March 3, 2023

From the Vaults: Randy Bachman

     Canadian guitarist Randy Bachman is probably best known as a founding member of both The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive.  While most music fans are not as familiar with the band he formed between those two mega album selling groups, Brave Belt was a bridge between them.  Bachman’s roots ran deep in all three bands.  In a recent broadcast with the Professor of Rock (hereafter to be called Dr. Rock for simplicity sake), Randy shared some anecdotes from his career.  Bachman comes off more like an ‘every man’ than a rock star which makes some of his tales all the more believable.  Perhaps we should start with how he became a guitarist.

     Bachman told Dr. Rock he was fascinated with Scotty Moore from Elvis’s band as well as Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Eddie Cochran.  Randy said, “If you picked up a little from each of those guys, you had the chance to become a pretty good guitar player.”  As one hears in his career spanning catalog of songs, Randy also became a darn good songwriter along the way.  Bachman has a great affinity for the late George Harrison as heard on his 2021 solo LP By George where he put his own spin on The Beatles guitarist’s work. 

     Born on September 27, 1943 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (making him my birthday twin albeit ten years my senior), his ancestry was German on his father’s side and Ukrainian on his maternal side (the later lineage will pop up again in a later anecdote).  His musicality surfaced early when he won radio station CKY’s ‘King of the Saddle’ singing contest at age three.  By age five, he had begun studying violin as part of the Royal Toronto Conservatory system, lessons he continued until age twelve.  Bachman couldn’t read music but he discovered he had a phonographic memory, meaning he could play any piece of music after hearing it once.  Seeing Elvis playing guitar on TV, the 15 year old Randy was inspired to pursue guitar.  His cousin taught him three chords and he began practicing on a modified Hawaiian dobro guitar.  Lenny Breau entered his life when Bachman was 16 and taught him how to finger pick and introduced him to the music of Chet Atkins.

     Randy was disappointed when he was not allowed to see Les Paul perform at a supper club in Winnipeg in 1959 (he was too young and denied entry).  He was, however, able to help the Milwaukee guitar hero setup and break down before and after the show.  Asked by the young guitarist to show him a guitar lick, Paul taught him his own version of How High the Moon.  Obsessed with his new found instrument, Bachman let his school studies slide as he focused on music.  While he passed Grade 9, he ended up repeating both Grade 10 and 11 before finally being expelled for ‘lack of studiousness’.  He did finish his education at Garden City Collegiate before he went on to study business at Red River College (although he did not graduate).

     Teaming up with Chad Allen in 1960, they became Al and the Silvertones, then Chad Allan and the Expressions before later changing names again to The Guess Who.  They first cracked the Canadian Record Charts with  their No. 1 cover of Johnny Kidd’s Shakin’ All Over (which also reached No. 22 in the US).  When Allen left the band in 1966, Burton Cummings became the keyboard player, lead vocalist, and Bachman’s sometime writing partner.  They were well known in their home country and finally crossed over in the United States with the single These Eyes.  Relentless touring and the success of their single helped them sell a lot of copies of Wheatfield Soul (1969), Canned Wheat (1969), and American Woman (1970).  We have previously told the story of how American Woman came to be (FTV:  GW & the Bootlegger 1-25-23) and it was a notable record.  American Woman hit No. 1 on the US Hot 100, a first for a band from Canada. 

      Shortly after the success of American Woman, Bachman left the band at the height of their popularity because he wanted to spend more time with his family.  He was also having difficulty coming to terms with the lifestyle choices of some of his bandmates.  Randy was suffering some health issues of his own with a chronic gallbladder problem so he made the difficult choice to leave the group he had helped found a decade earlier.  Having already recorded a solo instrumental album before he departed The Guess Who (Axe on RCA), one would not expect him to sit on the sidelines very long.  He didn’t as he and his former bandmate Chad Allen formed the country rock band Brave Belt the following year.  With his 18 year old younger brother Robbie on drums (Robbie passed away at the age of 69 as this article was being researched), they eventually recruited bassist/vocalist Fred Turner into the band.  Their heavier sound with Turner on board  led Allen to leave the band to be replaced by another Bachman brother, Tim, as a second guitarist.

