The DJ’s faux-macho baritone was coming at me fast and loud.
“Hey, Dan, great of you to go along with this Donny Osmond gag. He’s minutes away from arriving at our station to debut his new single, a remake of your classic. This is how it’s gonna go down,” the disc jockey prattled on in his low, Jolly Green Giant voice. He peppered me with instructions, pausing every now and then to shower me with compliments on my past success. As I dutifully took note of my role in this Dan-Hill-trips-up-Donny-Osmond scenario, I began feeling like an artifact, about as relevant as a reconstructed dinosaur in the museum of pop trivia.
“So, truthfully, Dan—off the record—what do you think of Donny’s version?”
“Fabulous,” I lied. “Donny sings it great.”
How could I explain to this over-caffeinated, rat-a-tat-tat-talking DJ that I’d long ago stopped listening to other people’s interpretations of my song? Most versions were pretty awful, and since I was powerless to change someone else’s vocal performance, it was simply an exercise in frustration to listen.
“Right after Donny debuts his recording of Sometimes, people all over New York City will be calling in to give their reactions. We’ll put you on the line to Donny first. The trick is to pretend you’re just a typical fan, calling in from, say, Newark. All you have to do is give Donny your honest feedback on how he sings your song. Hey—whoopsie-daisy! Hold on a sec, Dan. Donny’s just arrived!”
Through the static hum of my phone line I could faintly make out Donny’s recording of my song. Thank God the telephone signal was far too crackly and distant for me to honestly appraise his interpretation. Then, presto, I was live on the air.
“Hello, sir,” the DJ began in his dulcet tones. “Here’s your once-in-a-lifetime chance to tell Mr. Osmond how you like his brand-new remake of that smash hit from the ’70s.”
What the hell, I took the plunge. “Wow, congratulations, Mr. Osmond. You sure sing that song a heck of a lot better than that old guy who sang it 30 years ago.”
Without dropping a beat, Donny shot back, “Well, thank you, sir. I’ve been hearing that a lot lately. Seems many people prefer my new version to the original.”
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” the DJ broke in, his deep, honeyed voice rising with “gotcha” enthusiasm. Sweet, unsuspecting Donny had taken the bait. “Caller, could you kindly identify yourself to Mr. Donny Osmond?”
“Hi, Donny. It’s Dan Hill, the old guy who used to sing Sometimes When We Touch.”
Poor Donny. I could feel him squirming on the other end of the phone, could almost hear his little feet doing the old backpedal dance as he went on to tell me how amazing my original version had been. But good ol’ self-deprecating Donny got the last laugh. A few months after our telephone exchange, I started to receive indignant letters from some diehard fans of mine. They’d caught Donny’s show in Vegas. There, upon performing my song, he revealed to his audience what I’d supposedly told him: that his vocal of Sometimes was superior to mine.
That song. My, oh my, how Sometimes When We Touch has travelled since I solemnly wrote my first version at the age of 19. The year was 1974, and all I was trying to do by writing my earnest little song was get the girl. I’ve long ago grown more than a little weary of my signature hit—its lyrics now about as relevant to me as a poem or diary entry a teenager might have scrawled out in high school—and its refusal to go gently into that good night. More than three decades later and damned if my overly confessional ’70s ballad doesn’t still have a way of jumping out at me at the most random times; the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to share my beleaguered view. In America alone, That Song is just a few spins short of five million radio and TV broadcasts, whereas a typical hit song earns roughly a million.
Not that Helena ever agreed. The girl I was trying to “get” 35 years ago most decidedly did not “get” me. Helena was 22 but acted a whole lot older, which alternately thrilled and horrified me. Throughout our train wreck of an affair, she was juggling me with two other men: a six-foot-three, 240-lb., steroid-popping CFL player and a punctiliously attired, pipe-puffing photographer she’d seduced after her shoot as a Sunshine Girl. As a high school dropout, earning $1.89 an hour sorting mail, I had only one way of competing with Toronto’s answers to O.J. and Hugh Hefner. Music. A prolific singer-songwriter who could play a mean guitar, I was gigging all over Toronto. Better still, I was on the verge of recording my first album with some of the best studio musicians in the world. While certainly no pressing threat to Gordon Lightfoot, I knew it was simply a matter of time until I was going to be a star.
I sensed that my only chance was to write a song that would stop Helena dead in her tracks. If I couldn’t be a bruising football star or a soft-porn photographer, they, in turn, sure as hell couldn’t write songs like me. And so I sat down late one afternoon and wrote Sometimes When We Touch.
