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Randy Bachman discusses the Guess Who, his old pal Neil Young

By Jon Bream • Jan 14, 2019 at 2:21 PM

He pulled the rare feat of landing at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with two different bands. He’s crossed paths with many great guitarists, from Jimmy Page to Neil Young, a pal since they were teenagers. He sold 385 of his Gretsch guitars to the Gretsch Foundation — and still has hundreds of guitars in his collection.

Guess who?

Randy Bachman of the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive.

On his current Every Song Tells a Story tour, he tells the stories behind “American Woman,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and other favorites, backed by a band that features his son, Tal Bachman (who will sing his 1999 hit “She’s So High”).

“It’s basically my story and the intertwining of the guys from Winnipeg — Burton Cummings, Neil Young, Fred Turner, we were all in different bands. There were 150 bands there in the mid-’60s,” says Bachman, 75. “It’s kind of like a ‘Happy Days’ reunion of music of your life.”

Calling from his home in Victoria, British Columbia, Bachman talked about getting a lesson from Les Paul as a teenager, almost getting drafted into the U.S. military and recording in the 1960s in Minneapolis with the Guess Who.

On meeting Les Paul:

When he was 15 or 16, Bachman took a city bus to guitar innovator/jazz star Paul’s gig at a Winnipeg nightclub. He arrived early, stood outside clutching a Paul album and the star invited him into soundcheck. He showed Bachman how to play the guitar licks on Paul’s hit “How High the Moon.”

Because Paul was performing in a supper club that served booze, underage Bachman couldn’t attend but Paul arranged for him to watch from the kitchen through a window in the waitstaff’s door.

In 2001, Bachman joined Paul at the latter’s regular gig in New York City and they jammed on “How High the Moon” and BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business.”

And Winnipeg being a big small town, three years ago, Neil Young told Bachman that he was at that Paul gig in Winnipeg — sitting at the front table with his mother.

On Neil Young:

“He’s one of my oldest guitar friends from Winnipeg,” Bachman explains. “We went to different schools and played in different bands but we’ve always been really good friends. My kids call him Uncle Neil.”

In 2017, Bachman helped induct Young into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, telling stories of their teen days and warbling some Young tunes.

On recording in Minneapolis:

Having appreciated the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” that were recorded in Minneapolis, the Guess Who were willing to drive 400 miles south to use the same studio, Kay Bank, where those hits were recorded.

“They had a three-track recorder and we recorded with Tommy Jung, who became a mastering expert and he still is on the East Coast,” Bachman said. “We went down there quite a bit.”

In Minneapolis, the Guess Who recorded its 1966 album “It’s Time” as well as the song “His Girl,” which became a modest hit in England.

On almost getting drafted in the States:

As they often did, the Guess Who crossed the border with green cards (resident alien cards) to work in the States and one time they were told by a U.S. border agent to stop by the service building with the American flag down the road. But first the band filled up on gasoline.

Recalled Bachman: “The guy at the gas station said it’s the Selective Service office and ‘if you go in there, they’ll draft you. Do yourselves a favor and go back through Duluth and go back to Canada and don’t come back till after the Vietnam War is over.’?”

The Guess Who canceled their Valentine’s gig in Tyler, Texas, and instead booked one in Toronto on a curling rink.

On writing ‘American Woman’:

During that aforementioned curling rink gig, the band took a break so Bachman could replace a broken string on his guitar. While in the darkness, he began playing a riff.

Bachman picks up the story: “Burton Cummings comes onstage and says, ‘What is this? It’s incredible.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I just made it up. Just sing something.’ And he sang ‘American woman stay away from me’ four times. And the crowd went crazy. We wrote ‘American Woman’ onstage and it became No. 1 before American radio realized it was an antiwar protest song. It was about the Statue of Liberty; we Canadians didn’t know what she stood for.”

On leaving the Guess Who in 1970:

Because of gallbladder problems, Bachman was ordered by his doctors to take a break. Plus, the band “was into the drug culture and I wasn’t” and “our tastes in music had changed.” So he stayed home for a couple of years before forming Brave Belt, which evolved into Bachman Turner Overdrive.

On his guitar collection:

“I don’t know how many I have,” he said. He knows he has a 1959 Les Paul model played on “American Woman,” a B.B. King “Lucille” guitar, a Jeff Beck Stratocaster and a Telecaster signed by Bruce Springsteen plus pick guards autographed by Les Paul and Chet Atkins, among other cherished pieces.

On the Guess Who today:

Jim Kale, the quartet’s bass player, trademarked the name in 1978 after the group broke up. A current incarnation sometimes features original drummer Gary Peterson and younger musicians, according to Bachman. “It’s kind of a sham,” the guitarist says. He and lead singer/pianist Cummings get offers to tour together again but both have been dealing with domestic breakups of late.

On ‘Vinyl Tap,’ his CBC radio show:

Since 2005, he has been hosting a weekly radio show in Canada (that’s also now heard on Sirius XM), featuring themes like left-handed guitarists or songs with cowbells. His son Tal helps with the research but Bachman works without a script.

On his George Harrison tribute album:

On “By George,” Bachman interprets Harrison tunes and offers one original, “Between Two Mountains.”

“I was wondering what it was like to be George Harrison and come to a (recording) session with Mount Lennon and Mount McCartney with two dozen great songs and they say, ‘George, do you got a song?’ I think George would appreciate ‘Between Two Mountains.’ It speaks about life.”

On the musical he’s writing:

It’s called “Prairie Town” based on his song of the same name that he recorded with Young (two versions — one slow, one fast). Bachman says the musical tells the 1960s story of a U.S. draft dodger who lands in Winnipeg and gets involved with an aboriginal woman and they go to dances featuring Bachman, Young and other rockers of the era.

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©2019 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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