Gary: “This post will be about music that not everyone in the World had the opportunity to hear. Maybe some of it got to Europe and a couple of songs made it on to the Billboard Top 40, but there was, and is, so much talent in my country, Canada, that I have decided to share.
In the late 1960s and early 70s a group out of Montreal, would make it onto the Billboard Top 40. They had a piano player who would write and record one of “the most popular” sheet music songs in history. He would also make it onto the Billboard Top 40. So, for all of the people who read this blog I give you…
Ann Ralph (lead vocals)
Jacki Ralph (lead vocals)
Cliff Edwards (guitar, vocals)
Doug Gravelle (drums, vocals)
Gordie McLeod (organ, vocals)
Mickey Ottier (keyboards; replaced McLeod)
Charlie Clark (guitar, vocals)
Michael Waye (bass, vocals)
Frank Mills (keyboards; replaced Mickey Ottier 1968-70)
Dennis Will (keyboards; replaced Frank Mills)
Skip Layton (drums; replaced Doug Gravelle)
Will “Wayne” Cardinal (bass; replaced Michael Waye)
As the Five Bells, this Montreal band formed in 1965 with sisters Ann and Jacki Ralph, Cliff Edwards, Doug Gravelle and Gordie McLeod.
The band’s rock-of-all-ages appeal took them from dates in Canadian small towns to 11 weeks at New York City’s Copacabana night club, and then to multi-million dollar resort hotels throughout the US and world-famous vacation spots in Bermuda and the Bahamas.
Adding keyboardist Mickey Ottier, they cut their first single in 1969, “Moody Manitoba Morning“. written by Rick Neufeld. The song earned them two Moffatt Awards that year. This was followed by a full-blown album called Dimensions on Polydor Records.
With the departure of Ann Ralph (then married to Cliff Edwards) in 1970 to become a full-time Mom, the band adjusted its line-up and renamed themselves The Bells. The reconstituted line-up consisted of Jacki Ralph’s, Cliff Edwards, Doug Gravelle and new members Charlie Clark, Michael Waye — both from The Maritimes — and Frank Mills.
While recording their true debut album, Fly, Little White Dove, Fly, Frank Mills left to pursue a very successful solo career and was replaced by talented Montreal keyboardist Dennis Will, though Mills was credited with all the keyboards on the record. The title track, written by Marty Butler and Bob Bilyk, landed the band in the Top 10 on the Canadian charts in December 1970.
The 1971 follow-up single “Stay Awhile“, however, would proved to be a monster hit – going to No. 1 in Canada and No. 7 in the US on the Billboard Top-100 in March 1971.
This led to successful appearances in the US including TV shows like Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’, Merv Griffin, and Guy Lombardo’s annual New Years Eve telecast.
The single would go on to sell four million copies worldwide. Columbia House would even go as far as re-packaging the Fly, Little White Dove, Fly LP for their subscribers under the name Stay Awhile to capitalize on the success.
They rapidly climbed the ladder of success, touring Canada and the United States to great critical acclaim on the heels of 1972’s Studio “A”.
A few years later drummer Skip Layton and bassist Will “Wayne” Cardinal (ex-Satan And The D-Men, Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks) joined the group following the departure of Doug Gravelle, Cliff Edwards (who had a solo career to nurture) and Michael Waye for 1973’s Pisces Rising.
Dennis Will eventually left to form his own showband leaving Jacki Ralph and The Bells to continue touring until the mid-80s. At this point Will Cardinal also left to join Mashmakhan’s Rayburn Blake in the Lisa Hartt Band.
At the turn of the millennium, the entourage frequently re-united for one-off shows including three reunion concerts in 2003 (Port Hope, Brockville and Kingston).
Interest has been so strong in the act that Universal Music finally fashioned a ‘best of’ package in 2005 under the supervision of the band.
Former member Gordie McLeod became a policeman in Westmount, Quebec; Dennis Will has been performing in the Toronto area for over 20 years, including nightly at Hy’s Restaurant and Piano Bar in downtown Toronto.
The band was managed from the very beginning by Montrealer, Kevin Hunter, who went on to manage Natalie Cole and Peter, Paul and Mary among others; Will Cardinal rejoined Skip Layton as a member of Ocean before settling in Nanaimo, BC where he plays more casual gigs, repairs speakers and helps build PA systems for the pleasure of better sound.
Frank Mills came from a musically appreciative family growing up in Verdun, PQ. His mother was a piano player, and his dad, a businessman, loved to throw parties and sing in an Irish tenor. His sister also took piano lessons and so it seemed only fitting that Mills himself would be tapping out songs by ear on the family’s $200 piano by age 3.