Or rather, the song wrote me—the words and music coming in one uncontrollable, frenzied rush. The song’s first line, “You ask me if I love you, and I choke on my reply,” was inspired by Helena’s somewhat mocking question. Did I love her? Trick question if ever there was one. “Yes” would have scared her away. “No” would have pissed her off. Given that Helena had punctuated her “Do you love me?” question by removing her pink polka-dot panties and waving them around in a circle with her index finger, I quite literally choked. As for the last line of that first verse—“Who am I to judge you on what you say or do?”—I was letting her know (while lying through my teeth) that if she chose to sleep with steroid-enhanced musclemen and unctuous photographers, “who was I to judge her?” And so go the rest of the lyrics: every word, every line, awkwardly direct, lyrics tumbling straight and pure (and yes, occasionally purple-hued) out of the heart of a smitten teenager.
The first thing I did upon finishing Sometimes was phone Helena and play her my song. Her response was bone-crushing. After a deliberately drawn-out yawn and a martyred sigh, she asked: “Danny, has anyone ever told you that you’re way too f–king intense?” Gathering what was left of my moxie, I asked again—this time with a touch less bravado—“How do you like my new song?”
Helena chose this moment to say, “Tomorrow morning I’m headed to North Carolina. The football player I’ve been seeing got cut from the Argos, so I’m moving with him back to the States.”
The tricky thing about songwriting is that, more often than not, what you consider to be your best work generates a collective shrug, and something you’ve simply tossed off bowls people over. While I felt I’d reached a new level of writing with Sometimes, people would listen to me sing it, stare back blankly and say, “Hmm, that’s really interesting, Dan, but it seems to go on and on.” Fortunately, I had scores of other songs garnering enthusiasm in all the right circles, and in 1976 my second album turned me into a bona fide star in Canada, selling out concerts coast to coast and catapulting both records to gold.
Now 22, I was cocky and, thanks to being a solo songwriter and performer, making more money than I could spend. Enter Barry Mann, one of America’s most successful and influential pop songwriters. Along with his wife and co-writer, Cynthia Weil, Barry had written a string of smashes in the ’60s and ’70s, including You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling and On Broadway, and scored a hit as an artist with Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp). In 1977, I flew down to L.A. to plot out my third album with my U.S. label and my publisher, ATV Music. Sam Trust, ATV’s U.S. president, suggested that Barry and I—as fellow ATV songwriters—try collaborating.
“No one writes better lyrics than you. And if Barry finds the right music to one of your signature lyrics you guys could go head to head with Elton John and Bernie Taupin.”
My immediate response to Trust’s suggestion was “F–k you, I’m doing just fine writing on my own.” But I had to admit, the closest I’d come to a U.S. hit single was a ho-hum No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100, with Growing Up (in the Shadow of the U.S.A.). So, despite feeling like I’d been arm-twisted into working with a hotshot songwriting tutor, I agreed to a co-writing session with Barry. I met him at the ATV offices on Sunset and Vine. Unlike me, Barry was sweetly humble, an intriguing cocktail of insecurity and self-deprecating wit, his musical genius offset by an endearing Woody Allen type of haplessness.
After the obligatory compliments—“You’re great,” “No, you’re great”—Barry got down to business. Inhaling cigarettes the way a marathon runner sucks oxygen, Barry began rattling off dozens of criss-crossing chord patterns, infused with soulful, off-the-cuff melodies. I was expected, spontaneously, to match his creative outpourings with equally inspired lyrics. I had no idea people wrote like this, hurled together willy-nilly, mixing words and music like mad musical chemists. I still clung to the notion that songwriting could come only from a pure and sacred place (sexual torment had always worked for me).
Outgunned, out of my league, and wanting no part of this “fly by the seat of my pants” writing process, I murmured lamely, “Here, Barry,” pulling a handwritten lyric from the bottom of my guitar case. “I’m not sure if it’s any good. I never wrote any music to it.” The latter part was a lie, of course; I was afraid that if he knew I’d written the original music as well, he might think I was handing him a cast-off and take offence. “If you can do something with it, great. But don’t feel any obligation if you hate it.”
As I walked out of the room to phone a taxi, I could see Barry staring at my words, mouthing them inaudibly. He looked like a boy absorbing the stats of the latest slugger on a baseball card. By the time I was off the phone, he was standing in front of me, smiling shyly. “I think I got something for the chorus,” he said, almost apologetically. I followed him into the music room and stood behind him as he sang, plangently, Sometimes with his new melody and chords.
