Getting reacquainted with Dan Hill
He comes from a family of activists, has a one-sided rivalry with Bruce Cockburn—and is still churning out hits (for others).
Macleans.ca staff | Feb 14, 2008 | 19:21:05
Singer/songwriter Dan Hill is the author of "Every Parent's Nightmare," the cover story in this week's issue of Maclean's.
“Sometimes when we touch
The honesty’s too much”
Those words probably either bring to mind fond memories of past romances or raise the hackles on the back of your neck. They make up the soppy heart of Dan Hill’s 1977 hit single Sometimes When We Touch, which surely rivals Terry Jacks’s Seasons in the Sun for the title of most reviled Canadian song of all time.
A co-write with legendary American songsmith Barry Mann, Hill’s signature song reached No. 3 on the Billboard charts upon its release. Its words have been praised in Pamela Phillips Oland’s 2001 book The Art of Writing Great Lyrics, it has been translated into Swedish and Chinese, and it has been covered ad nauseam by artists like Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Engelbert Humperdinck and the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles.
For most people born in the last three decades, however, Dan Hill is a cipher, remembered—if at all—as the bearded guy who sang a duet with Céline Dion from the basket of a hot air balloon during the 1992 Grey Cup halftime show. In fact, his career is much more substantial than his schmaltzy calling card might suggest.
Born in Toronto in 1954, Hill’s parents were a biracial American couple that had fled the intolerant social climate of the United States to raise their family in Canada. Hill’s father, a World War Two veteran, social scientist, civil servant and author, would later become the first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission—he also served as the province’s ombudsman, and was granted the Order of Canada. Hill’s sister Karen is an admired poet and his brother Lawrence an acclaimed author, whose 2001 memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada was a bestseller and whose 2007 novel The Book of Negroes was longlisted for the Giller Prize.
Hill grew up surrounded by the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. He began writing his own songs at 14, and was gigging in coffee houses by the time he was 17—though his father warned him that he would never be as successful as Bruce Cockburn. Hill later credited his father’s for imbuing him with his ambitious and competitive streaks.
He left high school to work as a songwriter for RCA Records, and at 21 Hill released his self-titled debut album. Both it and its 1976 follow up, Hold On, were certified gold records in Canada, but the real success began with 1977’s Longer Fuse, which led with the unabashedly sentimental and soon to be ubiquitous ballad Sometimes When We Touch.
After tours with Art Garfunkel and Phoebe Snow, Hill’s international fame receded. He wrote a novel, and spent much of the 1980s working in Los Angeles as a songwriter for hire. His work was recorded by many of the luminaries of the adult contemporary scene, and he continued to write and record for himself. He cut a song for the soundtrack to the Sylvester Stallone action movie First Blood in 1982. In 1987, his duet with Vonda Shepard, Can’t We Try, raced up the charts in both Canada and the United States, and his albums continued to sell in his native country.
Though his recorded output under his own name slowed, Hill only became more successful as a songwriter. Though he maintains a home base in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood with Beverly Chapin, his wife of 25 years, he found his songwriting services much in demand in commercial music centres like Nashville and Sweden. He's recently written for artists like Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, Sammy Kershaw, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, and won a Grammy in 1997 for his songwriting and production on Céline Dion’s English language breakthrough album Falling Into You.
Hill has garnered five Juno awards, handfuls of Top 10 hits and hundreds of thousands of records sold and now tour regularly with CBC Radio’s Vinyl Café. But he’ll never escape the shadow of his one monstrous hit—and on at least one occasion, it saved his life.