‘An Intimate Evening with Frank Mills’ is set for the Memorial Centre on Dec. 11th.
Known the world over for his megahit Music Box Dancer released back in 1978, Mills, who hails from Montreal, will be sharing tunes from his vast collection during the performance, which begins at 7 p.m.
Mills describes the show as kind of a broad representation of several eras spanning his career. “I’ll do segments, for example from my years as a ‘beginning’ piano player,” he explains, adding there will be tunes from his days as a kid to classical pieces by masters like Beethoven to pop hits made famous by Elvis Presley.
“It’s really how I grew up – I loved all of it,” he said. “I draw from various segments of my life, so it’s a long show,” he added with a laugh.
First and foremost, Mills considers himself a songwriter although of course his name is virtually synonymous with piano playing. “I look back, and now I see sitting in front of me, a songbook of 75 songs that I have written for piano. But I didn’t think of myself as being a ‘piano’ songwriter,” he said. “But I wake up and think, ‘My God,’ I guess that’s what I was doing’. And then we just happened to record them all.”
Mills trained at Montreal’s McGill University in composition, not in performance.
“And my major instrument, which I studied in high school, was trombone. So the piano was really my second instrument. So that’s why I don’t consider myself a great piano player – I’m not, really. If you put me up against any of these people who were playing Mozart and all of that – forget it.”
Still, it wasn’t long before folks in the industry began to take note of his flourishing talent. In 1971 his professional music career got its first taste of success. He was a member of a Canadian group The Bells, whose recording Stay A While went to number one on the U.S. and Canadian music charts.
It was as a piano player with The Bells that Mills developed his unique personal style of playing up high on the keyboard “in self defense,” as he says.
“I had to compete with two electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, an electric bass and a drum kit. It’s the only place I could hear myself.”
Mills left The Bells in 1971 to focus his talents on making an instrumental album of his own compositions. He laughs, recalling his shock at how sizable some of those early royalty cheques were from the tunes he had penned thus far. “It blew me away, and I remember thinking all I need is one big one.”
He wouldn’t have to wait too long.
In 1973, he recorded another record on his own which was initially released to a label that dissolved in bankruptcy, forcing his effort to lie in limbo for several years. On the dormant project was Music Box Dancer.
“I used to have five or six songs on the go at once,” he explains. “As far as I was concerned, if it didn’t come to me in half an hour, it wasn’t worth writing and it went in the basket.” So as Music Box Dancer was taking shape, it was just one of several tunes – about 11 – Mills happened to be working on at the time. It was also one of the pieces he was compiling in order to have enough songs ready to go for a recording.
He wanted to include it on the record at the time because he had an inkling it had some commercial appeal. But he had no idea how explosively popular it would become.
“I knew it was a happy song – and it’s much harder to write happy music then sad music. And my kids used to jump up and down when they heard it saying, ‘Play Music Box, daddy’. We didn’t have a title for it then, so we didn’t really know what to call it,” he chuckles.
“One day my young daughter came to me with a broken music box to mend. There was a little dancer who popped up and spun around on a pedestal. Her arm was broken off. As I looked at I said that’s what the song is, it’s the Music Box Dancer.”
Music Box Dancer shot to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in April of 1979 and also reached number three on the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart.
It also landed in the top 10 of many pop music charts throughout Europe and Asia.
“At the time, the disco era was just coming to an end so I think Music Box Dancer was a breath of fresh air in that regard.”
In all its various interpretations to date Music Box Dancer has sold close to six million copies.
And to this day, he never tires of performing it because of the enthusiastic response it generates.
But the exhilaration of success aside, Mills takes it all in stride. Music, while he certainly loves it, is not the ‘be all and end all’ of life. “Some (artists) get addicted to it and can’t live without out it, but that’s not me,” he explains of the adulation that comes with fame.
He also cherishes his time at home these days, too, which happens to be a lovely farm in Vermont. When he’s not on the road, that’s likely where you will find him keeping very busy with all aspects of a rural lifestyle. He certainly isn’t sitting around when he’s not on the road wondering how to fill his time.
“I don’t have enough time in a day to not know what to do.”
For tickets, check out www.blackknightinn.ca or call 403-755-6626.