Leaving the United States of America to escape racism, Daniel G Hill the Third and his wife Donna Mae had decided on Canada as the country to live and raise a family. In addition to younger brother Lawrence and sister Karen, the couple gave birth to Dan Hill the Fourth in Don Mills, Ontario, in June of 1954. Growing up, Dan Hill began writing songs at the age of 14 and would later reach international stardom.
A gifted child, Dan always knew he was a good singer. But living under the enormous shadow of his father wasn’t easy. Daniel G Hill III, sociologist and civil servant, was not only a World War II veteran, but was widely known as the “father of human rights” after becoming the first director and then commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Dan Hill, Sr. also served as the province’s Ombudsman and received the 2001 Order of Canada from Governor General Adrienne Clarkson for his outstanding work in human rights and Canadian black history. Yes, the fourth Dan Hill had a lot to live up to.
Like many teenagers, Dan challenged and rebelled against his father. And although both his parents were supportive of his musical talents, Dan’s father didn’t realize just how successful his son would become. After endless practicing in the basement with his childhood friend Paul Quarrington and playing the coffee houses of Yorkville, Dan eventually had two albums under his belt. And when his third album, Longer Fuse was released in 1977, Dan became known around the world for the enormous hit, Sometimes When We Touch. Co-written with Barry Mann, Dan Hill watched his hit record reach No. 3 on the Billboard charts, be translated in Swedish and Chinese, and be covered by many artists including Tina Turner, Tammy Wynette, and Rod Stewart. Sometimes When We Touch became bigger than life. As a writer contributing articles to MacLean’s magazine, you can read what Dan really thinks of “that song” in the January 2010 edition.
Mr. Hill’s career has been a long and successful one, earning him both Juno and Grammy awards. But upon his father’s death in 2003, Dan lost his passion for song writing. To work through his grief, he decided to write a book instead. I Am My Father’s Son is a poignant and moving memoir about the tumultuous relationship between Dan and his father; a book written with such honesty and love that this writer had tremendous difficulty putting it down. Dan Hill, Sr. always said to his first born, “you got a book in you, boy” and Dan’s father was proven correct. It runs in the family with Dan’s sister Karen growing up to be a poet, and brother Lawrence Hill is the critically acclaimed author of The Book of Negroes. Dan soon returned to song writing, not only working with George Benson, Jeffrey Osbourne, and Celine Dion, but he also recorded a new album called Intimate.
Today, at the age of 55, Dan Hill having been diagnosed with diabetes at the exact same age as his father, is living a life of balance. Between writing, recording and performing, Dan keeps physically fit by running 15 to 20 kms every other day. But the year hasn’t been easy with the loss of Canadian novelist, playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker and musician, Paul Quarrington, Dan’s friend since childhood. Just before Quarrington passed away from cancer, Paul and Dan wrote a song together called Are You Ready, which can be heard at Dan’s website. Upon arriving at Dan’s door for this interview, I was greeted by one of the warmest, kindest and funniest men I’d ever met. And thanks goes out to Dan for saving the day with his old Sony cassette player when, in the middle of the interview, my digital recorder ran out.
I see you’re still a resident of the Beaches neighbourhood. I use to live here myself in the eighties, moving around from street to street when I lived in shared accommodations.
Yes, I’ve lived here since the seventies. And I use to move a lot too, because I kept getting kicked out of places.
I got kicked out of everywhere because I looked like Charles Manson. I had the hair, the beard and the intense eyes. Especially older women, they were scared of me. They thought I was a homicidal maniac.
Dan Hill, the man who wrote Sometimes When We Touch, a homicidal maniac? Now that’s funny!
I was thrown out of everywhere because of how I looked. It was 1972.
And in 1972, I believe the Manson trial was actually still going on.
Yes, it was a big thing that scared the bejesus out of everybody. Friends of mine, like Barry Mann lived in California, right down the street from where Sharon Tate and the others were slaughtered. And me, who didn’t look white and didn’t look black, with hair down to here and intense eyes... well, people thought I just had to be a lunatic. But it could work to my advantage too. I could travel all around the world, and no one would approach me because I looked weird and dangerous. People would go to the other side of the street. People thought I was poor. One time, I had this guy (laughs) ask me to push his car up Hollywood Blvd because it had stalled and after I helped him, he turned to me and said, “here’s two dollars, you look like you need it”.
(laughs) I think it was around 1986 when I saw you in the Beaches one day. It was in a restaurant called The Nose.
Oh yea?! That was a great restaurant! I loved that place. But it moved to Leslie and Queen. A lot of jingle guys use to go there; top players and composers who make their living in the jingle business.
I talked about the jingle business not long ago in an interview I did with Lou Pomanti. We talked about how it’s become really difficult to make money in the jingle business.
I don’t really know the jingle business too well; only that it’s just like the book business or the record business; really competitive and only a small amount of people make crazy amounts of money. At least that’s the way it was back when I knew people doing it. My brother in law just won an Emmy for a kid’s show called Sixteen; he writes the music for it. He was a songwriter and producer for a long time, but for the last ten years he’s been composing for movies and television. As a composer, he’s doing great, better than ever. It’s hard to be just a musician any more.
Everyone is suffering.
