Canada 1972: Frank Mills – Tickling The Ivories and Breaking The Rules

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A scan of RPM’s Canadian singles chart for 1972 suggests that the year I was born wasn’t necessarily a big one for Canadian musicians, despite the launch of the CRTC and its Canadian-content rules for the nation’s radio and TV stations four years earlier.

Only three Canadian artists topped the RPM singles chart in 1972. One of them, Neil Young, did it twice with the iconic “Heart of Gold,” which actually reclaimed the top spot in May ’72 after taking it a month earlier. (More on that later this week.) The second, Anne Murray, reached the #1 slot with her cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Cotton Jenny.”

But the only other Canadian scaling the RPM singles chart’s lofty heights the year I was born was arguably the unlikeliest pop star of the ’70s or any era – Montreal-born pianist, composer and singer Frank Mills, with his poignant, sentimental ballad “Love Me, Love Me, Love.”

Released as part of Mills’ debut album Seven Of My Songs the previous fall, “Love Me, Love Me, Love” spent two weeks atop the RPM singles charts in February and March, just a few months shy of Mills’ 30th birthday.

However, Mills’ best-known and most-beloved song was yet to come, even though it would languish in obscurity for four years before a DJ played it by accident in 1978. The sprightly piano piece “Music Box Dancer” was originally released on a 1974 Mills album but failed to catch on. When Polydor Records Canada signed Mills four years later, the label put “Music Box Dancer” as a B-side to a single sent to Canadian easy-listening stations. It accidentally wound up at Ottawa pop station CFRA, causing the station’s program director to play both sides to see if the single was improperly labelled. He took a shine to the inventive piano piece, added it to CFRA’s playlist, and suddenly “Music Box Dancer” was a nationwide hit, resulting in a gold record for Mills and a U.S. release of the album and single from Polydor.

A million-seller in the States in 1979, “Music Box Dancer” went on to find some unlikely homes in American pop culture. Hardcore fans of The Simpsons have heard the tune accompany a teenage Homer Simpson’s ill-fated gymnastics routine in a flashback portion of the ninth-season episode “Bart Star.” It’s also showed up in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill film series and the animated sequel Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. 

(Left: Abe Simpson tears down young Homer after sabotaging his “Music Box Dancer” gymnastics routine. Right: There is no proof that the faux Simpsons album Lovely To Love Your Lovin’, referenced in the eleventh-season episode “Behind The Laughter,” was inspired by Frank Mills “Love Me, Love Me, Love.” But as Mr. Dress-Up or The Friendly Giant will tell you, it’s fun to pretend.)

As a young piano player, I took a shine to “Music Box Dancer” and frequently mashed it up with another Mills piece, “Peter Piper,” which won two JUNO Awards in 1980 and hit #48 on the U.S. singles charts. Years later, I still enjoyed slipping “Music Box Dancer” into my instrumental-piano contract performances and found it a popular party piece around my part of Nova Scotia.

I have an enduring memory of an elderly fellow from the Town of Mulgrave whose children regularly invited me to play at their annual December family gatherings; I would finish the last strains of “Music Box Dancer” and he would lean back in his easy chair and announce to the room, “I just LOVE that MAGIC BOX DANCER!”

(Yes, “Magic Box Dancer.” Every single time. A decade later, I can still hear it as plain as day.)

So why have these piano melodies defied convention, topped the pop charts and endured to this day? When I had the opportunity to interview Mills for The Reporter in 2014 shortly before his latest Christmas tour arrived in Port Hawkesbury, he suggested that people were ready for something new in 1978 after so many years of disco derivatives’ dominance of radio playlists and singles charts. And besides:

“It’s a happy song. You listen to a lot of the music today and from the recent past, and happy songs are hard to come by…So I think maybe ‘Music Box’ is still so big, because of that.”

As for “Music Box Dancer’s” place as a movie and TV placeholder, Mills had this to say:

“There’s never any fun little musical gadgets – there used to be more of that stuff than there is now. I don’t know whether it’s because we’re part of the ‘name’ culture – we all wear the same five or six kinds of jeans, and we all drive similar cars.”

For the record: Mills, who gives an utterly charming and delightful interview, did indeed play “Music Box Dancer” when he showed up on that Christmas tour. And, to bring things back full circle, he’s also still playing “Love Me, Love Me, Love” – nearly 45 years after it first topped the Canadian charts.

Thanks, Frank.

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