     The new lineup of Brave Belt signed a record deal with Mercury records but they were not exactly thriving as a live act.  Bachman told Dr. Rock they were playing at a club in Thunder Bay, Ontario when the owner told them he was going to have to fire them and hire a better dance band to finish the weekend.  They had continued to play a set heavy on the country rock tunes they had been doing with Chad Allen in the band, but people in the clubs didn’t really want to sit and listen to the softer fare.  Club owners wanted the customers up dancing to work up an appetite, order more food, and drink more from the bar.  Randy decided on the spot a change was in order so they finished the night playing old rock and roll standards designed to make the crowd (and thus, the club owner) happy.  The reaction set Bachman’s mind into motion and he began to plot out a new direction for Brave Belt, but not before they worked out the kinks in a song he had previously tried to record with The Guess Who but had never finished..

     Bachman told Dr. Rock an interesting story about recording in New York City when The Guess Who were climbing the charts.  The recording studio owner’s son was the engineer on the job and he just happened to be blind.  Talking to him, Randy learned that the engineer took the train into Grand Central Station every morning, worked at the studio until 10 am, and then boarded the train for home.  Bachman was fascinated and with no previous experience working with a blind person, he asked if he could accompany the young man to the station to see how it was possible for him to navigate in a busy city without help.  The engineer agreed but only if Bachman did not talk to him on the walk to the station.

     When they left the studio, the engineer counted the number of steps to a busy intersection.  When the crosswalk sign chirped it was okay to cross (an accommodation for sightless people waiting to cross), he then counted the number of steps to the front door of the rail station.   Randy was fascinated and as they talked waiting for the train, the seed of a song popped into his head.  The engineer always wore a buttoned down white shirt and the title of the song Bachman heard in his head was White Collar Worker.  As he explained it, the young man said he always came in to the station on the 8:15 train, “Because all the young girls would be in the restrooms doing their makeup to make them look pretty.”  He left the studio each day at 10 am because the streets were deserted until the morning theater shows were over at 10:30.

     As Bachman explained it, the rest of The Guess Who hated the song.  He admits it was his attempt to copy The Beatles Paperback Writer, right down to the part in the chorus where they do the call and echo refrain of Paperback writer, writer writer, only in his song it would have been White collar worker, worker, worker.  The rest of the lyrics about Get up in the morning to the alarm clock warning, take the 8:15 into the city were pretty well done, but the song sat on the shelf until the night they changed up their set to a more dance friendly formula.  On the way to the gig, Randy heard a disk jockey on the radio mention he was, “Taking care of business,” which he filed away as a great idea for a song title.

     During the last set at the aforementioned club, Bachman began playing his unfinished song White Collar Worker but when he got to the chorus, he dropped in Taking Care of Business instead of the original lyric.  The crowd loved it and Brave Belt was on the cusp of a new direction.  Bachman said he isn’t much of a singer (“I do gang vocals and harmony but have never been much of a vocalist”) but that night at the club, he had no choice.  Fred Turner lost his voice and Randy had to sing the last set.  As a result, they jammed their new tune in the making for twenty five minutes.  They not only had the outline of a new sound, but a new name in the offing:  Bachman – Turner Overdrive.  When it came time to record Taking Care of Business, the band insisted he take the lead vocal.  When the record company heard the song, they weren’t sure of its potential and picked Let It Ride as the lead single instead.  Bachman could not put his finger on it, but the track seemed to be missing something.

     The rest of the story he related to Dr. Rock sounds like a bit of serendipity in action.  Near the end of a fourteen hour recording session, there was a knock at the studio door.  There stood a bushy haired, bearded pizza delivery guy dressed in camo wondering if they had ordered the pies.  They said, “Nope, it wasn’t us” and they sent him down the hall to see if it was the Steve Miller Band or War (who were in the process of recording Fly Like an Eagle and Why Can’t We Be Friends albums in other studios).  A while later, a second knock came – it was the camo guy again who said, “You know, that song you are working on needs some piano.  I don’t just deliver pizzas, I am also a piano player.”  It took a little convincing but in the end, they let him add piano to the track and then called it a night.  Think about the song Taking Care of Business and try to imagine it without the rollicking ‘plink, plink plink’ piano part.  The band had just planned on  forgetting the piano part, but when the producer heard it the next day, he was really excited about what it added to the song.  They had neglected to even ask the camo/pizza/piano guy’s name, so now they had to track him down to get his permission to use it.  