Well, not everyone. My brother has sold 400,000 books in this country. And my best friend in America who I write with all the time, Keith Stegall, is doing great as a songwriter and producer. Do you know who Zack Brown is?
Keith Stegall signed country artist Zack Brown to his label when he was virtually unknown. Zack Brown, in his early 20s, is a great singer-songwriter, not unlike the singer-songwriters of the 70s. And Keith, by the way, is a goddamn genius. He discovered Alan Jackson and produced all his records and discovered Randy Travis as well. Three years after Keith signed him, Zack Brown’s record sold two million copies; two million copies in less than a year, and he just won the Grammy for best new artist. So, some people aren’t suffering. I mean, you have to work your ass off. All the songwriters I know in Nashville, who are my age and started out when I did, are making millions of dollars writing songs. They didn’t blow it on drugs, chicks, and cocaine. They are incredibly disciplined. I guess what I’m trying to say is a lot of people may be suffering, but then why does someone sell 400, 000 books in a world where black fiction doesn’t sell? How does Keith take this unknown country artist and turn him into million seller? I wouldn’t want to work for a record company, a book company, or a newspaper, but I know a lot of singer-songwriters who are making a pretty decent living.
(Critically-acclaimed author Lawrence Hill, Dan’s brother)
But the market is saturated with music that’s not very good.
The problem is you run into artists who want to be the next Rhianna, and you can’t think like that. You have to be authentic. Like Jully Black. She’s the best selling black R&B singer in Canada because there’s no one else like her. Why does Stuart McLean of the Vinyl Cafe do so well? Because no one else is doing what he’s doing. And there’s no one like Joe Sealy. He’s in a world all his own. My point is, you have to find your niche. But if you’re an A&R person or a promotions or publicity person at a record company or a book company, God help you. 80% of them aren’t working in the field anymore.
Speaking of books, I absolutely love I Am My Father’s Son.
Why, thank you.
I cried my eyes out. I laughed. And I cried my eyes out.
Well, thanks for reading it.
I wasn’t sure I would finish the book before this interview, but I did. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I was completely drawn to the honesty of it, and it’s so well written. When your father died in 2003, you said you could no longer write songs. You realized your whole life was spent trying to please your dad and when he died, nothing could really motivate you. But then you wrote this book. What were some of the reasons for writing it and once it was finished, was it easier to get back to song writing?
I think one of the reasons I wrote it was because I spent fifteen straight years writing songs for other artists. It wasn’t like I wasn’t open and honest doing that, but there are certain parameters you have to follow when you’re writing songs for people like Michael Bolton, 98 Degrees or Jessica Simpson. I loved the discipline and the boundaries but god, I was really missing the days of 1975 when I could write anything I felt like. People may have hated or loved it, but at least it was pouring out of me unfiltered. I needed to get back to that. And the only real way for me to do that was by writing a book. Half way through the book, I found my musical legs again. I just needed a break. I was broken, and writing the book made me feel closer to my father. It was a way of healing, and he was always alive while I was writing it. Like when you read a biography, say of Truman or John Lennon, they seem alive when you’re reading it.
There are many stories in your book recalled from a time when you were really young. Are you one of those people with a great memory or did you keep a journal while you were growing up?
The mind is amazingly pliable. The more I exercised it, and I’m not talking the new age way, the more I remembered. It just sort of comes back as you touch that part of your memory that’s there, but not there. Gradually it opens up and comes tumbling out. But I do have a reputation in the family as the one with the best memory.
Well yea, you’re writing about stuff from when you were six.
I said to my brother Larry (who’s a brave son of a bitch, much braver than I ever was), “do you remember the time when you were 12 and you went up to dad and said, ‘Dad, I don’t like the way you’re treating mom. You’re being too domineering, too authoritarian.” Man, I thought he was gonna get plowed! I couldn’t believe he had the balls to say that. I could never have done that. Pulling the newspaper up between them, my dad said, ‘I advise you to keep your opinion of your father and mother to yourself’.
I’ve noted the words domineering and authoritarian.
And stifle was a big word back then too, ya know, because of All in the Family.
I can relate to All in the Family. I grew up watching that show. And my father was also domineering, especially with my mother.
It’s hard seeing that as a child.
I was rebellious too. Being “the baby” of the family, my siblings would always say, “I can’t believe you got away with that. I could never have said that to daddy.”
Well, my sister could get away with a lot more too. My father loved women and showed tenderness toward females. Although dad was very domineering, Karen could get away with stuff that Larry and I could never get away with.
But your parents were very much in love, deeply in love.
Oh yea! They were unbelievably in love, right to the end.
Your mother, an intelligent, spirited, and independent woman felt stifled in her role as a stay-at-home mom during the mid-60s. And when you were 11 years old, she was hospitalized for a mental breakdown, diagnosed with manic depression. And being the era it was, no one dared talk about it. I was particularly drawn to this paragraph in your book... “if my view of women changed after Mom’s breakdown – that women were fragile and in constant need of protection from men – my view of men, and more specifically of husbands and fathers, changed as well. Maybe Dad did hasten Mom’s breakdown, or maybe, judging from our family history, Mom’s breakdown would have happened in any event. But what remained beyond speculation was Dad’s behaviour once Mom fell ill. Indeed, if anything positive could be gleaned from Mom’s hospitalization, it was simply that a man, a real man, is always there, without fail and whatever the circumstance, for his family, for his wife. Always.” This touched me deeply because I think love and support goes a long way in helping a depressed person. But unlike your parents, people today seem to give up far too easily on relationships.”
