Meet the Petersons It’s hard to guess who’s the star in this household
Watching Garry Peterson ease onto his seat and settle in behind his drum kit is very much akin to watching an artist gaze upon his easel before applying his oils or acrylics to a blank canvas. As he picks up his sticks and brushes and gives a few quick flams and paradiddles to the toms, snares and cymbals, he is not unlike a master craftsman preparing to ply his trade. Once he adjusts the bass drum and floor cymbal pedals and makes sure the mics are properly aligned, he is every bit the perfectly composed airline pilot taxiing down the runway before takeoff. And then, when he glances at his bandmates, raises his sticks and begins counting off the song, he enters the realm of the philharmonic conductor raising his baton as the orchestra responds as one.
Indeed, here is a man in his element, the master of his domain, the pro’s pro exuding an air of confidence and assuredness that fairly washes over the assembled masses.
This is what 56 years of practice looks like.
This is what 20 Top 40 hits with a band that should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame looks like.
This is what integrity, balance, humility, grace, harmony, wisdom, loyalty, eloquence and prodigious talent look like.
This is what Garry Peterson, drummer and founding member of the Guess Who, looks like.
The Canadian Invasion
Garry Peterson has no memory of life before drums. His father, a drummer during the heyday of cafÃ© society in the ’40s and ’50s, put the first pair of sticks in his oldest son’s hands at age two and by four the prodigy had already played a professional gig. By junior high school he had joined his first band, called the Embers, and by high school had become somewhat of a musical hotshot in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, playing with one of the two top groups in town, Mickey Brown and the Velvetones. The other big local act was Al and the Silvertones, and the best players from each band joined forces to form what would eventually become the Guess Who.
‘“I’ve known [guitarist] Randy Bachman since junior high,’” says Garry, ‘“and [bassist] Jim Kale almost that long. The top musicians in a rather small town like Winnipeg seemed to gravitate toward each other; it was kind of like forming an all-star team. [Vocalist] Burton Cummings was in a group called the Devrons, and a little later we added him too. So we had the Guess Who right there within a few miles radius.’”
But before that they were Chad Allen and the Reflections and then Chad Allen and the Expressions. Using the latter moniker, in 1965 they released a cover of ‘“Shakin’ All Over,’” which went to No. 1 in Canada and No. 22 in America.
The name that stuck originated as a marketing ploy. Their label, Quality Records, released the album that contained ‘“Shakin’ All Over’” in a plain white jacket with only the words ‘“Guess Who?’” written on it. It was meant to imply that they were another of the British Invasion bands, but the fact that they were from Canada made them international enough, one supposes, to create a stir among American record-buying audiences.
One cannot dismiss the fact, however, that the band’s sound, in and of itself, had them earmarked for stardom. They released ‘“These Eyes’” in 1968, which became a million-seller, reaching No. 1 in Canada and No. 3 in America and earning them a US contract with RCA. Their next album for RCA yielded Top 10s ‘“Laughing’” and ‘“No Time’” plus a Top 40, ‘“Undun.’”
Then came the signature, ‘“American Woman,’” which unseated the Beatles at No. 1 for three weeks in March 1970. The B-side, ‘“No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature,’” also went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Bachman left to form Bachman Turner Overdrive shortly thereafter, but his departure did little to slow down the hit parade. Among them were ‘“Hand Me Down World,’” ‘“Share The Land,’” ‘“Bus Rider’” and ‘“Clap for the Wolfman.’”
When lead singer Cummings went solo in 1975, the band broke up temporarily and Garry made his only foray into the 9-to-5 world.
‘“I went into hotel management, working for my father-in-law,’” he says. ‘“I had a wife and infant son and had never had the opportunity to live as a normal person. I also sold insurance for a year, and it did me good to get out [of music] for awhile. My wife had the intuition that I needed to get back in music, though, so it all worked out.’”
The original Guess Who has gotten back together a few times for reunion tours over the years, but Garry and original bassist Jim Kale claim that the current lineup ‘— with Carl Dixon on vocals and guitars; Leonard Shaw on keyboards, flute, sax and vocals; and Bobby Bilan on guitars, theremin and vocals ‘— is so polished and true to the original sound that no one has ever complained.
‘“When people ask me if Burton Cummings is with the band,’” quips Garry, ‘“I simply say, ‘Have you heard Carl?’ That’s all that needs to be said.’”
Garry, incidentally, is the only founding member of The Guess Who to have played on every recording. He also worked with Bachman in BTO and Cummings in his solo band, and once turned down an offer to join Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band.
‘“Either I’m really good or I work cheap,’” he chuckles.
Let’s go with the former.
The loves of his life
Most Greensboro residents ‘— until recently, at least ‘— would have no inkling that a major rock star has been living in their midst for the past 14 years. And some, no doubt, are incredulous that he would eschew the bright lights of LA or New York and choose this burg to settle down in. Yet when asked, he has the perfectly logical answer. Pointing to his gorgeous, effervescent wife, he smiles and replies, ‘“Her. She’s the reason.’”
Greensboro native Kim Culbreth was a 23-year-old concertgoer when she happened to meet Garry. With an uncanny ability to remember dates, names and numbers, she recounts the chance encounter in vivid detail.
‘“I’d met Randy Bachman’s brother when BTO was playing Joker’s on Spring Garden Street a few years before,’” she recalls. ‘“When I found out they were opening for Van Halen on their 51-50 Tour, I asked him if he could get me and my brother backstage when they played the Greensboro Coliseum. The date was May 16, 1986.’”
