds-barred rant against American aggression, arrogance, and greed.
Riding high with American Woman - and the Top-10 album of the same name - and the follow-up popularity of Share The Land, the bandmates were shocked to hear that Bachman, the longest-standing member, was opting out. After quitting in early 1971, Bachman first reunited with Chad Allan to form Brave Belt, then teamed with his brothers Tim and Robbie and vocalist C. Fred Turner to create Bachman-Turner Overdrive, one of the few Canadian rock bands to rival the popularity of the Guess Who.
Following Bachman's departure, the Guess Who personnel changes continued apace, with Kurt Winter, Greg Leskiw, Don McDougall, Bill Wallace, and Domenic Troiano all coming and going over the next three years. The hits - Albert Flasher, Rain Dance, Clap For The Wolfman - continued, too, though with decreasing impact.
Finally, in 1975, the Guess Who disbanded, though various ersatz "reunion" bands continued to record and tour. A genuine reunion, one that would reunite the masters who put the Guess Who on the map in the late 1960s, seemed unlikely, especially since tension between Bachman and Cummings had escalated.
But happen it did. In 1997, Bachman and Cummings agreed to perform together for the first time in more than 25 years. They played before a crowd of 40,000 in Winnipeg as part of a Red River flood-relief benefit concert.
Two years later, the classic foursome - Bachman, Cummings, Kale, and Peterson - were back on stage, performing for the closing ceremonies of the PanAm Games in Winnipeg. That led to 2000's sensational Running Back Thru Canada tour, which ranks as one of the highest-grossing in the history of Canadian music.
They were the guys who made it okay to be Canadian, who proved that you didn't have to leave our shores to score big. And they've influenced just about every Canadian performer who has followed since.
In his best-selling biography, Takin' Care Of Business, Randy Bachman relates an incident that occurred the day after that 1999 PanAm Games concert - an early-morning encounter with an old acquaintance that encapsulated just how important the Guess Who's success was to an entire generation of fans and rock-star wannabes.
As Bachman recalls: "I recognized him as a guy I knew from one of the hundreds of bands that used to play the community clubs in Winnipeg in the '60s. He congratulated me on a superb performance the night before. I could see he was very emotional, he had tears in his eyes, and I realized something for the first time in my life. For him, the dream was gone; he had never gone any further than the community clubs. But in the four of us he had been able to live out that dream in our success.
"We were the four horsemen who rode out of Winnipeg to find glory and fame and had come back one more time. We had lived the dream of a thousand other kids growing up in Winnipeg. To them, we are still heroes."
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