Mike Morsch’s new book The Vinyl Dialogues: Stories Behind Memorable Albums of the 1970s as Told by the Artists uncovers the origin stories behind nearly three dozen LPs from the era of vintage singer-songwriters and long-haired classic rockers. In this exclusive excerpt, Morsch delves into the tangled history behind one of the decade’s most inescapable hits — The Guess Who’s “American Woman.”
“American Woman, Stay Away From Mrs. Nixon”
First Lady Pat Nixon was throwing a party and she wanted some of the popular musicians of the times to provide the entertainment. It was the early 1970s and her husband, President Richard Nixon, hadn’t yet been tainted by the Watergate scandal.
The party, held on the White House lawn, was a big deal. So big a deal, in fact, that the guests of honor were Britain’s Princess Ann and Prince Charles, the British ambassador at the time, as well as the children of the biggest contributors to Richard Nixon’s second successful presidential campaign.
The musical guests were Gary Puckett — who was performing with the U.S. Marines Band — and The Guess Who, a Canadian group that had scored three chart hits in 1970: “No Time,” which reached No. 5, and “No Sugar Tonight” and “American Woman,” both No. 1 singles, off the album American Woman, which reached No. 9 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart.
The Guess Who — which included Burton Cummings on lead vocals and guitar, Randy Bachman on guitar and vocals, Jim Kale on bass and vocals, and Garry Peterson on drums, percussion, and vocals — was hot. But the Nixon White House didn’t want the band to play the song “American Woman” at the party because of its controversial lyrics that included references to the continued social unrest at the time, and the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.
And the band agreed not to play it.
“I think someone in the White House — and you can be assured that it wasn’t Mrs. Nixon — pointed out, and they were right, that ‘American Woman’ was a bit controversial because it wasn’t about American women, it was about commentary,” said Peterson, the original and current drummer of the Guess Who.
“But I guess Mrs. Nixon found out, and she said,‘Well, this is not appropriate, we can’t have this.’ So they came to our people and said, ‘We would rather you not play this song.’ And our attitude was, ‘Fine. We’re here to entertain people and make them feel good. We’re not here to cause problems. So if you’re hiring us and paying us and you don’t want us to play our biggest hit, that’s up to you,’” said Peterson.
“We didn’t have any problems with that because we’re a Canadian band. We weren’t getting on a soapbox and saying, ‘You shouldn’t be in this war!’” Peterson said it ended up being a great gig, despite the band not playing its biggest hit. Band members never left the White House lawn; they never entered the White House to look around or meet the President and Mrs. Nixon.
“I think Tricia Nixon [the President’s daughter] was a fan, but I never got to talk to her,” said Peterson. “We were no different than the security staff. We were hired and did our thing.”
Peterson said that there were a lot of young adult children of U.S. senators on the guest list — kids who would have been fans of the popular music and culture of the times. And he did hear one story through the band’s manager that caused him some concern at the time.
“They had round tables where you sat for dinner. I think one senator’s daughter pulled out a bag of grass and put it on the table. Our manager went crazy and said, ‘Are you nuts?’ She could get by with it because she was a senator’s daughter, but we were all Canadians with visas here in the States and all we needed was some kind of scandal like that,” said Peterson. The White House gig proved to be just one of the interesting aspects surrounding American Woman, The Guess Who’s seventh album, and “American Woman,” the single.
According to Peterson, the story of American Woman the album is not just about the single of the same name and how it got recorded in a studio in Chicago, but why it happened the way it did.
It was purely because until that point, the band wasn’t getting the quality of recordings that it wanted, Peterson said. The two previous albums, Wheatfield Soul in 1968 and Canned Wheat in 1969, were produced by Jack Richardson and recorded in New York studios for record company RCA.
“But then RCA made a fateful mistake,” said Peterson. “They wanted us to use their studio on the east side of New York, which was the studio where Woody Herman and Benny Goodman and all these guys — the big bands that were on RCA at the time — recorded. And the studio was ancient, with ancient equipment and ancient guys running it.” Canned Wheat was recorded at that studio and featured the singles “No Time,” “Laughing,” and “Undun.”
“They’re hits today, but they weren’t [hits] on that album,” Peterson said, “because the band was so unhappy with the sound on that album.
“And we thought, ‘We’re wasting good songs on this terrible-sounding album,’” said Peterson. Richardson made the decision to go back to A&R Recording, Inc. on West 48th Street and rerecord “Laughing” and “Undun.”
“Those songs sound nothing like the rest of the [Canned Wheat] album,” said Peterson. “And that’s because they were done in a different studio than the one [the record company officials] forced us to use.” That left the single “No Time” floundering on the Canned Wheat album. And the studio quality issues that The Guess Who were experiencing needed a solution, at least to the band’s satisfaction.
“We needed a small, intimate studio,” said Peterson. “Finally, Jack [Richardson] got RCA to allow us to look for a studio in its system and he found the one in Chicago — and that is the beginning of the American Woman album.” Peterson attributes the success of the American Woman album to the band bonding with a studio, in this instance with the RCA/Mid-America Recording Studio in Chicago.
“We did a lot of albums in that studio,” said Peterson. “You have to be comfortable in the studio because you spend a lot of hours there. There are times when you run into the wall when recording and nothing sounds right and nothing works. We had a ping-pong table set up there. We had hockey sticks and we’d play ball hockey in the studio, just to kind of relieve the tension. Some days we got nothing done, but most of the time we really did well,” he said.
The American Woman album was built around the single of the same name, and was essentially written by the band while onstage in what amounted to a jam session.
The band had gone back to Canada to do two shows just outside of Toronto. By that time, hits “These Eyes” and “Laughing” were placed on a double-sided 45 rpm record, which, according to Peterson, wasn’t being done by many artists then.
