You know you’ve made a timeless classic when one of your songs is used in a Quentin Tarantino film.
In the martial arts revenge pic, Kill Bill Vol. 1, there’s a scene when The Bride (played by Uma Thurman) is standing outside of the house to confront her enemy Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and an ice cream truck jingle can be heard.
The tune is Music Box Dancer.
That famed instrumental piece lives on to this day, as does the man who wrote it, Montreal-born pianist/composer Frank Mills.
About to perform in Vernon as part of his 18-city tour across western Canada, Mills wrote Music Box Dancer in 1972 , but his record company waited six years to release it. It made its premiere on an Ottawa rock(!) radio station and would ultimately skyrocket Mills onto the international stage and into the number one spot in 26 countries.
“There was a time where I would play Music Box Dancer 10 times and go home, but I realized there is a lot of music out there. I tried to retire once, but it didn’t work out. However, this may be my last tour” said Mills, talking about his trek, which brings him to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Monday.
Mills is quick to point out that the show is not a Christmas concert, but an intimate evening of music, including time honoured hits such as Peter Piper, Love Me, Love Me, Love and The Happy Song, alongside selections from his two seasonal CDs.
A seasoned storyteller, Mills will also relate 10 tales from his life.
“This tour is more of a thank you and a way to celebrate life. I am grateful for whatever little talent I have left. I’ve had my ups and downs, but at 72 years of age, this is a nice place to be. I am grateful to be waking up every morning.”
Now living on a farm in Vermont, where he is a concert pianist for three months of the year and a farmer the rest, Mills’ own story takes him back to his days growing up in Verdun, a borough of Montreal.
“I start my show with the first song I ever played at seven years of age: To a Wigwam. It was part of the John Hopkins’ method for piano for beginners. Mrs. Gee was my piano teacher. She had more patience than I had,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be raised in Verdun. The town was new. The school was new. There was no lack of opportunity.”
At 14, Mills joined a dance band and played his first sock hop at his high school.
“My father was shocked. He asked if I was getting paid. It was $15 back then. Today it would be $150. Dad was not pleased with my choice of career, but I knew I’d much rather be on stage with a piano than dancing with some girl on the floor. I was sort of plump back then,” said Mills.
Mills shed the weight after getting into long distance running and also started his own jazz band in university.
“I had a sports car, but I still did not have a lot of time for girls. I spent two years at McGill playing in the band all weekend in Montreal. It was an amazing city. I still love to go back,” he said.
Mills left Montreal in 1977 during the growth of the Quebec nationalist movement and the rise of the Parti Quebecois and its founder, then premier René Lésvesque.
“It was either stay in Quebec and be immersed in Quebec music and culture or go out and face the ugly world,” said Mills. “I find political things hard. It was necessary. I don’t deny it. You had eight million people living there who brush their teeth with French toothpaste.”
After a couple of lean years in Toronto, Mills ended up leaving Canada all together, moving down to the Bahamas in 1979 with his first wife and their three children, two girls and a son.
(Mills would later write a book about his experiences sailing around the Bahamas in 2010, called My Travels with Morley.)
“The Bahamas is a very loose place, full of thieves and pirates and I was one of them. I had a beautiful yacht and went fishing a lot, drank too much rum, drank too much beer, but I was having more fun than playing in a bar or in a concert. If I wanted to make money, I should have been in the States doing tours. That was never my objective, I wanted to have fun.”
Then there are the people Mills has met along the way, including several encounters with the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau – and a particularly memorable one.
“He had the embarrassing distinction of falling on his ass on a ski hill in front of me. I told him to relax. ‘I voted for you,’” said Mills, adding, “The funniest stories are the most real ones and play on human emotions.”
That emotion comes out when Mills speaks of his friend and colleague Rita MacNeil, who died suddenly at the age of 68 in 2013.
“I did the same tour out east last year. It was the first time I toured out there without Rita. I can’t do Christmas music without her,” said Mills.
“Rita died too young. She was a great talent. I liked working with her. She was scared stiff before going on stage. I’d have fun singing songs and changing the words to something naughty before she’d go on stage. She’d just look at me and laugh.”
Those songs, unfortunately, won’t be included in Mills’ upcoming concert.
“The two-and-a-half hours are never the same from one night to the next. It really depends on the audience. I like to put in two medleys to change the pace a bit – one of the medleys is my favourites and the other medley is of The Beatles,” he said.
And for those wishing to hear that song that has made its way from stages and stations around the world to an ice cream truck in a Quentin Tarantino film, Mills says you can expect that one too.
Monday’s concert starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the Ticket Seller in the Performing Arts Centre (549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca) and cost $56.75.