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The Legend and Legacy of Musician and Author Dan Hill

22 November 2010 68 views No Comment

BY: Andrea Thompson

The story of a mortified 15-year-old being punished by his father for refusing to masturbate isn’t the kind of opening you’d expect from a memoir about a Canadian music icon. But in Dan Hill’s recently released, I Am My Father’s Son: A Memoir of Love and Forgiveness, this kind of humour and uncompromising honesty is what sets the book apart from any other bestselling novel.

Speaking to me from his home in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood, the 54-year-old Grammy- and Juno Award-winning singer/songwriter explains that his goal was to write about the truth of family relationships. In Hill’s case, this included his lifelong struggle to gain the praise of his late father and namesake, the larger than life Daniel Grafton Hill III, a scholar and activist often referred to as Canada’s father of human rights.

“Trying to please my father was like a never-ending journey. Part of our relationship was formed on this thing that was like chasing infinity,” Hill explains. “The need to have your parents’ approval, the need to succeed never changes. So that when you’re in your fifties, you still want your parents to be proud of you as much as you did when you were 15.”

Like many teenagers, Hill rebelled against his father’s expectations. “I didn’t finish high school. I didn’t become a scholar. But really, I was doing the same thing as my dad insofar that I wanted to be successful.” This need to achieve led Hill to fame and fortune. By the age of 19, he had been praised by legendary artists José Feliciano, Harry Belafonte and Cleo Laine. A few years later, his song, “Sometimes When We Touch,” became a number one hit around the world. Since then, Hill has gone on to write and produce songs for superstars such as Céline Dion, Alan Jackson, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, as well as for countless movie soundtracks.

In addition to being a story of generational tradition, rebellion and ambition, I Am My Father’s Son, also delves unflinchingly into the world of family secrets. Nothing is off limits, including the rape of his great-great grandmother by a white man at age16, while she was working as a seamstress at the White House of President Ulysses S. Grant; or his grief and terror over his mother’s and sister’s struggles with mental illness. “I wanted to blow the lid off the secrecy and shame,” says Hill. “I think that what happened in my family is not that dissimilar to most families… whether your family is ‘successful’ or not is irrelevant. Every family has stuff within its structure and dynamic that no one ever talks about.”

Like his brother, the best-selling author Lawrence Hill, who penned the 2001 memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, Dan Hill also explores his experiences as a bi-racial adolescent in the predominantly white, middle-class suburb of Don Mills in Toronto. “You feel ashamed that you are different as a mixed race kid,” Hill confides. “And then you feel ashamed that you’re ashamed … yet you can’t talk to anybody about it… that you want to look like Donny Osmond, Sean Connery or whatever…. I think a lot of creative people suffer from dark periods, and some of us feel sometimes that we’re a little bit different. That we don’t fit in.”

Living his youth in the spotlight of celebrity also brought its share of public challenges. While still in his twenties, Hill’s world began to unravel. “My girlfriend kicked me out and I wanted to kill myself,” he says. “My record company dropped me, and I was being sued for $2 million by one person, and a quarter of a million by the IRS.” Ironically, it was in those moments of crisis that his father’s love and support became unconditional. “Whenever the chips were down, he was right there,” Hill recalls.

As a father of a 20-year-old son, Hill notes that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the family tree. After a period of rebellion that led to being terrorized by violent gang members, David Hill is currently working on a book of his own called Writing Saved My Life.

In a voice swelling with pride, Hill says, “My son is an excellent writer. I’ve tried my best to mentor him and to show through example, how rather than running away from being a little bit different, you embrace it and you write about it. It’s people who are a little bit weird and a little bit off who often invent things that change the world.”

Watch Dan Hill and Vonda Shepard perform “Can’t we Try”

Originally published in Sway Magazine, Spring 2009

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