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Band of 'American Woman' fame marks 50th year, plays two shows at casino

COURTESY PHOTO - The latest incarnation of the Guess Who, which includes original drummer Garry Peterson (second from right), plays Chinook Winds in Lincoln City, Jan. 29-30.For 50 years, music from the Guess Who has filled the air waves with the band’s rock music produced in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

Such staying power is unusual, but the Guess Who have done it with such hits as “Share the Land,” “Laughing,” “These Eyes” and the classic that stands as their anthem, “American Woman,” covered in 1999 with great success by Lenny Kravitz. With “American Woman,” the Guess Who became the first Canadian group to have a No. 1 hit on the U.S. Hot 100 list.

The Guess Who broke up in 1975 but reformed in 1977 without Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman (of Bachman-Turner Overdrive) and has been together in some variation ever since. The band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1987, and five original members received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement — Canada’s highest honor in the performing arts.

Two members of the original band that got its start in Winnipeg, Manitoba — drummer Garry Peterson and bass player Jim Kale — are with the group that will play a pair of concerts at Chinook Winds Casino and Resort in Lincoln City on Jan. 29 and 30 (www.chinookwindscasino.com).

The Portland Tribune caught up with Peterson, 70, at his home in Greensboro, N.C.:

Tribune: The Guess Who has played several concerts over the years in Oregon and Southwest Washington. How do you feel about a return?

Peterson: One of my favorite places in the world. I lived in White Rock, British Columbia, for 11 years. My son and grandchildren are still there. I love the Northwest. Oregon is such a beautiful place. The first time I saw the sand dunes at the ocean, I freaked out. Such great stuff. Portland has the Rose Festival ... We’re quite familiar with Oregon. No wonder pioneers wanted to travel in covered wagons to get there.

Tribune: Forty-five years ago this month, “American Woman” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And this is the 50th anniversary year of the Guess Who. Is it hard to believe you’ve been playing rock and roll professionally for more than 50 years?

Peterson: I actually had a career in music even before that. I started playing professionally in 1949. I was a child prodigy. My dad started me playing drums at age 2. For me, playing the drums is like walking.

Tribune: The story of how the band — which was called Chad Allen and the Expressions in 1965 — came to be called the Guess Who is interesting. It happened after your first hit, “Shakin’ All Over” (a cover of a Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song), was released that year, right?

Peterson: The head of Quality Records in Toronto decided because of the British invasion, maybe radio stations wouldn’t play a Canadian act. The thought was, “Let’s put on the label, ‘Shakin’ All over by Guess Who?,’ so people might think it is a British band.” And after that, disc jockeys started calling us that. It was something we didn’t have control over. We didn’t really like the name. It was so close to “The Who.” We wanted to be different. But we had a hit record with it. And anyway, what’s a Beatle? What’s a Rolling Stone? After awhile, you don’t think of what the name is, really. It becomes a sound.

Tribune: You were out of the band for awhile in the ‘70s. Why?

Peterson: The band was broken up in 1975. A few years later, Jim was going to re-form the band and asked me to be in it. I’d just had a child with my first wife in 1976 and was trying to give the family a more conventional style of life. I got a regular job. I was in the hotel business with my father-in-law. A few years after that, Jim approached me again and I came back to the band. ... I’m the only member who played on every hit record. Burton was not with us on “Shakin’ All Over.”

Tribune: Cummings and Bachman never returned to the band after leaving, but you have played with them at times.

Peterson: When I came back after leaving music for awhile, the first person I came back with was Burton. I was in his band when he had the song “Stand Tall.” After that, Randy asked me to be in the BTO reunion in the mid-’80s. He was having trouble getting along with his brother Robbie. You could say I’ve played with everybody in their solo careers. I always say, either I’m a really great drummer or I work cheap.

Tribune: Why did the Guess Who break up in the first place?

Peterson: My feeling was always, “Can’t we all just get along and play?” I still can’t understand why a little band from Winnipeg would work so hard to get your foot in with a major recording, become successful and slam the door in your own face. It was because of greed and ego. no doubt about it. You start believing you’re the whole band, that you created the whole thing and you want the major share. The most successful bands don’t go that way. Yes, you do have a disparity in earning amongst them, but (Cummings and Bachman) wanted a huge disparity. That’s why they went on their own. They didn’t want to share it.

Tribune: Will there ever be a reunion of the original band, including Cummings and Bachman?

Peterson: The only thing I could possibly see if we were put into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’m not sure we’ll ever get that. It’s just not possible that the original band be together. We’ve tried several times. It just doesn’t seem to work. Jim and I own the name and the trademark, and we’ve bent over backwards to try to make a reunion happen. It just never has been enough.

Tribune: What is it about “American Woman” that has made it so enduring?

Peterson: People look at it as a protest song. We didn’t intend it that way. It’s a simple song. It’s one chord. Lenny Kravitz made it a couple. It’s kind of like “Louie Louie.” How do you figure “Louie Louie?”

Tribune: Which, incidentally, was done by a Portland band, the Kingsmen.

Peterson: I know them all personally. We traveled with them on a long tour in 1965 with them as the headliners. They’re really good people. Every once in awhile when we play in that area, the drummer Dick Peterson (no relation) and the keyboard player Barry Curtis have come out to different events of ours.

Tribune: When you played the Nixon White House in 1970, why wouldn’t they let you play “American Woman”?

Peterson: Mrs. Nixon asked us not to play it. She was smart enough to know it was a bit of a slap in the face to the U.S. as far as the lyrics. We said, “You’re hiring us for this gig. If you don’t want us to play our biggest hit, we won’t play it.” ... Little did I know I would end up being an American citizen. It’s like having two parents. Canada was the mother that birthed me and gave me my values and who I am today. The U.S. was the father that gave me my living.

Tribune: In 2003, the Guess Who performed before an estimated crowd of 450,000 at the Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto SARS benefit, the largest ticketed event in Canadian history. What was that like?

Peterson: It was pretty wild. A very hot day. It was so vast. Now that I’ve seen aerial pictures, it kind of hits home. When you’re involved in it, it’s beyond comprehension. It was great to play with the Stones and AC/DC and all the acts that were there. A monumental thing for us. It was my wedding anniversary on my second marriage. We were celebrating. and that was the last performance of the original band.

Tribune: Why has your music continued to resonate with fans after all these years?

Peterson: We have quite a diversity of music. Listen to the 13 albums up there on iTunes. Not the hits, but the rest of the stuff. Then you really get an idea of who the Guess Who were.

Tribune: How good is the current incarnation of the Guess Who?

Peterson: It’s the best Guess Who band that’s ever been, musically and certainly stage-wise. We’re much more interactive with the audience.

Tribune: How much longer do you want to perform with Guess Who?

Peterson: Until they pull me dead off my drums, I guess. I’ve had four operations in the last two years. I’m pretty good now. Maybe I can go on ‘til my 90s.

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