“So we were a fairly big thing in Canada by that time. We were the local guys who had made good in the States. It was very tough to do that coming from a place like Winnipeg, the middle of nowhere, that wasn’t particularly a media center,” said Peterson.
“So we came back and played the shows. We had just done some extensive touring and we’d seen racial unrest in the United States,” said Peterson. “We’d go into airports and there would be these young kids, soldiers going off to Vietnam. They were scared out of their minds. They didn’t know what they were doing or where they were going, and they didn’t know why. It wasn’t like the other two wars [World Wars I and II] where you kind of knew what you were fighting for.
“We saw that, and we also saw them in airports coming back [from Vietnam], totally screwed up, with a glaze in their eyes. We saw the beginning of it and the end of it for a lot of young men.
“All of this, coming from Canada, which really didn’t have those problems yet. It was foreign to us; we didn’t know what to make of it. It was disturbing and frustrating on all those levels,” said Peterson.
That highly charged political atmosphere in the U.S., and their unfamiliarity with it, were what the band members were dealing with on that night in the Toronto area where they were scheduled to play two shows. There were many bigwigs from RCA there, as was Richardson, the band’s producer.
“It was quite a scene backstage. It was sort of a homecoming in a way for us,” said Peterson. “And we took a break. When it was time to go back onstage, we couldn’t find Burton [Cummings]. He was out talking to some fans and friends. So we decided to go back onstage and make some noise so Burton would hear that and come running.”
At the time, Peterson was listening to the music of a band called The Electric Flag, and to Buddy Miles, who played double bass drums. There were a lot of great rhythmic sounds on the 1968 Electric Flag album A Long Time Comin’ that appealed to Peterson.
“I started to play on the bass drum and then Randy [Bachman] started to play the guitar and so we were groovin’ onstage,” said Peterson. “Of course, Burton came running out and he just started to sing some words. I’m sure all this experience we had in the States resulted in him singing, ‘American woman, stay away from me.’ Because it wasn’t about American women, it was about the country.”
The crowd went nuts, and the band played the song at every gig from then on because it was becoming more and more successful.
“It was kind of like The Guess Who going harder rock. Not that we weren’t. But we had ballads, ‘These Eyes’ and ‘Laughing.’ This gave us an opportunity to not be a ballad band,” said Peterson.
“American Woman” refined itself and morphed. And then when the band was finally satisfied with the lyrics and the music, it went into the Chicago studio to record the single and the album.
“We didn’t want to be a ballad band. Burton’s favorite guy was Jim Morrison, so he wanted to be like Jim Morrison,” said Peterson. “RCA said, ‘Give us another ballad to solidify yourselves [which ended up being the re-recording of “No Time” off the Canned Wheat album that became the second cut on the American Woman album] and then you can do what you want to do.’ In a sense, they were right and in a sense, we were right, too. It worked out well.”
The album cover for American Woman features the faces of the four band members superimposed over a colorized photo of a woman’s face.
“RCA was a corporate company and it did its own thing,” said Peterson. “Now we had the right of refusal, and a lot of times the corporate guys came up with covers that we didn’t want. But we liked this one.” The back of the album features a photo of the band members in an ice cream shop in New York City, taken by a staff photographer for RCA.
“Of course the studio wanted you to use its staff. Why wouldn’t we have gotten one of the most famous rock photographers of the time? Because we would have had to pay for that ourselves,” said Peterson. But Peterson thinks the inside cover of the album is far more interesting. It features the lyrics to the songs on the record over the top of “ghosted” photos provided by each of the band members.
“That’s all our baby pictures. Go to the top left corner, that’s me and my mom. She knitted that sweater for me,” said Peterson. “Go to the lefthand side, bottom right. Look very closely. There’s a little guy with a cowboy hat and a little car. That’s a Jeep my father made for me. I’m about three years old there. Those are all our baby pictures and nobody knows that.
“People have had that album for more than 40 years and they still don’t know that. They’re busy focusing on the lyrics.”
Even after all the years that have passed, Peterson still believes that the demise of the original band was about money, ego, and greed.
“The biggest song we ever had [‘American Woman’] you could say was a collaboration onstage,” said Peterson. “What’s the only No. 1 song the band ever had? ‘American Woman,’ although arguably the flip side, which was ‘No Sugar Tonight,’ charted No. 1 at the same time. So it was a double-sided No. 1 record. The only other [musicians who] ever did that were Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. I’m not saying we’re in that company, but just for that one thing we were, and that’s something that nobody can ever take away from us.
“But we really never did that again. We all put [‘American Woman’] together on stage. Arguably Burton came up with the lyrics because he sang them on stage every night and he tried to do something different. But nobody ever came to us and said, ‘Why don’t we sit down and write a song together?’ None of the songwriters [Cummings and Bachman] ever wanted to do that and I know in my heart it was because once you did that, you had to share the credit and there was less money for them.
“I didn’t know it at the time, I was just happy to be a team member,” said Peterson. “You look at some of the bigger bands that are successful and they have always taken care of all their members. The ones that aren’t successful didn’t take care of all their members.
“The two writers, Randy and Burton, could have changed that. We could have done a group song on every album and it would have given a source of revenue to the other guys. I would have done that. And why? Because when everybody is happy, everybody is happy,” said Peterson. “And that’s the reason the band broke up, I believe. I don’t say this with malice. I wish nothing but the best for everybody in the band.”
As for the creative aspect of recording in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Peterson said it was a simpler time, when bands were allowed to develop and create.
“We were very fortunate in that we were recording in an era where we were allowed to do just about anything,” he said.
“The corporate mark of what is the formula for selling was not refined the way it is now. “I feel very fortunate in my life to have been able to do what I have done. And I’m still doing it.”