Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Burton Cummings: My Own Way To Rock

Today’s feature is an oldie (but not a moldie) as Burton Cummings rocks out with his former band the Guess Who on one of his solo hits, “My Own Way To Rock.” This was the title cut from Cummings second solo album after leaving the Guess Who and, as he pounds the keys, he proves that the primal rock and roll instrument was not the guitar, but the piano. In the song he evokes memories of Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Whether he is fronting his own band or the Guess Who, Burton proves that he is a class act.

I missed this tune when it was released in 1977, as it apparently was not given any airplay in the Huntington (WV)/Ashland (KY) radio market. If they were looking for a ballad like Cummings' previous hit, they were looking at the wrong record. This may be the reason why“My Own Way to Rock’s” only had a dismal chart performance at #74. I never heard this song until 1982 and this was when I was introduced to it by a trio of musicians: Keith Fain, Meredith Trent, and Dave Cook.

This trio was looking to expand to a quintet and I was recommended by a mutual friend, Greg Morrison, to try out. I had two keyboards at the time – a Wurlitzer Electric Piano and a Sequential Circuits Pro One monophonic synthesizer. I brought my Silvertone Twin Twelve Amp and keyboards to Meredith’s home where they had me audition.

Luckily, I passed and one of the songs they had me try out on was a number they already had worked up as a trio – “My Own Way To Rock.” After auditioning a few female vocalists, a friend of Keith’s, Debrin Bennett (now Debrin Jenkins), was asked to audition, and she was hired on the spot. The band was named Audio Game, as a twist on the video game craze sweeping the nation.

Prophet 5 Synth

We had great synergy with this band and I always loved playing this song that they introduced to me. By the time we had our first gig in December 82, I had added an Farfisa-like organ made by Roland, but sold under the brand name of Ace Tone, and a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. The keyboard sitting on top of Burton Cummings' piano is the Prophet 5. This was the standard keyboard that every keyboardist in 1982 had to have. Originally sold with 40 sounds, Sequential Circuits added 80 sounds in late 1982 and offered a retrofit kit for owners of the 40 bank model.

The list price on the Prophet 5 at the time was $6,000. I was fortunate that my boss at WCIR, Shane Southern, had purchased one to use at the radio station at cost for $3,000 earlier in the year. Shane was impressed with the helicopter sounds that were used in the film "Apocalypse Now," and so he purchased it hoping that we could use it for sound effects.  I was the only one that fooled with it and Shane, wishing to re-coop his investment, sold it to me for his cost of $3,000.

I had to take out two loans (which I did simultaneously without communicating this to either bank). One loan was for $1,000 for a year and the other was for $2,000 for two years. I ordered the retrofit for the additional 80 sounds and had it sent to the nearest authorized repair center, Hollywood Music in McKees Rocks, PA.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, I secured the store to do the work on Black Friday. When I arrived at the store that morning, they had not yet received the kit. We worked out a deal that I could meet them the next weekend at WVU, as their technicians were to be installing a sound system in the Mountain Lair. I did and they did the work on the spot, just in time for our first gig the next weekend.

As far as I know, only two bands in Southern West Virginia had a Prophet 5 – Audio Game and my friend Roger Riser in Fantasia. Roger is a much better player than me and could really make the Prophet sing.

As for the Prophet, I played the horn parts during the riff that Randy Bachman plays on guitar on “My Own Way to Rock.” Mostly, I played the Wurlitzer on this song and was given two solos that were split by Keith’s guitar solo. One I did on the Wurlitzer and the other on harmonica. This is the song that is responsible for me beating the electric piano to death. I don’t know how many reeds I broke during gigs on that song, but I bought a whole slew of them and got pretty adept at switching out reeds and tuning them during a 20 minute break between sets. The reeds all came in one size and a soldiering iron a set of small files were need to get the tines to the right pitch in a hurry.

By the time I unloaded the Wurlitzer in 1987, it had been played so hard the pickups were dying. In order to get enough volume in the upper register, I had to play it though a wah-wah pedal that was wide open. What memories. Keith, Meredith, and I were in three bands, and with every one, “My Own Way to Rock” was a song we played every night.

As mentioned earlier that the primal rock instrument was the piano, let me introduce to you what is considered by many as the first rock and roll song: Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” The song was a tribute to the recently introduced Oldsmobile Rocket 88. The song contains a rocking piano, saxophones, and distorted guitar.

This may be the first recording of distortion, and according to Ike Turner, the guitar amp had been left in the trunk of the car and got wet. The song was recorded at Sam Phillips Sun Records in Memphis in 1951. Phillips sold the masters to Leonard & Phil Chess of Chicago and the record was released under lead vocalist Jackie Brenston’s name instead of the band’s name: Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm. Ike, in his characteristic style, was not amused by the mixup.

Jackie Brenston: “Rocket 88”

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