     The pizza delivery had gone to the War session but nobody remembered where they had ordered the pizza from.  After some detective work spent calling every pizza joint in the immediate vicinity, they got a name and made contact with him, thus earning him a spot on one of the biggest records released in 1974.  Ironically, Randy said the next time they ran into him was at a gig they did at the Greek Theater where the Los Angeles Philharmonic regularly perform.  Sure enough, camo/pizza/piano guy, Norman Durkee, was now playing with the L.A. orchestra so he was telling the truth when he said he wasn’t just a pizza delivery guy.  With Taking Care of Business and Let It Ride reaching Nos. 12 and 23 in the US Charts, Bachman – Turner Overdrive II was a huge commercial success.  When their third album, Not Fragile came out in 1974, it garnered massive radio play and the albums flew off the shelf.

     At the time Barry and I were putting together a new band in the late summer of 1974, our song selections leaned heavily on The Doobie Brothers and BTO.  Considering we named the new band ‘Sledgehammer’ (a track from Not Fragile) and covered five tracks from that album gives one a pretty good idea of what our set list sounded like.  Ironically, Sledgehammer is one of the tunes we decided not to play.  When Mike (bass) and Lindsey (guitar) joined the band, they were all for our heavier sound, but both soon got tired of playing Taking Care of Business.  Their favorite trick was to sing the chorus backward (Business taking care of) to see if anyone noticed.  They got their butts chewed by a bar owner one night when they dropped in a less than overt drug reference into Smoke On The Water (they sang the chorus as ‘Toke on a number’) and that pretty much put an end to singing goofy lyrics to popular songs.  For my part, I never got tired of playing any of our songs, especially the ones that got people on the dance floor.

     Bachman has been married twice and can now count 26 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren as part of his clan.  His son Tal is a noted guitarist in his own right and they do shows together whenever they get the chance.  His daughter Lorelei is also a writer/musician.  Among the health problems Randy has battled, perhaps the most severe was his morbid obesity.  When a doctor said he was ‘morbidly obese’ he realized that the ‘morbid’ part meant ‘death’.  Through diet and exercise, he was able to shave 60 pounds from his 380 frame, but during the downtime caused by the 9/11 terrorist attack, his overeating caused him to (again) gain a great deal of weight.  After hearing about his friend Brian Wilson’s daughter undergoing gastric-bypass surgery, he consulted with a physician to have the same procedure.  By 2006, he had reached his 225 target weight which he says allowed him to continue to perform.

     Bachman left BTO in 1977 and eventually signed over his rights to the band’s name to other band members.  I had seen BTO perform at Hedgecock Fieldhouse at NMU after guitarist Blair Thorton had replaced Tim Bachman in the lineup.  They were a great live band but I wondered how they would carry on when he left the band.  The last time BTO came through Marquette, drummer Robbie Bachman was the only remaining original member.  Not one to burn his bridges, Randy has collaborated and toured with members of his past bands including The Guess Who, Burton Cummings, Fred Turner, and any number of all-star units (like Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band).  A listing of his recorded work would require more room than we have here so I will simply refer you to his web site on whatever digital device you prefer.

     Two of the funniest stories Bachman told Dr. Rock also went back to the night Brave Belt converted into a covers band.  One of the first songs they started jamming was Santana’s Oye Como Va which Bachman says he loved the guitar riff for, but he didn’t know any of the Spanish lyrics.  How does one sing a song with Spanish lyrics if one does not speak the lingo?  Randy credits his Ukrainian heritage:  “If anyone was listening, I was inserting the names of ethnic Ukrainian foods that kind of sounded Spanish.”  As for copying Paperback Writer for his White Collar Worker/ Taking Care of Business song, he reminded Dr. Rock that The Beatles had more or less borrowed the framework for Paperback Writer from Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode.


Top Piece Video:  How can we do BTO without Taking Care of Business – for fun try the chorus as white Collar worker, worker, worker