Friday, May 8, 2009

Burton Cummings - Rock's Greatest Vocalist?

Previously, (in the Guess Who posts) I stated that I believe Burton Cummings was the greatest rock vocalist of all time. How can I say that? Well, that’s just how I see (hear?) it. Remember, this is greatest vocalist, not most successful, most popular, or in the best band, etc., but the best rock singer. For me, there are 3 essential criteria that must be evaluated to even be considered as the greatest:

# 1) They must have a great voice, not just a passable voice. Now, with rock singers, there really are very few that have what could be called great voices. That is, not just a good voice for rock n roll, but a great singing voice. Now, I know that you can be a great rock vocalist without having a great voice (such as many of the legends, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Robert Plant, etc.), but to be considered the BEST, well you just have to have a GREAT voice. I will accept no arguments on this point. So, this in itself narrows the field considerably.
# 2), the vocalist must be equally strong on hard-rockin, raucous, screamin’ tracks as they are on soft, melodic, or soaring ballads (again, this eliminates most of the hard-rock acts, they just can’t cut it on ‘sweet’ songs).
# 3), they must have their own particular style, quirkiness, coolness that makes the songs uniquely theirs and nobody else’s (Now, I admit that there are many that qualify here). This shows that it is not enough to just have a great voice, they must really know how to use it most effectively.

Using these criteria, Burton was just the best. No one had a better voice, was as strong on growling rockers and tender love songs alike, and always brought his unique vocal style (loved his scatting and ad libs during the extended versions and fade outs of songs). 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). Check out his hard-rockin style on tracks such as Bus Rider, Hang On To Your Life, Heartbroken Bopper, Guns Guns Guns, and, of course, American Woman, then listen to the sweet beautiful vocals of These Eyes, Undun, Share The Land, Do You Miss Me Darlin?, Sour Suite, Smoke Big Factory, and countless others. Mostly, though, he alternates between silky smooth and rockin’ within the same track (such as on Laughing, No Time, Hand Me Down World, Albert Flasher, Runnin Back To Saskatoon, Show Biz Shoes, Orly, etc.).

Now, I say was, because, unfortunately the years have not been kind to Burton’s voice. After leaving the Guess Who, his solo career went much more in the direction of soft-rock and ballads than rock n roll, and although he still produced some great pop-rock songs (check out his 2-Cd solo compilation, The Burton Cummings Collection (1994), he denied us of further expressions of his gutsy, harder-rockin vocals in subsequent years (Unfortunately, there aren’t any bootlegs available from his prime solo years). I saw him live with Ringo’s All-Starr Band in 1992, and he still had his great voice then. But, by the time of the extended Guess Who Reunion Tour in 2000-2001, his voice had changed dramatically. Although he still had the same inimitable vocal style, his voice was much more shrill and thin, not having the full rich sound of previous years (for proof, check out ‘Runnin’ Back Through Canada (2001), the live album from the 2000 tour), and, to me, was almost unlistenable in comparison to his prime years. However, in his most recent solo album, Above the Ground (2008, his first solo album in 18 years), his voice is stronger than it has been in years (and a very strong album). He also still performs and tours with the Bachman-Cummings Band (w/Randy Bachman, doing many of the old Guess Who songs). So, it’s good to hear that Burton is still going strong today.

OK, so Burton was the best. But who else ranks high on my list? After Burton, I would probably say Roger Daltrey and Paul Rodgers rank the next highest (both have great, strong rock voices). After that would probably be Paul McCartney (Paul has more of a pop voice than a rock voice, but he’s still up there). Also in the top ten or so would probably be people like Freddie Mercury, Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), Peter Gabriel, Sting, Van Morrison, Greg Lake, Elvis Costello, and, yes, maybe even that other Elvis guy. But who is definitely NOT up there? Robert Plant, Ozzie Ozborne, Mick Jagger, Bon Scott, Axl Rose, Steven Tyler, etc. They may be popular, they may be effective for the music they sing, but they are not great singers. Disagree? Who do you think is the greatest rock vocalist?