As his own abilities progressed he was soon entertaining the folks from nearby cottages and performing at dad’s parties. Formal training would come later, though, and even later still he would take up the trombone, playing in the school band and becoming perhaps even more proficient at this second instrument.
Unfortunately, it was also during those teen years that his family life virtually disintegrated. Both his parents had been ill from the time of his earliest memories, and both would die of cancer by the time he was 17.
Mills’ formal training in music would continue at McGill University in Montreal, while studying as a pre-med student, but he failed some important courses and was literally kicked out of McGill.
While on his way to the local recruiting office to join the navy, he ran into a friend in the music faculty of McGill University, who talked him into taking the entrance exam to the university’s music department. He scored 98% on the exam.
There he was required to master two instruments. It so happened he was proficient in trombone and piano which he received a diploma for at the Grade II conservatory level.
By the late ’60’s Mills had become part of The Bells who began achieving success with several singles like “Fly Little White Dove, Fly” and the 1971 million selling hit “Stay Awhile“. This record went to Number 1 in both the U.S. and Canada but friction within the group led Frank to exit in March of ’71, while the hit was still #1 virtually everywhere in the world.
Mills instead would get married (a marriage that would only last 9 years before ending in divorce).
Having left the Bells, and also having a family to feed, he worked for a while as secretary- treasurer for a municipality.
At the same time he also worked for CBC-TV as pianist on a weekly TV show called ‘Sunday Brunch‘.
During this time he recorded his first album through a deal with Polydor who had also handled The Bells. ‘Seven Of My Songs‘ produced the hit single “Love Me, Love Me, Love.” The record sold over 100,000 copies in Canada on its way to Number 1, and effectively launching his solo career.
By 1972 he recorded yet another instrumental album on his own called simply ‘Reflections Of My Childhood‘. The record was originally leased by a small label that eventually went bankrupt and in lieu of payment, Mills was given the remaining album inventory – about 800 pieces – and he trekked across Canadian promoting it single handedly to radio stations.
In 1978, Polydor, his old label, leased the now 5-year old album from Mills for distribution. For a single they chose two songs that had been showing a lot of airplay. The A-side would be a lush, romantic ballad called “The Poet And Me,” while the B-side was a quaint little piano song called “Music Box Dancer.”
Enter David Watts, rock deejay in Ottawa, and friendly acquaintance of Frank. The A-side of the record, Watts decided, was not his style, nor his listeners’. But for Frank’s sake, he flipped the record over and played “Music Box Dancer” on the air.
For a year the single visited the Number one spot in some 26 countries, selling several million copies on its way. In a music business rarity, the tune shot to Number 1 in Japan three times within one year: first by Mills, next by a Japanese act, and finally in by a Chinese act.
The album eventually sold over two million copies and Mills still owned the master recordings making it a rather lucrative pay-off. The song’s phenomenal frolic is witnessed by more than two dozen gold albums it has won worldwide.
It also earned a Million-Airs award from BMI for over one million radio plays, and sheet music sales for surpassing 3,000,000 copies and received a Grammy nomination in 1980 for ‘Best Instrumental’.
To date the song has sold in excess of five million copies.. He has, in his 25 year career composed and/or arranged 28 albums (20 of which have gone either gold and/or platinum in Canada).
He has also received
- a New York Film Festival award for the sound track ‘Ski East‘ (1976);
- an RPM Magazine Programmers Award (1976);
- three Juno Awards (1980, 1981, 1984);
- an International Artist of the Year award in Japan (1980);
- the ‘Top Instrumentalist’, albums and singles, from Cash Box Magazine (1980);
- the ‘Best Instrumental Single’ from Record World Magazine (1980);
- the William Harold Moon Award presented by PROCAN (1981); and
- two SOCAN Classics awards, for 100,000 air plays of “Love Me, Love Me, Love” and “Music Box Dancer“.
- ‘Frank Mills’ Christmas Special‘ on CTV (1982);
- ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas With Frank Mills‘ on CBC (1984);
- ‘Harvest Moon, Frank Mills’ Thanksgiving Special‘ on CBC (1986);
- ‘Frank Mills’ Christmas Concert‘ on CTV (1988);
- ‘Concert In The Meadows, Stowe, Vermont‘ on CFCF (1989);
- ‘An Evening With Frank Mills‘ on Halifax’s ATV (1992);
- ‘Christmas With Frank Mills‘ on Halifax’s ATV/ASN (1994); and
- ‘A Celebration Of Christmas With Frank Mills” for ONTV (1996).
Frank Mills has also been the subject of a book called ‘In The Key Of “C” – The Life Of Frank Mills” by Calgary journalist Elsie Rose in 1998. With notes from John Loweth (MBD & Mayfair Music)