Fathers and sons

Dan Hill’s absorbing new memoir reveals a complicated family and time

What everyone remembers about Dan Hill is that song, and what most of us remember about the song is how much we came to hate it. Sometimes When We Touch hit the airwaves in 1977 and never really went away. That was the problem, wryly concedes its creator, who came at times to loathe it himself as much as anyone else. “So many pop stars recorded it, and so many movies, TV shows and commercials featured it, it was bigger than me, bigger than life.” By the time it came to rank among the most-played 100 songs of the past 50 years, it’s “no wonder people hated it, they’d heard it too many times; the damned song was like a dripping faucet that couldn’t be turned off.”

Hill waited for 340 pages of I Am My Father’s Son (HarperCollins), his absorbing hybrid memoir of his own life and his specific relationship with his father, to get that off his chest. And quite rightly too, since Hill is much more than the sum of one song, even one, as he notes, recorded by so many artists that it would take two pages to list the numerous, wildly variant, versions. (What else, it has to be asked, has been recorded by all of the following: Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Tammy Wynette, Donny Osmond and Rosanne Cash?) A decade after Sometimes Hill had another string of hits, before a Celine Dion recording of one of his songs launched him on an even more successful career as a songwriter. A more lucrative career too—the combined unit sales of Dan Hill songs now approaches 100 million.

The book covers that aspect of Hill’s life in detail, in an unvarnished account of a business that’s mostly fallen before the Internet, and includes some fine touches from Hill’s vivid memories. A backstage visit with Tina Turner, for one, when they talked about songs while Turner lathered on cold cream, complained of her aches and pains, and morphed before Hill’s eyes “from sexiest woman in the world to my great-aunt Mabel.”

But it’s the personal that dominates here. The Hills are a talented family. Brother Larry is a prominent, prize-winning novelist, who has already tackled much of the family saga fictionally in Any Known Blood (1997). Father Dan—the singer is actually Daniel Hill IV—is a significant figure in the recent history of Ontario, a black American who immigrated to Canada in 1953 with his white wife, Donna, and became the first director of the province’s Human Rights Commission. The Hills were a remarkable couple merely by virtue of their courage and determination in crossing a harshly enforced colour line, and Donna’s recollections of how the personal and the political intertwined in the two families’ reactions to the marriage is one of the high points of her son’s memoir.

It’s a constant of human affairs, of course, that high-achieving, high-powered fathers and equally determined first-born sons with career plans of their own (like dropping out of school to become a musician) have their difficulties. When that age-old story takes place against the backdrop of  the 1960s the father is bound to be The Man personified to an even greater degree than usual. Except that Dan Sr. was the very antithesis of the Establishment to the world at large, however overbearing he was at home. And the world outside, even in the genteel Toronto suburb of Don Mills could be less than welcoming to mixed-race children. I Am My Father’s Son describes a complicated family, in a complicated situation in a complicated time, and does it with honesty and verve.