Back before computers and television, the entertainment devices in many homes were pianos.
“We had one of those families,” reminisces popular Music Box Dancer pianist Frank Mills. “My mom would play the piano and we would gather around and sing our hearts out. …
“I’d like to bring us back to those days,” added Mills, who intends to perform a wide selection of singable favourite tunes on Thursday, Dec. 11, at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre.
While his piano concerts aren’t billed as sing-alongs, Mills believes this is what they unofficially are. “Whenever I play Christmas carols, like Silent Night or The Huron Carol, which is my favourite, I’ll bring the sound down and realize that everybody is singing along — which is funny because if I asked people to sing they wouldn’t sing! And here I don’t do anything and they are singing!” he said.
The same thing happens when Mills launches into his medleys, including Beatles tunes and scores from movies, such as Out of Africa, Hotel California and Wizard of Oz.
“Whenever I play Somewhere Over the Rainbow they all start singing it.”
The genial 72-year-old only tours once a year in the late fall, alternating between smaller centres in Eastern and Western Canada.
But nearly 40 years after his tinkly piano tune Music Box Dancer became an inexplicable hit after being introduced on an Ottawa rock station, Mills can still pack in the crowds.
“It’s amazing. I’m astonished. Some of these people have been to several of my concerts,” said the Montreal native, who has had many pinch-me moments in a career that goes back to jingle writing.
The pianist leads a pretty bucolic life now with this second wife.
They have a farm in Vermont, where Mills raises “cute” Jersey cows and vegetables and a townhouse in the Bahamas, where he likes to fish. But there were plenty of lean years when Mills’ three children were young.
He remembers working as a real estate agent for a while in Toronto to supplement his income from writing music for commercials.
But he stuck with his love of music, even though he held a taxi driver’s licence in reserve just in case he had to use it (he never did.)
Suddenly in the late 1970s, his persistence began paying off. “I went from having done three commercials and one television show in a year to having hundreds of TV shows the next year,” he recalled.
The difference was that tinkly little recording that almost never got released at all.
Mills said he wrote Music Box Dancer in 1972-73 and recorded it in 1974, but the company that released it went broke and it stayed in a drawer for four years.
Mills was with Polydor Records in 1978 when they brought a new guy over from the U.K. to beef up the public profiles of their performers.
A friend who worked in radio was spoken to and next thing you know, an Ottawa rock station began playing his Music Box Dancer piano instrumental — to a huge reaction from listeners. “The switchboards lit up,” recalled Mills.
That this ear-wormish tune, which he considers neither the most complex nor musically interesting of his original compositions, resonated with soft rock listeners “still boggles my mind. …
“But I’m not going to argue with public tastes,” said Mills, with a big chuckle.
The pianist also composed the hits Peter Piper, Love Me, Love Me, Love and The Happy Song. His latest album is Piano Fun with Frank Mills. It’s a collection of two CDs — one containing re-engineered recordings of Mills playing with studio orchestras, and the other contains just the symphonic accompaniment so budding pianists can play along, using sheet music that also comes with the collection.
It’s not every day that a piano player gets orchestral accompaniment, said Mills, who wanted to share the experience with fans who play the piano. While some of the tunes are quite complicated, there are many for beginners — as he intends to show on an informercial. He added, “You can be a one-finger pianist and still play along with an orchestra.”
Mills sees his new CD collection as another attempt to bring back the good old days.
Tickets to the 7 p.m. show are $61.85 from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.