Disclaimer: I hereby state that I am not from Canada, have never lived in Canada, and that my high regard for The Guess Who and Burton Cummings is not biased by any Canadian nationalistic pride, influence, or any such nonsense. They are just damn good.


MUERTE said...

For me, the greatest rock vocalist has got to be Rod Stewart. It's funny to say now that his credibility has dipped somewhat with age, but in the late 60s and early 70s, Jeff Beck Group and Faces era, he recorded some of Rock's great vocal performances. The guy sang everything so well, from rock to folk to blues to ballads. I'm not trying to say that he's indisputably the best or anything like that, but I think a discussion of the best is incomplete without him.

Statman said...

Burton's voice no longer has much of the raspy growl... more of a crooner sound now, which is fine for most of the ballads & a more adult-contemporary sound. I wonder if the decades of smoking reduced the powerful growl (although you'd think that would increase the rasp, not eliminate it). I wonder if at some point, say in his 40's, he began to feel that using the growl/rasp would harm his voice.

But, for 61 he's still better than many of the singers out there. And wrote/co-wrote many great songs... also, an underrated pianist. His new album is really strong, too.

I'm heading to the Bachman Cummings tour... can't wait :)

Statman said...

Any chance of having the 1983 GW reunion concert posted? I've only seen bits of it on Youtube.

BBKron said...

Statman, I'd love to post something from the 1983 reunion shows, but, unfortunately, I don't have any. I know they had an official live album and video released from the tour, but I have not seen any bootlegs of those shows. If anyone has or knows of material from the 1983 reunions, I'd love to get/hear/post it.

Unknown said...

Given your criteria there is only one who meets it. You dismissed him somewhat in your pots, but the ultimate Rock vocalist has to be Elvis Presley. No one else is even close. Most of the others have "unique" voices but not truly great.
The only way you could stir this up more would be to pick a greatest guitarist in rock.

Moose KnuckleHead said...

I have 3 or 4 soundboards from Burton Cumming's early solo career immediately after the Guess Who breakup. Let me know if you are interested in me giving them to you.

Moose KnuckleHead said...

Although nobody expressed any interest, I posted the Burton solo shows:

Unknown said...

I always enjoy a good discussion on great singers. I agree with most of your selections, though I really don't think that Roger Daltry is a great singer. An icon? A legend? Yes! A great singer? No. I would put Steven Tyler and even Robert Plant above him any day.

Two others that meet your criteria in my opinion are David Coverdale (of Whitesnake) and ... you may laugh ... but Jon Bon Jovi back in the 80s (definitely not today).

My favorite singer among the newer bands out right now is the guy from Shinedown. That guy can really sing.

Anonymous said...

All too often fans look to the level of popularity to determine great vocalists. If you listen to just a few of Burton’s songs seldom heard there is no doubt he’s an easy first.
Anyone reading this try hearing “Try to Find Another Man” of the My Own Way to Rock LP then “Humpty Blues” off the American woman LP, from there go to “When A Man Lovers a Woman” off the Dream of a child LP. Then go to Live at the Paramount LP and skip to the center portion of American Woman live where the scatting is unreal. If you know his background he can sing like Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis, Fats, Chubby, Bobby Darin, and most anyone you can name. He can sing high as a bird or down low with perfect pitch. Live he was so fast and accurate that he could cover both the lead and the back up vocals. I think if listeners are being even the slightest bit fair there is no vocalist close to Cummings it’s second place the people should be debating.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Check out these songs.
Talisman (the guess who)
one day soon (solo)
Silver bird (the guess who)
Felicity Grey (the guess who)
Heavenly blue (solo)
One and only (solo)
Take one away (solo)
Free (solo)
My own way to rock (solo)
Find another way (the guess who)
This is only a small list of his great vocals. He has far too many to list here.

Seaton'sLaughing said...

MY fave rock vox (all but top 3 subject to change as mood dictates):

1. Burton Cummings
2. Ronnie James Dio
3. Ian Gillan
4. Michael Sweet
5. Brad Delp
6. Peter Wolf
7. David Coverdale
8. Ray Gillen
9. David Byron
10. John Kay

ney said...