I was so used to my original music that his version sounded ornate, precious even, like something from Barry Manilow’s Mandy period. (In fact, Manilow recorded Sometimes and released it as a single in 1997.)
“Yeah, Barry. That sounds really, ah, cool,” came my artless reply. Knowing, unlike me, that he’d stumbled onto something special, Barry told me he’d get back to me when he’d finished writing the music to my verses and the bridge.
The next day, Barry tracked me down by phone at the posh Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where I was breakfasting with the president of my U.S. label. “You gotta hear this, Dan,” Barry said through the line. Then his finished music flowed out of the candy-floss-pink phone. “I’ve doubled up the chorus,” Barry told me, as I hemmed and hawed, nervous that any comment I offered might sound unworthy of all his effort. “So, you need to add three lyric phrases to go along with the second half.”
“Okay,” I said, this being the first time I’d ever considered expanding on a song lyric.
I realized then that my original music to Sometimes had sounded funereal and turgid, making it impossible for a listener to wade through my chord changes to actually hear and feel the lyrics. But Barry’s gripping verse melody—offset by the release of his light, ingeniously singsongy chorus—gave these same words a kind of soaring majesty that made them instantly memorable.
Within three months of collaborating with Barry, Sometimes When We Touch was set for release. After two years of Canadian stardom with my songs saturating radio, I assumed I could handle the transition from national to international celebrity, should that be in the cards. Boy, was I mistaken. My world immediately split into life before Sometimes and life after. An entirely new universe opened up before me, a world of fame and riches beyond my wildest dreams, hurling me body, mind and soul into another stratosphere. To be 23 and riding the crest of a song sweeping the world country by country is to live an altered and wholly rarefied existence.
This hit, though, went far beyond the usual. Famous people from all walks of life started seeking me out, as if I had, over the course of four minutes, freakishly summed up their lives, changed their world and deconstructed their relationships. Therapists wrote to inform me that my song was used as a powerful tool in coaching couples to communicate more effectively. Countless women confessed, recounting their stories in vivid detail, how they conceived their children while my song served as an erotic soundtrack.
But for the naysayers, I had changed the world for the worst. Incredibly, groups of feminists in New York City started boycotting my record, claiming my line “At times I’d like to break you, and drive you to your knees” was encouraging violence toward women. (Once several female superstars—among them Tina Turner, Tammy Wynette, Cleo Laine, Lynn Anderson and Rosanne Cash—cut hit versions of my song, those accusations disappeared.) Men who at first loathed my song went on to despise it—and me—with a passion that crossed into something else, something deeper. As if by singing in that breathy, vulnerable voice, “I wanna hold you till I die, till we both break down and cry,” laying down my palpable “unmanliness” and braying insecurity for millions to hear, I had breached some unspoken male code—and, in doing so, tainted all men by association. And what I’d done was all the more despicable for one simple reason: an awful lot of women found the song, and thus me, damned desirable.
Whatever the accolades and the grumblings, the bling, the backlash and my inglorious, albeit inevitable, fall from grace (the plight of most pop stars—two years of fame and fortune and then you no longer pass Go; you’re history, a trivia question in a crossword puzzle)—Sometimes grew inexplicably larger, more iconic, with the passing of time. That goddamned song not only changed my life, it came perilously close to defining it.
‘‘Up against the plane—hands above your head, NOW!”
Not exactly the tourist greeting I’d been hoping for in the spring of 1979, when I decided to celebrate the purchase of my first house by spending 10 days in the Bahamas sailing a 50-foot trimaran with people I barely knew. A behemoth Bahamian police officer was pressing a machine gun to my temple.
“Where you hiding your drugs, Mr. Rasta-man?”
Rasta-man? Okay, I knew my coffee-with-two-creams complexion and my give-Don-King-a-run-for-his-money Afro left me vulnerable to the occasional border-crossing hassle or infuriating spot check by Toronto’s finest. Nonetheless, I hadn’t expected this kind of sass from a fellow black man, drug cop notwithstanding. I could see my two travelling partners—one an equally hirsute musician, the other a comely rock ’n’ roll broad smothered with motorcycle tattoos—shoved, spread-eagled, beside me, up against the body of a police aircraft.
“Don’t you know who this guy is?” the woman splayed out beside me squawked. Beatrice was the one who’d convinced me to go on this trip in the first place.
“No,” sneered the cop. He was using the barrel of his gun like some lethal paintbrush, tracing up to my temple, then down to my cheekbone, then over to the base of my skull, then repeat, as if determining the perfect spot for his bullet. His gun smelled metallic, oily and smoky, like it had been fired recently.