I think what happens to mothers when their children go off to school is, they suddenly have too much time. My mother who’ll be 82 is astonishingly bright. But it was really hard for her to live under the shadow of my father. Yes, she did want to break free and do things on her own. But she had certain issues with her mental health, so it was really hard to do despite being highly intelligent.
And you couldn’t really talk about it then.
No. You still can’t talk about it. (laughs) There’s still a real stigma about mental health. I’m trying to break down the barriers by doing benefits.
But I feel the opposite. I see depression all around me; more and more advertisements for anti-depressant medications are popping up on television and posters for therapist hotlines grace the boards of subway cars all over the TTC.
But those are commercials. Let me put it this way. When I talk to my friends, whom I love dearly, I will be very open about certain things to do with my family and mental illness. But it’s not until I start talking about mine that they’ll say, “well I have a brother...” I’m not criticizing, but most people I know won’t be the first to say. People just don’t tend to talk about this kind of stuff. Every family has something; schizophrenia, bi-polar, or depression; some to the point that they can’t even function. When you think about the circle that you work and live in, review in your mind how many people actually talk about an uncle or a mother, or...
|The Hill Family|
Come to think of it, among people I know, I’m probably the one who talks about it the most.
There you go. You do strike me as a person who is very open. And as far as the ads go, pharmaceuticals are much more ingrained into the economy than before.
Would you say most people, on some level, are depressed?
Well, this whole notion that we have to be happy is a ridiculous notion. I mean, let’s be honest. Paul Quarrington, as you know, died just two weeks ago so of course I’m really sad about that. I’m devastated. And while I was crying in his office, my therapist said, “you have issues with abandonment”. I said, “this isn’t fucking abandonment. Paul’s my best friend and he’s going to die. Why are you going on about abandonment?” All this is to say, there’s a lot in life to be sad about. And the notion that if you’re sad there must be something wrong with you, is extremely absurd. Having said that, I’ve been on Prozac since ’97.
Yes, and I think it’s really helped me. The problem with depression is it gets hard to do anything. You know if you go for a walk you’ll feel better, but sometimes you’re too depressed to go for a walk. You know if you write a story, you’ll be engaged writing the story, but you’re too depressed to write. Sometimes the pills can turn you around just enough so you can do things on your own. In my case, what Prozac did was turn me around just enough to engage more in life. And the engagement in life made me happier. It certainly opened up my song writing to an astonishing degree. I’m not saying it was specifically because of the Prozac, but depression and anxiety overlap and it’s the anxiety that can throw you off your focus. It was by focusing that got me writing songs more heavily and got me into running more heavily. And any study in the world will tell you, exercise is better for your mood than both therapy and pills combined.
I’m thinking about that paragraph in your book again... “if anything positive could be gleaned from Mom’s hospitalization, it was simply that a man, a real man, is always there, without fail and whatever the circumstance, for his family, for his wife. Always.” Even with so much love, you mother still had a breakdown.
Because it was chemical.
Yes. And it was the same for her mother, her twin sister, and her brother.
And your sister.
Yes. There’s a file on the Hill’s that’s this thick! (laughs) But my depression is mild compared to others. I think everyone needs three things: a human connection; and that connection can come in the form of someone that you really love who is creative like you, like my friend Paul Quarrington was for me. It could be a romantic connection. Or it could be a connection with your brother and mother, which I also have. The other thing needed is a consistent creative outlet. It doesn’t mean I have to be creating great work, but I have to be creative almost every day. It’s what makes me happy. There’s no question I’m a bit of an oddball. I’ve always been a bit quirky, but I have to embrace creativity as a way of life, whether it’s writing songs, articles, or books. And the third thing needed is physical exercise. I’m addicted to running.
There was a car accident that happened when you were quite young, travelling to see family, whereupon the quick actions of your father kept everyone safe. Like many children, we see our parents, especially our fathers, as larger than life protectors who can do no wrong. Was there a particular moment when you saw your father as flawed and imperfect?
Absolutely. It wasn’t like one of those uh-ha! movie moments where suddenly everything changes with a cinematic scene. I saw my father as larger than life through my teenage years right up until I was in my twenties. But when I saw him cry, it was a big turning point. I saw him as more human being then. My father was diagnosed with diabetes at 40, the same age I was diagnosed and the same age my brother was diagnosed. But diabetes didn’t really catch up to my dad until he became Ombudsman of Ontario between 1983 and 1988. This is when we really started to worry about him. But he would never say anything or tell anybody or talk about his diabetes, which made it worse. And when his blood sugar started bouncing up and down, and particularly when it went real low, he would cry. The brain is the first thing to go because it really needs the sugar. He wouldn’t know where he was and he’d start shaking and crying.
Witnessing your father’s battle with this disease, did you learn how to take better care of your own diabetes?
Definitely. And I feel way stronger, sharper, more energetic and alive as a 55 year old then when I was 35.
Dan Hill at home in his studio
And you run all the time?