I do agree with you..Burton is the best of all time, of course!

Angelo Furlan said...

If Burton's writing was as good as his singing, the Guess Who would have outsold Zep in the early 1970s (they did outsell the Beatles in 1970). I'm not knocking the songs he wrote for the Guess Who at all, it's just he was THAT good a singer. I don't think any male singer in rock had as expressive and as flexible a voice as Burton did.

chessman said...
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rmkstat said...

It is either Burton Cummings or Freddie Mercury

Unknown said...

This type of "best xxxxx" discussion is only as good as one's memory serves them. Although there's no question that Burton is a great candidate for the title, it's tough to say (without any doubt at all).

As I was reading the comments herein, I saw names that I hadn't really thought of in quite a while. Brad Delp, for example, was a rock vocalist with a range that was hard to top and, of course, Paul Rodgers would also be at or near the top of any such list.

Having written that, however, I think a male vocalist who has exhibited great range and diversity over many years has been overlooked here...and that man is Stevie Wonder. Yeah, he's been known as a shameless pop singer in his later career, but don't forget that the same man that burned "I Just Called To Say I Love You" into practically everyone's brain pans also gave us such masters as "Sir Duke," "I Wish," "Superstition," "Master Blaster" and -- speaking of growlers -- "Living For The City" & "Higher Ground."

Burton is certainly a personal favorite, but, in all fairness, there have been others who should -- at the very least -- be considered in this discussion.

Natalia said...

I just discovered The Guess Who and went "whoa, who is the singer???". Not just an amazing voice, he uses it so well.. He can be belting it out and and change up to lyrical in the same line or he can change up to ironic, aggressive, sad, all within one song. Unbelievable. No showman though, I watched a couple of videos, when he is not at the keyboard, he practically sings with his hands in his pocket the whole time. I guess all the expression goes to the voice and that's why he is not all that well known. The whole band is just standing there, they are no Arcade Fire. They said themselves that they wore the same clothes to the show they wore all day. But the voice - oh God!

vilstef said...

Burton shares some qualities another of my faves has. Like Van Morrison, he can be very tender and intimate, and can at the turn of a beat, rock the house down. Both can bring it way up, and take it way down-great with dynamics.

jc said...

Regarding Burton Cummings, I couldn't agree more; I recognized his vocal genius the instant I'd heard "These Eyes" in the late '60s. That assessment was reaffirmed with "Laughing" and "Undun", as well as a few lesser known gems on the "Canned Wheat" LP. For me, "American Woman" sealed the deal: This was the greatest voice I'd ever heard, and perhaps would ever hear. Forty-five years later, that sentiment seems set in stone. As I stated in a recent axe grinding concerning the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's inexplicable closed-door policy relative to the illustrious Guess Who: Burton Cummings' voice was perhaps the most mellifluous and tunefully explosive to have ever graced rock and roll. Inclusion of the word "perhaps" was clearly a mistake.

jc said...

Absolutely! Taking it a bit further, however, I'd say that if we think of it in terms of an 800 meter race, BC has lapped the finest also-ran and finished 20 meters ahead.

jc said...
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chessman said...

david johansen because he can also write ballads that don't suck. as well as his past catalouge which is superior to most

Unknown said...

Without a doubt, Burton Cummings had the most
amazing voice. Listen to Albert Flasher, Rain
Dance,Bus Rider, no sugar tonight. BC should have been a superstar.

addnos said...

I've been saying for 20 years that BC's voice is the best ever. I agree on all points.

Unknown said...

I have been saying since 1972 that Burton Cummings is the greatest rock vocalist of all time!

Unknown said...

Burton Cummings has NO peer ! Period,dot com.End of discussion...

Michael Brown said...

I love Burton Cummings as a singer. I agree he could be the best. But I don't think you should dismiss Robert Plant from the discussion. His work on Raising Sand impressed me.