Music Influences: 1943-1961
Continued in Part II
Strathclair ~ Victoria ~ A
WORLD APART ~ China ~ Hong Kong
The music has always been there. I was born in wartime, January 11, 1943. Conception took place in Halifax where my dad, Jerry Hillman, was stationed with the Royal Canadian Navy but later, when my debut onto the world stage was imminent my mom, Louise, returned to Strathclair MB so I could be born at her birthplace surrounded by family. When I was old enough to travel we returned to the East coast to be with my dad. By this time he was stationed in St. John's, Newfoundland. The ferry to the island recently had been torpedoed by a German U-boat so dad arranged for us to take a passenger plane for the last leg of the trip -- he also had to arrange for passports as Newfie, at that time, was still a British possession.
From that time on I was exposed to music as my parents' social life mostly involved jam sessions with friends. Dad blew the trumpet and mom played accordian, and piano when available. Before the war, my mother and uncles, Don and Bill Campbell, had teamed up with the neighbour kids, the Christies, to form a dance band that played many hall and barn dances. The music from those war years must have left its mark as I'm always filled by waves of nostalgia whenever I hear the big band sounds and hits from that era. In '44 dad was transferred to Victoria, BC (Esquimalt and Comox) and since my parents both loved to go to the movies, some of my first memories are of theatres with their magic images and soundtracks. Near the end off the war dad volunteered to serve on the HMCS Prince Robert, a ship that was fitted with the latest in radar and armanent and was part of a joint British/American fleet to help facilitate the Japanese surrender in the Pacific. Mom and I returned to Strathclair to await his return. I have vague memories of his departure and return. His ship had spent the summer of '45 in Hong Kong and he returned with fantastic souvenirs, photos and stories that fired my imagination and which seemed to inculcate a livelong appreciation and fascination for travel, the military, adventure, Chinese culture, and exotic lands and music. He had fond memories of Hawaiian and Hong Kong entertainment troupes who had presented music and dance shows on board ship and during shoreleave. One curious thing I remember him saying was that the Chinese girls -- the girls in the entertainment troupe were probably singing Chinese opera, somewhat strange sounding to Western ears -- were terrible singers... ah, if only he could have seen into the future : )
We took over the family farm, Maple Grove, a half-section grain, dairy and livestock farm homesteaded by my great grandfather in 1878. This marvellous place with its pastures, waving grain fields, woodlots, towering spruce trees, ravine, old stone buildings, and majestic red brick house would be the centre of my world until I left for university in 1961. Radio became my window to the world and I constantly roamed the dial of our big Westinghouse floor model, bringing in songs and voices from far-off places -- the equivalent of today's Internet. I became a sponge for every kind of music and radio programme -- shows that featured superheroes, mystery, comedy, SF, and variety entertainment. I discovered the stars of Sun records and followed the birth of rock and roll on this radio. In fact, I heard Elvis, the Hillbilly Cat very early -- on stations beaming music from the deep south in 1954: WSM, WLS, KXEL, etc. And, wired into this booming radio, was a 78 rpm turntable on which I played, over and over, the family collection of records: Bing Crosby, Hank Williams, big bands, pop songs and western swing.
There wasn't much money to throw around and we all worked hard. We had cattle and about 1,000 laying hens which I had to feed by carrying water, grain and chop by pails. My audience of cows and chickens gradually learned to put up with my vocal renditions of the hits of the day. I hauled out the manure, gathered eggs, milked the cows, and did the crushing, as well as shovelling snow and coal. What money I saved from doing these daily chores went into buying records, books, magazines and comics. I talked my mom into sending for records through an ad that offered 50 hit songs for just a few dollars. Too good a deal to pass by. The package that arrived in the mail wasn't quite what we had expected, however. Each 78 rpm disc had three somewhat abbreviated songs per side ... and they weren't by the original artists. But there was some good stuff there: Sh-Boom, Sincerely, The Man in the Raincoat, etc. - pop and C&W and a whole lotta stuff I'd never heard of.
My own first record purchase, however, was a little later from G.V. Henderson's Drugstore: That's All Right Mama b/w Blue Moon of Kentucky by Elvis Presley and the Blue Moon Boys on RCA Victor 78 rpm. Before long I had bought out his whole stock of Elvis records and had the entire collection of the singles Elvis had released on Sun Records. The next treasure trove of singles came as prizes for selling school magazine subscriptions: Fats Domino, Jack Scott, Gene Vincent and Little Richard. Sadly there was very little music in our school. We did however, get permission to clear out an old junk room in the school's basement and on days when the weather was too miserable for us to play baseball or football outside (guys and gals played tackle football all winter out among the snowbanks), we listened and danced to records. These were truly exciting music times -- the birth of rock 'n' roll and my own music awareness -- and today there are very few hits from the '50s and '60s that don't generate some memory from the past. My life then, as now, seemed to revolve around music.