Yes, I ran eight miles last night. Basically I get up at 6am and write first thing because that’s when I’m most creative. I write and I do business. Every day there’s something going on with a song. Like two days ago, someone asked for Sometimes When We Touch for a movie where a cellist would play it for thirty seconds, but they’re shooting the scene the very next day. And if you don’t get back to them in a microsecond, they’ll just use another classic pop song like Fire and Rain or You’ve Got a Friend. So between doing business, writing songs, banging out articles, practicing for shows, finishing demos and performing, by 5pm I look forward to my run. And then I don’t want to talk about music or my career for the rest of the day. I love what I do, but some days can be intense.
I would think it would be easy to get so involved with your work, you’d forget about your insulin.
I’m extremely routined. You can’t mess around with diabetes.
And you look great.
Well, I don’t know about that. I had some of my teeth knocked out when I was biking really hard and when I had them replanted, the dentist said, “they’re not all the same length, but I can file them down”. I said, “but will filing them down make any difference to my health?” “No,” the dentist said. “Will it make any difference to how I eat?” Again, “No.” “So why would I do this?” “For aesthetics,” he says. I said, “Fuck that, I don’t care.” But recently, while shooting the video for How I Feel, the first single off the Intimate record, man, everyone kept saying “your teeth are crooked!” (laughs)
I think the crookedness adds character.
It’s like shaving your chest or dying your hair, no.
I don’t expect my wife to do anything unnatural and I’ll be damned if I start dying my hair.
It’s the world we live in and not long ago I got caught up in that show Nip/Tuck. I started having dreams about breast implants! (laughs)
One day they’re going to look back anthropologically on our society and say, “these people were practicing self-mutilation.” Honestly. They’ll look at breast implants and call it self-mutilation.
What do you think your father would say had he had the chance to read your book?
My dad always said, “Son, you should be writing. You got a book in you, boy!” He had this thing that we were all meant to be writers. But I think he would have had mixed feeling about my book. He would have been touched by it, moved by it, and impressed by it, but at the same time there are certain things he wouldn’t have agreed with.
Would it have surprised him, some of it?
It was hard to surprise my father. Although I did surprise him as a musician because he never thought I would make a dime. But would my book have surprised him? Well, my brother had put some of my story in his book, Blackberry Sweet Juice. And my dad was still cognizant enough at that point to have read my brother’s book, so I think poor Larry got the brunt of being the first to open the door. I just took it further. I think he would have been proud of it and argued with me over parts of it, but in every family, members will see things in different ways. My sister sees the family dynamic totally different than my brother and my brother and I see the family dynamic in exactly the same way. And my mother sees it totally different than my brother and me. I’ll say, “you know mom, I love you and I will always love you, but sometimes we have to agree to disagree and sometimes I’ll do things you’re not going to like. Hopefully what anchors this family is unconditional love.” She said, “Dan I love you, but I hate your book.” Toronto Life did a story on my brother and the writer called me up and said, “man, does your mother ever hate your book!” (laughter). “She said you were really unfair about your dad.” My dad was a formidable debater to say the least, and as I mention in my book, unbelievably funny. The thing is, my mom would often beat my dad in an argument because she was smarter than him on an intellectual level, but he would turn it back on her with his amazing sense of humour.
Daniel G Hill III, Dan’s father
Oh man! But I think my dad would have been happy I wrote the book. He always said, “Son, you got a book in you.”
But I don’t think he meant a book about him.
When I toured with Art Garfunkel, Art said “the place I hate playing the most is New York City. Right over there next to Carnegie Hall is where my dentist is and right over there is where my grade 6 music teacher is. I don’t like playing in my home town.” There’s nothing I can write or say that’s going to enlighten my brother, my sister, or my mother. They’re not the audience I’m going for. Elspeth Cameron, a magnificent writer who wrote about discovering she was a lesbian after being married for four years, caused her family to stop talking to her for ten years. Elsbeth got in a lot of trouble. So did Hemmingway. But you have to tough it out, like when I wrote the song, Are You Ready with Paul Quarrington. Paul said, “let’s write a song about me dying of cancer”. I thought, I don’t want to do this. I’m going to break down. I love this guy. The beauty is you just write it and don’t think of where it’s going. When I wrote the book I couldn’t think about people reading it because it would have scared me too much.
Raising your own child, were you consciously trying to be as unlike your own parents as possible? And when your son David reached his teenage years, were you supportive of his decisions where your dad wasn’t of yours?
I was worried about the rap thing because in rap music there’s so much violence. There isn’t a whole lot of manoeuvrability in rap either. If I didn’t make it as a singer-songwriter, I could be a session player. I could write for other people, or produce. There’s a million other ways I could have gone. David doesn’t play any instruments, so if you don’t make it as a rap writer, where do you go? Now, to David’s credit, he did co-write a rap song that got into a movie. David is a really good rapper and he writes brilliantly. But I did coax and cajole him, not unlike what my father did with me, to take his incredible talent and turn it into prose writing. David’s already finished the first draft of his book and he has the same literary agent as me, Michael Levine, who’s a superstar. But there comes a time when you have to stop parenting. You have to let go. David’s had a hard time of it. It’s hard to grow up with a father who’s supposedly well known and extremely disciplined, and a mother who’s a lawyer, driven and successful. And an uncle who’s the writer Larry is. But David has definitely inherited the writing gene. He’s a brilliant writer. I don’t think he has the drive, focus and discipline that I or Larry had at 21, but then, part of that is rebellion.
