This Day in Music Spotlight: The Guess Who Rankle Pat Nixon
May 9, 1970
Sean Patrick Dooley
Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
Guess who had their band’s name chosen for them by accident? That simple question is also the answer – The Guess Who had their name chosen by accident. It all started back in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1963, when a band called Al and the Silvertones, an act heavily influenced by the British Invasion bands, cut and released a few singles. They soon changed their name to Chad Allan and the Expressions, which they held until 1965, when singer-guitarist Allan left the band.
Around that same time, the American label, Scepter, decided that it wanted to release some of the now-nameless band’s music in America, so they hatched a plan to have a contest where fans could submit suggestions to rename the band. While the contest was in full swing, Scepter released a 45 of the nameless band’s cover of the Johnny Kidd classic “Shakin’ All Over.” The band credited on the 45 was simply “Guess Who?” Lo and behold, “Shakin’ All Over” became a #1 hit in Canada and a Top 25 hit in the States – a stroke of good fortune which also led people to conclude that the band’s name was “Guess Who?” The band decided that the name was a catchy and original as any other band name out there, so they decided to keep it (they dropped the “?” shortly thereafter).
When the summer of 1965 rolled around, The Guess Who, whose members included guitarist Randy Bachman, bassist Jim Kale, singer Burton Cummings and drummer Gerry Patterson, began touring the States. They also landed their own television show in Canada called “Let’s Go.” In 1968, The Guess Who got a distribution deal through RCA Records, and the following year they released their debut album, Wheatfield Soul, which spawned their first million-selling single, “These Eyes.” Next up was their sophomore disc, Canned Wheat, and a couple more decent hits, “Laughing” and “Undun,” as well as the Top 5 hit “No Time.”
Times were good for The Guess Who, and they were about to get a whole lot better with the release of the title track to their American Woman album in March of 1970. Co-written by all four members of the band, the song got its start when, as legend has it, after Bachman broke a string during a gig in Kitchener, Ontario, and began vamping “American Woman’s” iconic riff just to keep the crowd going. The other guys joined in on the noodling, including singer, Cummings, who began improvising lyrics. Unbeknownst to the band, someone in the audience was taping their set. The bootlegger presented the tape to the band, who so loved the improvised jam that they decided to make a proper song out it.
Upon its release, “American Woman” (coupled with its B-side, future hit “No Sugar Tonight”) was an instant smash. It skyrocketed to #1 on the U.S. charts on this date in 1970, where it stayed for three consecutive weeks. Despite the song’s success, there was some controversy surrounding the interpretation of “American Woman’s” lyrics, which some believed to be anti-American. The controversy was such that upon their invitation to play at the White House, First Lady Pat Nixon requested they not play “American Woman.”
About the lyrics, co-songwriter Kale told SuperSeventies.com: “The popular misconception was that it was a chauvinistic tune, which was anything but the case. The fact was, we came from a very strait-laced, conservative, laid-back country, and all of a sudden, there we were in Chicago, Detroit, New York – all of these horrendously large places with their big city problems. After that one particularly grinding tour, it was just a real treat to go home and see the girls we had grown up with. Also, the war was going on, and that was terribly unpopular. We didn’t have a draft system in Canada, and we were grateful for that.
“A lot of people called it anti-American,” Kale continued, “But it wasn’t really. We weren’t anti-anything. John Lennon once said that the meanings of all songs come after they are recorded. Someone else has to interpret them.”