SURREY — Frank Mills turns 75 years of age in June, but he’s not about to call his current tour a final bow.
On the phone from Vermont, the Quebec-born musician sounds excited to be performing in concert halls this spring, including Surrey’s Bell Performing Arts Centre on Friday, May 5.
The good-natured piano man, whose “Music Box Dancer” became a massive hit in 1979, is loving life in America’s beautiful New England region.
“It’s a long story why we live here,” he explained. “I had a ski house here years and years ago, and when Brenda and I got married 16 years ago we decided we wanted live here, and here we are. We love it here. It’s very civilized, and it’s not an overly populated state to begin with, and that suits me fine. It’s very rural, a country place, and that’s the way we like it.”
The place doesn’t have a home studio, and that also suits him fine.
“I’m not recording anymore,” Mills noted. “There’s an expression that says, to every thing there’s a season, and I see my grandchildren playing piano and listening to music and they’re not listening to what I used to listen to, and I’m not listening to what they listen to. I don’t think I’d be contributing in any way. They listen to my piano and orchestra stuff and one of them said, ‘Gosh, I’ve never heard a real orchestra before.’ That was a final kicker,” he added with a laugh. “You know, ‘Give it up, granddad!’”
Mills’ coming tour of Canada’s western provinces will include music from his recent “After the Dancer” album, a collection of songs that were eclipsed, commercially, by the success of his best known song.
“Music Box Dancer” was written and recorded in 1974, but it didn’t become a hit for Mills until five years later.
“It was such a mega-hit and mega-surprise, it still goes on, just mind-boggling,” he said. “But it’s wonderful, of course, and I’m proud of it. The other thing is, and don’t tell anybody, but it was just another song, you know? And when it took off, I was in the business for long enough to kind of realize what was happening, but as a piano player with an orchestra, it totally caught me off guard. A lot of things happened in a big way, and in a hurry, during that time.”
In 2010, after a period of retirement from music, Mills was asked by Rita MacNeil to join him on a Christmas-themed tour that included a concert at Surrey’s Bell. Mills fondly remembers the singer, who died three years later.
“Rita was just such a typical Maritimer, with a great sense of humour, and nothing bothered her,” Mills recalled. “She was very nervous before she went out (on stage), ironically. For me, I tend not to be that way anymore, it’s just fun for me to meet the folks. But her, she’d be very hyper before she went on stage and I’d try to cheer her up and break the ice a bit, and once she got out there she was fine.”
More than ever, Mills said he gives his performances some personality.
“My style, maybe it puts people to sleep sometimes, because I’m so laid-back,” he said with a laugh. “But really, I like to talk to the audience now more than I used to, and now I’m not afraid to tell them some of the things I wouldn’t have told them years ago – the seedy side of life, you know. Most of the songs have a story with them, and that’s what people want to hear.”
• Tickets for “An Evening with Frank Mills” at the Bell are $61 via Bellperformingartscentre.com.