You wrote an incredible story in MacLeans magazine about David and his teenage friend Eric, a thug and member of a gang who posed a serious threat to your family; enough of a threat that you had to send David away for a while.
Yes, or he would have been killed. David got mixed up with the wrong crowd and his friend Eric didn’t have a chance with a father that beat him. There were guys calling David from jail, threatening him; guys who were convicted of killing Jane Creba, (the young girl shot down on Yonge St on Boxing Day, 2005).
But when I think of the Beaches, I don’t think of gangs, thugs or murderers.
Walking around here at 2 in the morning, you will see these packs of guys who’ll do things in groups that they’d never do as individuals. Lots of times I’d be driving by and hear, “Nigger!” I’d get together with Hayden Neal, the great Juno-award winning Canadian R&B singer, who died of cancer, and we would talk about this stuff and how to fight back with our gifts instead of our fists. We would write songs to turn it around. That’s what creativity is all about; taking wounds that we all have and processing them through creativity. Paul McCartney started writing songs when his mother died. Sting started writing songs when he caught his mother fucking his father’s best friend and work partner, which Sting wrote about in his book, so I’m not disclosing anything. John Lennon really started writing when his mother got run over by a car. Writing is a creative way to healing.
It’s where I get some of my healing.
And I bet it will be one of the paths to your greater sense of well being. I don’t mean to sound like Dr Phil, but...
There’s so much heart and so much honesty in the way you write and that’s what draws me to it.
It’s important. People need connections. We all need to connect. How many times have you gone to a movie and said, “God, when you take away the special effects, the gratuitous violence and the sex, what was the story about?” We need connection. Whether you’re talking as a human being, thinking in terms of intimacy, thinking of just having a serious conversation with someone you really care about, reading or listening to music, we’re all looking for a connection.
In your book you say most things in the house were off limits except for the record player. You go on to describe how you would sit between the speakers and sing along to Frank Sinatra. And then you got your own record player on your 6th birthday. Who were some of your earliest influences and what music was heard around the Hill house growing up?
My mom and dad listened to jazz; Sara Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Joe Williams, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald.
And did you have an appreciation for this music? Because when I was young hearing my dad play Sinatra or Johnny Cash in the house, I couldn’t possibly admit to liking it. Now of course, I have a deeper appreciation.
I loved everything my parents played. I absolutely soaked it up. I sat there and sang along to all of it. It’s how I learned my vocabulary. I mean, Sinatra had that song Makin’ Whoopie. No 4 year old knew what whoopie meant, but...
You walked around the house singing it? (laughs)
With all those interesting lyrics; man, could they write great songs back then. I was addicted to it like a morphine drip. I would run home from school because I’d need the fix. It was that physical. I would sing the songs all the time. It drove some people crazy, but not my parents. One thing about my parents, they were really good about it. They understood I had a really good singing voice and never tried to squash it. Of course they thought it would only be a hobby, but I would even sing Sinatra on the school bus.
You weren’t shy, huh? You just let it rip?
I was shy in the normal manner of things, but when it came to singing, I wasn’t shy. I’d sit by myself on the school bus, singing away, while the girls rolled their eyes. (laughs) But I didn’t care what they thought. We were confident; my brother and I. We didn’t care if we belonged to a clique. We were in our own little world of books and music. If people thought I was weird, so what? I just wanted to sing. And I kind of knew I could sing better than anybody, and I was very proud of that.
For some, it would take a lifetime to gain that kind of confidence.
It’s the one thing we got from dad. And we were really good with words, so no one could really mess with us. They knew we couldn’t be bullied or dominated. It’s not to say I wasn’t nervous about bullies, but we were never victimized. They knew that my dad was a big strong mother (laughs), and everyone was kind of scared of him being the only black man in Don Mills at the time. Everyone knew they would have to answer to my father. Sometimes a teacher would mess with one of us because back then teachers could smack you around, but my dad would be there so fast, it would be the last time that teacher ever messed with us.
When I was young and saw people walking down Yonge St singing on top of their lungs, I’d think they were loony tunes. But at the same time, I admired them for it. Friends of mine who recently travelled through Africa, noted how natural it is for the African people to walk around singing all the time. But you’re considered crazy if you walk around Toronto doing it.
We’re so cut off from the physical expression. We go to movies to get scared. We go to porn to get turned on. We ride roller coasters to get a thrill. We’re so cut off from experiencing it ourselves. I’d rather run for twelve miles than watch a football game; to feel the physicality of running. I’d rather sing and feel the sheer physical joy of singing. I’d rather write a sex scene... (laughs)... Paul Quarrington wrote the longest erotic sex scene in the history of Canadian literature, did you know that? And it’s brilliantly written. The book is called Galveston, which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award.
I’d like to read that.
