The band was originally called "Chad Allen and the Reflections," note and issued a few singles under that name in Canada. Then they covered the British hit "Shakin' All Over" (originally by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates), and the record company decided to market it as by "Guess Who?" in an attempt to build an impression that the record was actually performed by a famous British group working incognito. Members of The Beatles, perhaps? The Rolling Stones, maybe? Well, no — just a bunch of kids from Winnipeg.
It's hard to know if anyone was actually fooled by the "Guess Who?" ruse, but listeners still responded to the actual record, which topped the charts in Canada (and was a sizable hit in the US and Australia). As a result, the impromptu new name stuck — eventually becoming The Guess Who. Soon after, Chad Allen left and keyboardist/vocalist Burton Cummings and guitarist Randy Bachman took creative control.
Part of the band's rise to fame in the 1960s is that they refused to play to the dismissive trope of Canada Does Not Exist in North American popular culture. Instead, unlike other acts who went south to the US and downplayed their origins to find their fortune as disguised Americans, The Guess Who defiantly stayed in Canada, proud of their country internationally in reflection of its growing self-confidence that its Centennial helped encourage. For instance, check out this musical TV appearance from this period and notice that the recently established maple leaf Canadian flag is front and center.
That confidence combined with the band's undeniable talent paid off in 1970 when they became the first Canadian rock band to have a #1 US hit single, "American Woman," which reflected much of Canada's distinctive ambivalence living next to a super power, which Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau described as like "sleeping with an elephant."
The band would have a string of international hits that would mark them as Canada's biggest band for years, especially with the 1971 establishment of the Canadian Content broadcast rulings that allowed Canadian acts to have airplay without being overwhelmed by primarily American music. note Some tension between Bachman and the others, partly brought on by Bachman's conversion to Mormonism (a religion he later abandoned) led him to leave the band in 1970, recording a solo album and forming Brave Belt, which morphed into Bachman-Turner Overdrive a few years later, as well as the later bands Ironhorse and Union. Cummings would leave for a successful solo career of his own in 1976, after which The Guess Who disbanded. Bassist Jim Kale gained control of the band name in 1986, and put out various line-ups with no other original members over the years. These lineups generally tour the US but very deliberately avoid Canada, where Canadian concert-goers are steadfastly vociferous that The Guess Who must include Burton Cummings (and very probably Randy Bachman), or they won't bother to show up. In 2023 Bachman and Cummings have filed a lawsuit against the Kale and Peterson for, among other things, using images of Bachman and Cummings, as well as audio of them to promote the current band using the name.
Bachman and Cummings did pay for the right to use the Guess Who name for a wildly successful Canadian tour in 1983, and again from 2000-2003. But Bachman, now also famous as the host of Vinyl Tap on CBC Radio, and Cummings would mostly tour together as the de facto reunited Guess Who as "Bachman-Cummings".
These tropes cry every night for you:
- American Title: The band’s biggest hit, "American Woman".
- Book Ends: The American Woman album begins and ends with the same acoustic blues version of "American Woman".
- Cover Version: Most of their early singles were cover versions, the most notable of which was their first hit, a cover of "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. Other covers include "Tossin' And Turnin'" by Bobby Lewis, "Pretty Blue Eyes" by Steve Lawrence, and "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong" by Buffalo Springfield.
- In the Style of: They did a few songs that were pretty obviously a musical homage to a different artist, like "Undun" (The Zombies), "No Time" (Buffalo Springfield), and "American Woman" (Led Zeppelin). Bachman continued doing this in Bachman-Turner Overdrive, with "Blue Collar" (Santana and Lenny Breau)note and "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" (The Who).
- Listing Cities: "Runnin' Back to Saskatoon" mentions a whole bunch of Canadian locales. Besides Saskatoon, the chorus lists other towns in Saskatchewan (Moose Jaw, Moosomin), plus Alberta (Red Deer, Medicine Hat) and British Columbia (Terrace).
- Lysistrata Gambit: "No Sugar Tonight" was apparently inspired by an actual conversation between a would-be mugger and his partner when she caught him trying to mug a member of the band. She ended by yelling "And one more thing, you ain't gettin' no sugar tonight"; the phrase stuck with Randy Bachman and became the title of a new song.
- Protest Song: "American Woman" is seen by many people (including Randy Bachman and Jim Kale) an analogy to America's cultural domination, which was especially becoming apparent around the time of The Vietnam War. note "Don't come a-hangin' around my door
I don't wanna see your face no more
I don't need your war machines
I don't need your ghetto scenes
Coloured lights can hypnotize
Sparkle someone else's eyes"
- Siamese Twin Songs: "No Sugar Tonight" and "New Mother Nature" were both written separately by Randy and Burton before being combined after the label told them that "No Sugar Tonight" was too short. The two songs are played together on classic rock radio, and the band performs the songs together in their live shows.
- Song Style Shift: "American Woman" has a slow one and a half minute introduction before picking up speed for the remainder.
- Special Guest: Wolfman Jack on "Clap for the Wolfman".
- Spelling Song: The blues intro to "American Woman" features Burton Cummings spelling the word "American".
- Step Up to the Microphone: Burton Cummings originally joined the band as a keyboardist and secondary lead singer, but he became the band's full-time lead singer after Chad Allen (the original frontman) left the band.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Kurt Winter, who replaced Bachman in 1970, not only played guitar and wrote songs like Bachman, he likewise was bearded and heavyset.
- We Used to Be Friends: There was bitterness between Bachman and Cummings after Bachman left in 1970, but they put it behind them in The '80s and have had multiple reunions.
- Word Salad Lyrics: Bachman often went to the "meaningful but cryptic" well in his lyrics ("Undun", "A Wednesday in Your Garden"), while Cummings was a master of the "as long as it fits the meter and sounds good, who cares if it makes sense or not?" school ("Albert Flasher", "Runnin' Back to Saskatoon").