“He’s Dan Hill!” Beatrice’s voice had jumped an octave, to a shrill shriek. In between hyperventilations she sobbed, “He’s the guy who sings Sometimes When We Touch.”
“You lie,” three drug cops yelled out almost in unison, their voices phasing in the rain.
“Sing, Danny,” she pleaded.
And so I sang. Trying so hard to sound like myself that I sounded more like an impersonator.
“Oh, Jesus be blessed. It is him!”
Two minutes later, the cops had us safely cocooned in their plane, as the guy who’d held my life in his trigger finger filled me in on his own musical career. “I got a demo tape right here, in my knapsack, where I keep my extra gun. I’m in a reggae band, and we play your song. Will you listen to it?”
I sat incredulous in the unkempt aircraft, with the Bahamian rain banging percussively off the plane’s shell, listening to my former would-be executioner croon “the honesty’s too much” as he caressed the gun that now lay across his lap like a docile puppy.
“Who sang that song first?” people started asking me, by the mid-’80s, refusing to believe that I had been the original singer. Upon confessing that I was the perpetrator of said crime, I would often be accused of lying, followed by the demand that I sing Sometimes on the spot, regardless of where we were. (Somehow a public urinal didn’t seem an appropriate place to belt out “then the passion flares again . . .”) One time, a 300-lb. woman in a leather miniskirt sat on my lap at a bowling alley and refused to move until I sang the entire song. “Nahhh, you don’t sound at all like the real Dan Hill,” she scoffed, still refusing to budge.
As time passed, putting some welcome distance between my new life and my old one, I was increasingly struck by the extreme reactions my ’70s ballad triggered. In 1986, I recorded a comeback album that would be released the following year. I was lucky. All those years of working with powerhouse American songwriters had rubbed off on me; my writing got steadily stronger. Over the next few years, as I scored five Top 5 U.S. Adult Contemporary singles in a row, I was convinced that I’d finally done it, that I’d put the old classic behind me. My biggest hit, Can’t We Try?, peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and took the No. 1 Adult Contemporary Record of the Year honours in Billboard magazine, beating out Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. But despite the success of Can’t We Try? and my follow-up single, I Never Thought (That I Could Love)—which sold a million copies and spent more time on the Billboard charts than even That Song—none of my ’80s or ’90s hits came close to generating the impact of Sometimes.
Later, when I was no longer recognizable to the public at large after my singing career had ground to a slow crawl, I still enjoyed significant behind-the-scenes success as a songwriter. I co-wrote the hit In Your Eyes for George Benson and R & B singer Jeffrey Osborne, wrote the lyrics to Céline Dion’s first English-language hit in Canada, sang the title song to First Blood, the original Rambo movie, all the while penning and performing several theme songs for film. But even then, I’d frequently return to Toronto after working with an American superstar, only to pick up a newspaper and catch a derogatory reference to That Song. One paper wrote something like this: “One sure sign of the coming apocalypse is that Rod Stewart has recorded Sometimes When We Touch.”
Most musical acts don’t get this kind of attention even when they’re performing or releasing records, and here I was being blasted while essentially retired from the front lines of showbiz. “Those poor jaded bastards,” I said to my wife. “Don’t they see that by refusing to let my song go, they’re making it even bigger?” I had no choice but to suck it up and collect my ever-growing royalties.
When the mid-’90s hit, my songwriting career skyrocketed after I co-wrote and co-produced Seduces Me for Céline Dion’s 30-million-plus-selling CD, Falling into You. In 1997, when Dion and her various producers (myself included) won a Grammy for album of the year, people from all over the world were suddenly asking for my songs. Producers, artists, record companies. I was hot again. Only this time, it was without the public loving or hating me and the media passing judgment. That’s the beauty of songwriting for others—your status rises within the industry, your bank account bulges, but as far as the outside world is concerned, you’re invisible. After 20 years I’d finally done it, come into my own without any ’70s baggage. So I released a new album titled, perhaps too smugly, I’m Doing Fine.
My first promotional appearance to plug it was on a national Canadian TV show, hosted by Pamela Wallin. After I’d performed two new songs, Wallin invited me over for the obligatory interview. Smooth sailing until, two questions in, Wallin decided to spring a surprise.