When Paul was dying I said, “let’s go for a drive, anywhere you want. Where do you want to go Paul?” And he said, “Don Mills. Let’s go to the nude book store!” Paul was such a boy. That’s what made him such a genius in that he never lost that boyishness and when we arrived at the nude book store, what does he do? He goes straight for Galveston and opens it at the sex scene. I said, “Paul, this is like being eight years of age and going for the Playboy at the drug store.” (laughs) I’m 55 and he’s 56. I said to the book clerk, who’s about 30, “this guy really knows how to write about sex. In Galveston there’s a woman on top of a guy making love and her head is rotating in one direction and her hips are rotating in another direction.” I said to Paul, “Did you research this? Have you actually done this or has someone done this to you? Or did you just make it up on the fly? Because you know it’s physically impossible.” I was giving him shit, but in an affectionate way. The book clerk, now reading it, was clearly aroused. “See Paul, you’re Frank Sinatra and I’m Sammy Davis Jr.” (laughs)
Dan with Paul Quarrington
I was thinking Linda Blair when you started talking about revolving heads!
It’s hard to write great sex scenes. And the clerk was flushed because Quarrington was such a great writer. And I’m not talking about smutty bullshit crap. I said, “Paul, why did you write the longest sex scene in the history of Canadian literature?” He said, “I found out through the Erotic Readers Association what the longest erotic sex scene ever written was and set out to beat it! Paul was so crazy. I’d never heard of the Erotic Readers Association.
I know ERA. I’m on their mailing list. The world of erotic writing and reading is enormous.
I have no doubt. The lesson I learned from Paul is you have to take every moment and just live it. In the Star today, Are You Ready is listed as a great alternative song. It was such a hard song to write, obviously. Bearing in mind Paul sang it with an oxygen tank and two tubes up his nose and he still sounds great. It was everything I could do not to cry when I was writing it. Would you like to hear it?
Sure. (Dan plays me the song)
Are Your Ready is currently getting played all over radio, and it’ll be the theme song to a special about Paul, airing on Bravo!
I like the sound of the accordion.
And the guitar playing is phenomenal. The best acoustic guitar player in the world and he wouldn’t even take any money; he was just so moved by Paul’s story. The producer, Fred Mollin, who I grew up with and who’s a seasoned pro having produced everyone from Kris Kristofferson to Willie Nelson, had to leave the room, sobbing. They were all playing to Quarrington’s voice.
And how long after this did Quarrington pass away?
Well his voice sounds amazing. It makes me think of Elvis Presley. The performance Elvis did two weeks before his death was stunning in that his voice was bang on. I’ll never forget that.
Paul was a tough son of a bitch. On New Year’s Eve he went out to four different parties, dancing with his oxygen tank! He wrote songs, books, and lived like a maniac. He was amazing and incredibly brave. And when the time came and they tried to put the oxygen mask on him, he waved them off and then he was gone. I was supposed to take him to the Walrus (an intellectual Canadian magazine) gala the night he died.
In 1974, I was eleven years old and convinced I would marry Elton John. I understand around this same time, Elton John came to see one of your shows at the University of Guelph. Is this true, and did you meet him?
Actually it was 1976. Back then there was a tax thing in England where if you were a superstar selling millions of records, it was cheaper if you recorded your album outside of England. So artists like Elton John and Rod Stewart would come to Canada. Elton came to Toronto to record, but he was also doing some sort of talk in Guelph. My second album was already out and I was doing a show there. The guy who broke me and signed me in the States was Russ Regan who was the same guy that broke Elton and Neil Diamond. In the beginning, people thought I sounded like Elton John and use to call me the Canadian Elton John. Elton knew all my stuff because Russ had played it for him. But Elton John knows everything that everyone’s recording anyway. He’s a consummate listener of music. Elton came back stage and he was really, really nice. He didn’t even want to talk about himself or his career. We talked about my record and Russ Regan.
Was he dressed outrageously?
When I met him he was dressed like a normal guy. He had that song out, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, and I just loved it. I studied Paul Buckmaster strings on Elton’s records because they were brilliant arrangements.
And then to find Elton back stage at your gig; were you intimidated?
No, I’m not easily intimidated. It doesn’t mean I didn’t think he was totally amazing, but I’m a confident guy who was able to write with someone like Barry Mann, who wrote songs like You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling, On Broadway, and We Got To Get Out of This Place. If I wasn’t a confident guy, I never would have been able to give Mann the lyrics to Sometimes When We Touch. I don’t mean to sound conceded, but I was taught to believe in myself and that’s how I could walk out on stage at Carnegie Hall and rock out with Carly Simon, James Taylor, and Paul Simon.
And as for music, you came up during the best of times.
You have no idea how wild it was. I remember once when I was staying at the Continental Hiatt House on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles... Have you ever stayed there?
Do you remember Rick James?
Rick James use to live in Toronto and jam with Neil Young at the Myna Bird. He lived in Toronto for a while and then left behind thousands of dollars of unpaid studio bills. Anyway, in 1978 I’m having breakfast in the outer lounge area of the Hiatt, which we called the Riot because it was so wild back then, and I swear on my mother’s life, Rick James had a line-up of five hundred girls going through the hotel. He’d come down the stairs, pick a girl, sing a line from Sometimes When We Touch, wink at me, and take the girl upstairs for about ten minutes, then bring her back downstairs where she would leave, and then he’d take the next girl in line. I sat there for 45 minutes watching as he went through something like four and a half girls every ten minutes. I found this stupefying. I could see from Rick James point of view, the male fantasy and how this could be fun, but I couldn’t help wondering what was going on in the minds of the girls.
