Mr. Music Box Man

One day my young daughter came to me with a broken music box to mend. There was a little dancer who popped up and spun around on a pedestal. Her arm was broken off. As I looked at I said, “That’s what the song is, it’s the “Music Box Dancer!”

Early childhood influences had a hand in preparing Frank Mills for events that led to his International stature and renown as a composer / arranger / pianist.

Music was a familiar presence in the Mills household in 1942, when Frank was born. His mother was a piano player, his dad a businessman who was also known for his rousing Irish tenor. His sister took piano lessons and it was from listening to her practice he began to master the piano by ear.

Still later he took up the trombone, playing in the school band and becoming perhaps even more proficient at this second instrument. During his teen years, his family life virtually disintegrated as both his parents, who had been ill from the time of Frank’s earliest memories, died of cancer by the time he was 17.

Frank Mills’ formal training in music continued at McGill University in Montreal, but not without one of the whimsical manoeuvrings of fate that were to become commonplace in his musical career. He, actually, began studies as a pre-med student, but, alas, did not fare well academically.

It was on his way to the Navy recruitment office, he ran into a friend in the music faculty, who talked him into taking the entrance exam to the university’s music department. He scored 98% on the exam and found his life’s calling.

In 1971 his professional music career got its first taste of success. He was a member of a Canadian group, The Bells, whose recording “Stay A While” went to Number 1 on the US and Canadian music charts.

It was as a piano player with The Bells, Frank Mills, developed his unique personal style of playing up high on the keyboard “in self defence,” as he says. “I had to compete with two electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, an electric bass and a drum kit. It’s the only place I could hear myself.”

Frank left The Bells in 1971 to focus his talents on making an instrumental album of his own compositions. Within months of its release in Canada, he had his first personal hit, “Love Me, Love Me, Love” which sold over 100,000 copies and launched his solo career.

In 1973, he recorded another album on his own which was initially leased to a recording label that dissolved in bankruptcy, forcing his effort to lie in limbo for several years. As frustrating as that course of events seemed at the time, good fortune was to be the result. (In lieu of payment for the pre-bankruptcy sales, Frank was given the remaining album inventory – about 800 pieces –, which he diligently promoted, to radio stations across the country.)

On the dormant album, a track named “The Music Box Dancer” resided unnoticed.

“When I composed the song, I was searching for a title. One day my young daughter came to me with a broken music box to mend. There was a little dancer who popped up and spun around on a pedestal. Her arm was broken off. As I looked at I said, “That’s what the song is, it’s the “Music Box Dancer!”

In 1976, Polydor records, which he had recorded for earlier, leased that “dormant” album for distribution at the same time releasing a single off it for airplay. (These were the days, of LP’s and 45’s! – the idea being to release a small 45 disc to promote the sale of the larger, usually 10 to 12 track long-play recording). Polydor chose a lush, romantic ballad, “The Poet and Me” as the “A” side and “a little funny piano tune” titled “Music Box Dancer” on the flip.

“The flip” was to play the most crucial and important part in the resurgence and eventual worldwide success of Frank Mills career. The “flip” occurred when David Watts, an Ottawa DJ, and friendly acquaintance of Frank, decided the “A” side was not for him, nor for his listeners. For Frank’s sake, he “flipped” the record over and played the “B” side on the air…..

The rest, as they say, is now etched in the record books!

For the record!

“Music Box Dancer” became the Number 1 record in 26 countries selling millions of singles along the way. In the “music business rarity” category, the tune was Number 1 in Japan three times within a year – 1st – the original Frank Mills single, 2nd – a Japanese rendition and finally in Chinese!

The album sold well over two million copies remunerating Frank handsomely as he wrote, arranged, conducted and recorded it himself. Since it was a “master lease” deal, he owned the entire project.

“Music Box Dancer” has garnered more than 24 gold albums worldwide; earned a Million-Airs award from BMI for over a million radio plays; sheet music sales have well exceeded 3 million copies and the tune received a 1980 Grammy nomination for “Best Instrumental.”

In all it’s various interpretations to date, “Music Box Dancer” has sold close to 6 million copies.

Quite the record!

“You couldn’t stop the thing,” exclaims Frank. “I could go into radio studios to do interviews and the switchboard was jammed, just jammed! We hit when the disco era had just died, and I guess I got lucky – again!”

It has been awhile since the early 1970’s when the “flip” took place to forever change the life of the creator of the tuneful instrumental named after his little girl’s broken music box. That fateful happening (and increasingly fruitful) composition has fuel an amazing career, propelling Frank Mills into the rare area shared by Canada’s most prolific and most successful composers of modern times.

“To this day I do not consider myself a piano player. There are guys in the classics that can play circles around me, any time. But then I never have competed with them. It’s sort of like saying, “Well, Garth Brooks isn’t competing with Pavarotti.” And that’s the business.”

Frank Mills now fully spends and enjoys his home in Vermont, tapping his maple syrup and divining the result (ever true to his Montreal, Quebec upbringing) into Mills’ “Sriop ‘e Radle au Francoise!” His more southern home in the Bahamas also harbours his famous syrup but more especially his beloved sailing vessel on which family and friends spend a good deal of time.

And time is what Frank is making the most of these days. He has put the rigours of road tours, TV and public appearances and the like behind him. He is now liking those meaningful personal things so important to one with his convictions and outlook.

“I promised myself that I would always make time to do the things I want to do. As much as music is one of those things, it is not the almighty. It will never be for me. “One of the Rothschilds said, “I am a gardener by profession, and a banker by hobby.’ Well, I consider myself a musician by hobby. I have so many interests in life.”

While writing music ranks only “as one of those things he does, it has, nonetheless, been paramount in his life’s pursuits. It has been the vehicle that has permitted him the opportunity to pursue all his other pastimes.

The robust and jovial Frank Mills is a personality of a thousand stories, one more intriguing than the next. To hear him tell the tale, his life’s twists and turns, has been a cross between a magic carpet ride and a rainy day relaxing on the living room couch. But it is a journey that he has carved out for himself in what has become a constant stretching to reach new heights and objectives. Of course, there is never any real retiring from that!

His outlook is perhaps best summed up in a phrase he coined himself.

“If you shoot for the stars, you might end up with a cloud. But if you only shoot for the clouds, you might end up sitting on your butt.”