“Have you seen the TV comedy sketch that This Hour Has 22 Minutes has done on you?” Wallin asked, clearly delighted when I confessed my ignorance. Before I could say “I’m outta here,” a clip started unreeling on a monitor the size of a movie screen while a live national audience lasered in on my reaction. The skit depicted terrorists taking over Canada while our stricken citizens cowered in basements. Outflanked and out-strategized, the Canadian military produced their last-resort secret weapon to send the enemy to screaming defeat. Blasting out of huge speakers came a familiar voice. Mine. Sure enough, the bad guys dropped their rocket launchers, leapt from their tanks and covered their ears in agony.
“How do you feel, seeing Canada’s most beloved comedy team treating your song this way, for everyone across the country to witness?” asked Wallin, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. Sheesh, if a recycled gag like that was gonna get to me, I had no business being an entertainer, I thought, while answering a little too smoothly: “It makes me wish that, 20 years from now, I’ll have another song that’s big enough to be parodied on a national stage.” Yes, it helps to have a sense of humour.
As the ’90s gave way to the new millennium, I was closing in on 50. I felt like I’d hit life’s proverbial wall, trying to make sense of living in a world that, if I thought about it too long and hard, felt meaningless and empty. Admittedly, a huge part of my ennui stemmed from my dad’s failing health, as the complications of diabetes were slowly killing him. Now I was diabetic, too, and deeply wounded by watching my father fall apart before my eyes. Battling depression, I lost interest in performing or recording or having anything remotely to do with celebrity.
Ironically, the more lost I felt as a man, the more my songs found their place in the world. In 2001, I found myself sitting in the Manhattan office of Clive Calder, the owner of Jive/Zomba records. Calder had virtually changed the face of popular music, quickly signing and turning the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and, later, *NSYNC into megastars. A fan of my songwriting, Calder had matched me up with several of his company’s artists, and I was spending a large part of my life flying around the world, working with a small coterie of big talent. Since I had recently finished writing a song with Richard Marx and Michael Bolton for Bolton’s upcoming CD, Calder wanted my feedback on a few unreleased tracks from several of his artists.
In between listening sessions, Calder recounted how he’d convinced Michael Bolton to work with me.
“When I told Michael he could benefit from your songwriting and reminded him that you co-wrote Sometimes When We Touch, Michael said, ‘From what I hear, Dan had nothing to do with that song. He was just in the room while Barry Mann wrote the entire thing.’ ” Calder cited several more of my hits until Bolton eventually agreed to write with me. But while Calder was talking, I wondered, where, pray tell, did Bolton get this impression? And, more to the point: why should I care what Bolton, or anyone else, thinks?
The beauty and the mystery of song collaboration is that it is not unlike making love. No one, other than the two people involved, will ever know what went down in the piano room or the bedroom. I’d certainly collaborated with dozens of young singers who could not write worth a lick, leaving me to compose, note for note, word for word, the entire song, for only 50 per cent of the credit. So I could see how people might assume that when I was 22 and writing with the accomplished Barry Mann, I was like one of those celebrity pups who couldn’t string a sentence together but got half of the copyright anyway.
“What’s wrong?” Calder asked, as I started laughing. Hysterically.
After all these years, all the fulsome praise and the media eviscerations, the truckloads of royalty dollars, the rude interruption of reading The New Yorker only to find That Song discussed in a story on Don Rickles—finally I was being told that I had nothing to do with Sometimes at all.
Most of the time, I can bop around Toronto, the city I still live in, thinking I’m anonymous. On one recent morning, though, as I left a taxi, my cabbie said, “Hey, Mr. Hill! You should get someone to re-record that stupid song of yours.”
“Yeah,” I conceded, “it is a stupid song. But for a stupid song, it’s done okay for me.”
And that’s the thing. A song can be stupid, yet smart. Horrible, yet brilliant. It’s the songs that elicit no response, the ones that conjure neither excitement nor disdain, that are doomed to fail. But really, let’s face it—when you break it down, a song is, after all, just a f–king song. (Now the guys who discovered insulin, Banting and Best—they’re my rock stars.)
But I got the last word on that cabbie. Call me a glutton for punishment, a musical masochist, or maybe I merely wanted to show a different side to that song. A stripped-down, as in close-to-naked, rendition—piano and voice—so that maybe, just maybe, this oh-so-cursed and blessed song can be heard anew. Tucked in amongst 14 new songs of mine on my soon-to-be released CD, Intimate, is That Song. Can a lived-in, 55-year-old voice infuse a depth, a colour, some middle-aged soul, into a song that a voice at 22 simply could not contain? I suppose the song was too big for me then. But it’s not now.