At this point in the story, Garry interjects, ‘“She has a photographic memory for numbers. It’s bad having a wife like that; it gives her an unfair advantage.’”
Kim returns his cryptic smile, gives him one of those attuned-to-the-same-wavelength love taps, and picks up the thread.
‘“We met that night, saw each other a couple of times afterward, but then I didn’t hear from him for fourteen months,’” she says. ‘“Then out of the blue he calls me and says ‘I’m back with the Guess Who and we’re playing in Charlotte, why don’t you come down?’ Still, at that point it was just a fling, no big deal.’”
But then something changed and, again, Kim remembers the turning point with crystal clarity.
‘“They came here in eighty-eight and played the old Dadio’s on High Point Road. The next day I dropped him off at the airport, and as I was walking back to my car I started crying. I knew right then and there that I was in love. Then, in eighty-nine they were doing a Dick Clark American Bandstand tour and I semi-invited myself to go to Florida and spend a week with him on tour.’”
By now it was getting serious, and a couple of years later Garry decided to pull up stakes in Vancouver, where he had lived since 1980, and move here. And not surprisingly, Kim remembers the date: ‘“It was March 26, 1991.’”
There is one significant date that Garry doesn’t have to rely on the love of his life to remember. ‘“We got married on July 30, 1993,’” he says with a grin that underscores his sense of serenity.
Even now, 12 years hence, these two act like they’re still on their honeymoon. This is no act for the visiting journalist and photographer, mind you; they still make goo-goo eyes at each other like a couple of starry-eyed teenyboppers. They finish each other’s sentences; they have the same tastes and interests; they hold hands; they defend one another. They may or may not subscribe to the soulmate theory, but they seem to radiate a love that exists outside of space and time.
‘“Aside from her outer beauty she has that rare inner beauty that makes her so amazing,’” says Garry, unprompted. ‘“But what’s even more amazing is that there’s an eighteen-year age difference in us, but we like all the same things. How can a woman that young know all the John Wayne movies, Charlie Chaplin movies, old war movies, even silent movies? How could she love football and watch three games with me every Sunday? How could I meet a woman that I could actually pick out her clothes for her? We like the same cars and furniture and decorating ideas and food and on and on. Three or four times a day one of us will say something and the other will say, ‘I just had that very same thought.’ It’s uncanny.’”
Irrespective of his observable love for his wife, there are other passions in his daily routine that explain how he has arrived at this station in life. Garry credits a number of factors for allowing him to remain unscathed from the stereotypical pitfalls of the rock star existence. He avoided the obvious ones ‘— drug and/or alcohol abuse ‘— and credits his upbringing for instilling in him the values of hard work and honesty.
‘“My father taught me that work is honorable, no matter what level it’s at,’” he says. ‘“Whether you’re a professional person or a laborer, it doesn’t matter; it is honorable to work. When I first moved here, I went to work with Kim’s landscaping business. Some people may have wondered, ‘What’s this big rock star doing out here pulling weeds and picking up trash?’ But it didn’t bother me one bit, because if you’re a landscaper you be the best landscaper you can be. It’s that simple.’”
There may be yet another ingredient in Garry’s mental makeup that explicates his level of success and satisfaction: the mere fact that he is not a one-dimensional man. He has a wide array of interests, an inquisitive nature and a fertile imagination. He has, now and always, a life outside of music.
‘“A lot of performers really don’t have any interests outside of music,’” he notes, ‘“and they fall victim to all the perils. I’m fortunate in that I have so many things I enjoy doing. I love golf, I love gardening and planting things, roses and azaleas and Japanese gardens. These are all forms of art.
‘“I’m a rabid Carolina Panthers fan. I am fascinated by history, especially the Napoleonic era and the American Civil War. When I look at the world as it exists now and in the past and how it changes, I see so many things to get high on. I think I need all these diverse things to keep my attention and to keep my creative juices flowing.
‘“There’s a line in the Clint Eastwood movie, Heartbreak Ridge, that I was just thinking about this morning. He’s a platoon leader and one of his men asks him how they’re supposed to know something, and Eastwood replies, ‘You adapt and improvise.’ That’s me, I adapt and improvise.’”
Home and hearth
These days the 60-year-old transplanted Canadian is a contented man. He wears it in the effortless way he balances his home life and professional life. A nickel tour of his and Kim’s three-story home in an upscale development in the northwest section of the county reveals a couple deeply in love with each other and the life they have created for themselves. Yes, they have some quite enviable possessions ‘— from a signed Dali print to a collection of Napoleonic soldier figurines to some rare Native American art and artifacts. But there is an unpretentiousness about not only the house but its three residents (Yes, three. The four-legged resident is a 12-year-old terrier named Teely Dan, who may be the real star of this show.) It’s a house filled with laughter, with music, with sports, with art, with love.
Yet, amidst all the trappings of success there lies a fundamental simplicity, an openness, a gentleness that invites people inside their world. Rather than put on the rock star persona and keep people at arm’s length, their amicable nature draws them in.
And they still understand that is was music that drew them together, that sustains them today and into the future, and that deserves their nurturing and respect.
‘“To perform in front of people is still the greatest thrill,’” affirms Garry. ‘“To see how it affects people in a positive way and get that instantaneous feedback, that’s the drug. Sure, we created that music, but it’s the people who bought that music who are the reason you’re on that stage. We always sign autographs long after the show is over because we appreciate that fact. When you don’t have time for those people who’ve supported you, then that’s the time you should retire.’”
That day won’t be anytime soon for Garry Peterson.
To comment on this story, e-mail Ogi Overman at firstname.lastname@example.org.