Well, she was probably thinking, “hey, I’m gonna do Rick James!”
But I was 24 and didn’t know stuff at 24 like I do now. So I went up to the girl that was next in line and said, “I’m not judging you, I’m just curious. And I want to understand... what’s in this for you?” She said, “Oh I just know that when Rick’s with me, he’ll fall in love and I’ll be the one.”
Oh no! (sigh)
A lot of times people think this, that they’ll be the tipping point...
Of course. There have been many times I’ve thought that way. But all the same, many women could easily think the other way... like, he’s just another notch in my belt.
That’s the point. Women are really no different than men. There’s just this cultural propaganda that makes us think otherwise. I mean, one man is different from another man is different from another man, but I don’t think there’s a huge gender divide when it comes to sexuality, certainly not when you get to a certain age anyway. If anything, women become more sexual because they’re pissed off at the time wasted worrying about being judged. They just want to make up for lost time....
Oh is that what it is?
... and they embrace their inner slutdom and it becomes almost like a political statement. They’ll say, “if you want to judge me, fuck you, that’s your problem.” I’m not saying you think that way, but theoretically I think most women who get to a certain age think this way. It’s like me, when someone calls me a wimpy songwriter, fine, but do you think I’m going to change? That’s one great thing about getting older. But when you’re sixteen and someone calls you a slut or a wimp, you crumble. By the way, Quarrington told me once that he knew a girl who had an orgasm just listening to Elton John; just sitting there in the chair listening to Elton John. I believe women are much more susceptible to outside influences like weather, music, food, and literature. Guys are more impervious.
Well, I wouldn’t argue with that. But I tell ya, seeing Elton John in Central Park singing Your Song in a duck suit certainly didn’t do anything for me.
(laughs) I know. What happens to people? Like Neil Diamond. He was so great. I remember when Solitary Man came out, one of the greatest songs of all time. I was in Grade 6 and I bought the album. And how could I possibly have related to what he was talking about at that age? But I did! The song was so powerful that I got it. But now he has a vibrato so big you can drive a Mac truck through it. What happens to these people? It’s upsetting and sad.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was the first album I ever bought with my own money. I think I was 12. And I love that record as much now as I did then.
That was a great period for song writing. There were so many great song writers. Elton John had an amazing voice, and still does. And what about that Cat Stevens, man!
Dan Hill in the 70s
I loved Cat Stevens too.
It was an amazing time. I hoovered up all those songs, learning to play them.
When other 8 year olds were throwing rotten eggs at passing cars as a pastime activity, Dan Hill was attending music lessons in an after-school program based on the teachings of Carl Orff. With your teacher, Miss Moon completely taken with your singing talents and wanting to take you around town to promote it, I thought for sure this would play out with resistance from your father similarly to David Helfgott and his father in the film Shine. But this wasn’t the case. It was actually you that didn’t want to continue with music lessons. Was it because of Orff?
I haven’t seen that movie Shine, but the thing is Miss Moon was really mean to everybody else in the class except for me. Orff was the one who started the whole program and had all these disciples/teachers across the world. Miss Moon said to my mom, “I’ve never known a kid who could use his voice so naturally. I’ve never seen anything like this.” But I already knew I had a great voice. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s my job to be honest with you, not pretend to be falsely modest. I knew I could sing better than anyone she had come across, but I didn’t like the way Miss Moon treated the other kids. Also, I was never someone who could learn in a formal way. I liked learning simply by listening to records by Ray Charles or the Beatles.
So you learned better by listening to records.
I learned classical guitar formally, but yes, I learned better from listening to the records. I would hang out practicing with Paul Quarrington. I never liked the formal classroom setting. Not that we had song writing classes, or lessons on how to produce records. We didn’t have any of that stuff. But how did the Beatles learn? How did Elvis learn? How did Carl Perkins do it? Billy Joel started out as an impersonator. He was known as the guy who could do everybody’s voice. He could do Paul McCartney perfectly. Even now I get asked to teach song writing courses at U of T. But I wouldn’t know what to say. I wouldn’t know what to tell them. I’d feel like an imposter.
In 1977, with the success of Sometimes When We Touch, you made appearances on the Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas shows. I grew up watching these shows. Can you share a story about Mike or Merv and who some of the other guests on the shows were?
At that time, the three big shows were Merv Griffen, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore. And I did all of them in the same year. But back then, I didn’t know how to play piano yet. So David Foster agreed to play piano with me on the Merv Griffin show.
David Foster was already known in musical circles as a genius, and was already producing Hall and Oates, but he hadn’t become the icon he is now. He agreed to play piano on Sometimes When We Touch for my appearance on the show, but at the last second he backed out. He got me another guy who he said was a great piano player, but it turned out he couldn’t play my song at all. He was a jazz musician with no pop feel. He tried, but he couldn’t get it. And it was ten minutes before we were to go on!
Oh no. So this wouldn’t be a David Foster genius moment.