My mother, sensing a bit of a music obsession, enrolled me in piano lessons for a couple of years. Silly kiddie tunes, scales and boring practises just never captured my imagination... this wasn't the music I was hearing in my head. Mom tried to kindle the fire by buying sheet music for songs in which I had shown some interest: Love Me Tender, Don't Be Cruel, Third Man Theme, etc. Dad's sister, Aunt Merna, tried to get me to put some excitement into my dreary plodding by giving me pointers on syncopation and rhthym. My music teacher added an element of fear through weekly scoldings and rapping my fingers with her pencil. And around this time Jerry Lee Lewis came on the scene with his pumping piano to show just how exciting a piano could sound. But he was too late.
One day, Dad returned from a trip to Winnipeg with a Harmony Monterey archtop guitar that he had bought at Ray Hamerton Music and that was the end of the piano. I was captivated from the start: the smell, the touch, the look, the sound. The strings were so far above the neck that it was almost impossible to play, but I persevered -- blisters and bleeding fingers. Around this time Dad came in raving about a new song he had heard on the car radio of our '49 Meteor. It was I Walk the Line by Johnny Cash. He was excited because the guitar riff on the record was one of the few things dad knew on guitar. Before long he had shown me how to do a walking run from G chord to C to F and back again. Wow... I could play I Walk the Line! Uncle Don soon showed me how to put some chords to some simple folk songs and I was on my way - picking up ideas, riffs, chords from every guitar player I saw. Music continued to be a driving force: I sent for a Doc Williams acoustic guitar course from a Wheeling West Virginia radio station, Mom bought a guitar chord book and some music folios with guitar chords, Nannie sent for an autoharp for me to try, Dad made a few more trips into Ray Hamerton's and returned with a C-Melody sax for himself and a 5-string banjo for me, sister Bonnie took over where I left off with the piano lessons, and of course the jam sessions continued around my grandmother's upright Heintzman piano.
About the only good thing about being shortsighted and having to wear glasses was that I got to go to Winnipeg once a year. This led to some major events on my memory calendar. On one of these visits I saw Elvis's Love Me Tender, soon after it was released, in the Metropolitan Theatre -- well, "heard" more than "saw" because I had just come from an eye test and examination and had drops in my eyes. On another of these visits I went to my first big city major music concert at the Playhouse Theatre -- little knowing that in 20 years I would have the thrill of appearing on this same stage many times myself. But back then, I was dazzled by the lights, the sound, the applause, the velvet curtains on the stage -- and the guitars! The show featured Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton, Country Johnny Mathis and Charlie "Hot Rod Lincoln" Ryan. On later trips I came back with hard-to-find Lonnie Donegan skiffle albums and LPs by England's guitar instrumental group, The Shadows.
Another big event during my teen years was the annual Provincial Exhibition in Brandon. A trip to Brandon would give me a chance to roam through the record and book shops. Brandon Fair always offered great entertainment on the Grandstand and the two big tent sideshows -- one with black performers, one with white -- had exciting bands and dancers, albeit a wee bit racy for a youngster. A few years later I would be performing on TV remotes and various stages at the fair but in these early years the closest I came to performing was giving 4-H Club demonstrations and showing Rhode Island Red chickens since I was a member of the Strathclair Poultry Club -- not exactly a glamorous introduction to the world of show business.
Two other Brandon music shows stand out in my memory. Seeing the Johnny Cash / Jim Reeves Show in the old arena was a real thrill. After the show when the stars headed across the arena floor to the dressing room area, the majority of autograph seekers followed after them. But Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant of Johnny's Tennessee Two (3) stayed in the stage area to pack up. This was the days before roadies and big tour buses. I saw Luther alone at the side of the stage and made my way over to him to boldy ask if I could try out his Fender guitar. He said "Yup" and this led to my first real guitar lesson. Luther wasn't a really great accomplished guitarist... he probably didn't know many more chords than I at that time... but the lessons I learned in that short time about interaction with fans and the importance of creating your own style were invaluable. His "boom-chick" style of damped guitar and simple memorable riffs is probably one of the most imitated. Sadly, he died in a house fire a few years later.
The other major Brandon musical event for me was also at an old arena concert. One of the stars was Ferlin Husky, a dynamic entertainer whose contribution to country music seems to be somewhat overlooked. What impressed me most about the show, though, was his lead player. I could hear steel guitar sounds but there was no steel on stage. Upon moving closer to the stage I soon deduced that the lead player was getting these long sustained sounds with the aid of a volume foot pedal. It wasn't long before I had bought a DeArmond pedal and was imitating his style -- a device I have used ever since.
Continued in Part II
TO THE HILLMAN MUSICAL ODYSSEY CONTENTS