Dan Hill’s recent induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame again put the spotlight on a singer-songwriter who has quietly become one of our most successful in a nation known for its singer-songwriters.
His is a career that has seen as many as a thousand covers of songs he has recorded or penned for others. Collectively, his folio of songs have sold over 100-million copies. Dolly Parton sings his praise, Celine Dion owns a Grammy Award for a song he wrote and produced for her, and bad boy Rick James once parroted a line from one of his songs to woo a clutch of groupies into his room at the Riot House in L.A.
More rumpled corduroy and flannel shirts than flash couture, Hill for long has preferred solace to a playing up his enviable successes. He has never been one to push constant reminders in media about his extraordinary career. And extraordinary it is.
A recent autobiographical essay in The Globe and Mail was an astonishing record of unspeakable racism dealt to him in this country, sometimes overtly–more often subtly implied. It spelled out in uncomfortable detail a life confronted by racism. He’s mulatto, the son of a black father and white mother. The list of racial epithets spat at him over his career is long, from ‘oriole cookie’ to the infamous ‘n’ word that is now off the table to use in any kind of conversation. The hurt runs deep and most recently found its voice in the advance single to his first album in almost a decade, entitled What About Black Lives?
His career is peppered with odd facts and strange coincidences too. Nominated for a Grammy in the Male Vocalist category at the tail end of the ‘70s, he lost out to Barry Manilow who was then riding the crest of his fame with Copacabana. The Copa singer then followed it by recording Hill’s Grammy-nominated Sometimes When We Touch on his next album. Call it a back-handed compliment.
Hill’s latest album, On the Other Side of Here, has its release this week. It’s a quiet, pensive album that is filled with songs that speak of uncomfortable truths and romances flooded with tears. It is also the work of an exceptional songwriter whose trade craft deserves our highest honours and deepest respect.