I don’t know what Foster was thinking. But I had to fire the piano player and go out and do the song on guitar, which I knew how to do, but it was really stressful. There were only a few television channels on the dial at the time so millions of people were watching. It was more than a little stressful, to be honest. And I felt bad having to fire the piano player. Thanks a lot Foster. Did you do that on purpose to mess me up? (laughs) David Foster is a great producer. And he would know if the guy could play, but I never got around to asking him about this.
And who were the other guests on the show?
Charley Pride, Pearl Bailey, and Dianne Carroll. And they wanted to set me up with their daughters. All the women wanted to set me up because I was single. I also played McCarthy’s Day, which is a song about my parents; a very moving song about how my father being black and my mother being white forced them to leave America to come to Canada. Charley came up to me afterward and said, “man, what an amazing song!” So despite having to fire the piano player, it worked out pretty well.
Was it a coincidence that all the guests on the show were black?
I can’t remember specifically who was on which show to be honest.
And what about Merv?
Merv Griffen was really nice; very humble. But when he asked me where it was I had just played and I said Regina, Merv said, “Vagina?” (laughs)
You could say vagina on tv back then?
No, this was before the cameras rolled. We were hanging out back stage. But I was like, what the hell? No one said that word from where I came from. And Merv Griffin, Mr. America, as straight as they come, said it! It was hard to keep a straight face as I spelled out, “R-e-g-i-n-a”. It was surreal. I’m surprised I didn’t break out in a fit of nervous giggles having just fired the piano player and all. It was almost too much for a Don Mills boy.
(laughs) In the 80s, within a day or two of getting married, you got a call from Mario Kasser, co-owner and executive producer of Caralco Pictures asking if you’d sing the title song for the new Sylvestor Stallone film, First Blood (otherwise known as Rambo). Flying to England to record It’s A Long Road at Abbey Road Studio, it actually only took 90 minutes, but...
It was one of those rare instances where I hadn’t written the song or heard the song and no one knew how long it was going to take to cut the vocals. It was for a theme song of a movie I didn’t think would go anywhere, but I was between record deals and it paid $5,000 bucks. After flying all night to get there, they took me right into the studio and expected me to sing after being up all night and I’d only heard the song once. I’m not that kind of singer. I was never trained. I would rather have lived with the song for a bit until I found a way to interpret it. But luckily, I nailed it. They flew me back to LA later to re-record the song with the band Toto, so they had my voice and the lead singer of Toto trying to figure out which guy to use. They finally decided on the Toto band, but with my vocal. And the movie turned out to be the number two movie that year, after E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial.
I liked Rambo when it came out. But Rocky is my all time favourite movie ever.
Rocky is a great movie. But the song It’s a Long Road was so bloody high, it was impossible for any human being to hit those notes. They had to slow the tape down so I could hit them. When I was asked to sing it on Carson, I said “not a chance”. (laughs)
What was it like being in Abbey Road Studio?
It was incredible and it was very inspiring. I really enjoyed the experience. It was high pressure and the lyricist Hal Shaper, who didn’t really know anything about singing kept trying to get me to sing it in this old fashioned over-the-top Broadway musical kind of way, which I hated. Jerry Goldsmith, one of the greatest film composers of all time, would come up and say, “just ignore everything Hal says”. (laughs) It was a little difficult trying to fend off Hal Shaper, but somehow I managed to do it.
I’ve been listening to your album Intimate, and there are two songs that stand out for me. The first is Back Before the War, which is lovely, and is that you playing piano?
No, that’s Grammy award winner, John Jarvis. He’s brilliant.
And the other one is Sixties Child with references to the Kennedys, the Beatles and the moon landing...
I played that in Buffalo last week and found the response in America was even stronger. I didn’t realize when I wrote it that most of the references were American. I guess that’s because of my parents, coming from the United States. Even though I was born in Toronto, most of my cultural references were American due to my parents.
What was the show in Buffalo?
It was a show for autism. One of the big radio stations was sponsoring it so I drove in and played for the radio audience and the money went to autism. I played a lot of songs from the new record, as well as Sometimes When We Touch.
As part of Black History Month, you’ll be performing at the Royal Ontario Museum. Can you tell me a little about this show?
I’ll tell stories, some straight from my book, as well as play jazz songs. I’ll play Are You Ready and another song about Paul Quarrington called Tomorrow I’ll be Missing You. I recorded Intimate over a year ago and since then I’ve written over twenty more songs. There’ll be a real hodge podge of music from singer-songwriter to jazz to R&B, dating back to songs I wrote in ’75, right up to what I wrote a week ago. Liz Rodrigues will be joining me as well as Joe Sealy, who was just awarded the Order of Canada. I’ll sing Africville Skies with him, which I originally wrote for the Sealy album that won him a Juno. I really have to say, I’ve been extraordinarily blessed to have worked with some of the most brilliant people in the world. And I’m so lucky that they’ve opened up their hearts, and their talents and their gifts and been so generous with me; brilliant, fascinating, curious people like George Benson and Donna Summer. I’ve had an extraordinarily fortunate life.
Dan Hill’s official website
The MacLeans’s article: You’ll never Guess What Dan Hill Thinks of His Song
The MacLean’s article: Every Parent’s Nightmare
~ all photos courtesy of Dan Hill and Lisa McDonald