Wheat City Journal:
You're one of the most famous musicians in the Brandon area. How did your
life as a musician begin?
Bill Hillman: I guess it began as a kid.My parents
both had regular jam sessions at home at our farm in Strathclair. And before
that, my mom and her brothers had played in small orchestra back in the
Journal: Did it come naturally to you, or did you
have to take lessons?
Hillman: I took piano lessons, but it didn’t come
naturally. I taught myself guitar.
Journal: I couldn’t begin to describe your web
page. It’s really fascinating. In 100 words or less, tell me about it.
Hillman: Well, we call it the Bill
and Sue-On Hillman Eclectic Studio. That it is. It’s pretty
eclectic. It rambles on with all our interests. Over the years we’ve developed
quite a few interests. I guess one feature is our on-line biography; our
show business biography, which has literally thousands of pictures from
our years of performing all over the world.
Journal: There’s a lot of historical stuff on there,
Hillman: I have been a geography and history teacher
for most of my life and certainly have a strong regard and feel for history.
There are quite a few scenes from Brandon. Photos from way, way back.
Journal: Do you have any idea how many ‘hits’ your
Hillman: That’s really hard to say, because there
are so many doors into it. And I don’t have counters on every page. I have
two or three thousand web pages.
Journal: How can people locate it?
Hillman: Our main front door is at:
Along the historical vein, we have a lot of virtual tours
of museums and Commonwealth Air Training
Plan museum, the BMHC Museum,
Dragoons, and many in the US and UK.
Journal: So you’re a historical freak?
Hillman: It’s just one of many facets, I guess.
Journal: Someone told me you’ve been to L.A. to
be interviewed by a member of the Edgar Rice Burroughs family. What’s that
Hillman: Well, I go down there fairly regularly.
I do their official website, for Edgar
Rice Burroughs Incorporated, for the Burroughs family. There are a
couple of thousand
web pages in archive
that I’ve done for them. But the most recent trip was part of my role as
a professor at Brandon University
and I went down there on a combined PD (professional development) and research.
So I spent a week going through the Burroughs archives. Everything from
Civil War stuff to letters from 1880 to all the way up to his letters and
journals from World War II, where Burroughs was the oldest correspondent
in the Pacific Theatre in World War II. There are thousands of photos.
Journal: Were you interviewed by somebody?
Hillman: I worked closely with them, and I was
interviewed by PBS, which is doing a three-hour documentary on Burroughs.
I did a 20-minute interview with PBS. I also spent an evening with the
producers of the James Bond documentaries. They do all the special DVD
James Bond documentaries. Their latest project is to work on, with Burroughs
and myself, a documentary
on Johnny Weissmuller.
Journal: Oh, the great swimmer. Tarzan in the movies.
Journal: What was it about growing up in Strathclair
that shaped your life?
Hillman: I grew up in the country, on a farm. The
farm kid doesn’t have the social intermingling of the kid in the city.
So you use your imagination a lot. You have a lot of time to think and
imagine things. I guess that’s how I got into Burroughs. It’s highly imaginative
Journal: What’s your proudest musical moment?
Hillman: Oooh, man. Hard to nail down. We received
a Manitoba Entertainers
of the Year award back in the 80s. We’ve had some national TV shows.
Had some great tours in England.
Journal: When and how did you meet Sue-On,
and when did you realize she was going to be your life partner?
Hillman: She was born
in China and was smuggled out of China to Hong Kong at age three,
and eventually came to Newdale, where her father had a restaurant. I was
raised in the next town, Strathclair, about 10 minutes away. We just got
together that way.
Journal: So you went to school with each other?
Hillman: I went to school in Strathclair, and I
came back (to teach) while she was still in school. I taught at Strathclair
for 30 years. Now I’ve been at Brandon University, a professor in the Faculty
of Education for four years.
Journal: What kind of influence has Sue-On had
on your life?
Hillman: Well, we bounce off each other. We sort
of dovetail our interests and give each other support.
Journal: You’re almost known as one person: Bill-and-Sue-On-Hillman.
Hillman: We’ve always pushed our combined efforts
together. It adds to the strength.
Journal: Who’s the most interesting person you’ve
met in the music business?
Hillman: Again, that’s a tough one. We’ve worked
with a lot of people. The keyboard player on our last album was AllanClark
Dire Straits. We had him for a week. I’ve worked with most of
the Grand Ole Opry people.
Journal: How many albums
have you recorded?
which is a lot for an ‘indy’
Journal: Do you write most of your material?
Hillman: About half of it. The rest is cover, which
tends to sell the products. A lot of people have to recognize the song
and then they’re kind of eased in to your original stuff.
Journal: And you’re still active in the field of
Hillman: Yeah, we’ve been doing quite a bit of
work with Bobby Curtola
recently. I toured with him back in the 60s. He’s back in this area quite
a bit, so it’s nice to get together with him again.
Journal: I’m of the belief that everyone faces
a fork in their road of life and they go one way or the other way, and
had they gone a different way, their life would have been different. Did
you have a significant fork somewhere along the way?
Hillman: I think I might tend to think of our choice
as kind of a braided stream. Everything intermingles. You branch off, you
come back, you cross paths. But I don’t think there’s been a definite fork.
We don’t leave something behind. That’s why the website is so rambling.
Journal: How did you develop your interest in the
history of the Second World War?
Hillman: My dad was in the navy, on the HMCS
Prince Robert. He left a lot of pictures and stories. He freed the
Japanese prisoners, the Hong Kong prisoners, in ’45. And I had three uncles
in the Air Force, who all died. Lancaster pilots, engineers.
Journal: I can certainly see how your interest
Hillman: A few years ago, we were invited to attend
a memorial service for the uncle
on my mother’s side, for a week in England. It was fabulous. His Lancaster
crashed on the second-last day of the war.
Journal: If you could describe your life in percentages,
what percentage would be spent on music, what percentage on war history,
what percentage on computers?
Hillman: I really can’t break that down. I multi-task
so much. I’m sitting at my desk right now, with two computers, a television,
two VCRs, a guitar, a printer, a CD player and burner. Reading lamp. I
do a lot of things at once. It’s pretty hard to break it into percentages.
Journal: Which musician you’ve come across in your
travels do you most admire?
Hillman: I’ll have to do my homework on that. There’s
everyone from local people we’ve worked with, like Russ
Gurr and Barry Forman,
to Kevin Paul, who toured with
us in England and tours we made down to the American
grandstands. We ran into a lot of great people. The good ones are good.
Big names are so good to work with. They’re a joy to meet backstage.
Journal: Do you have any regrets in life?
Hillman: The lifespan is too short, I think. That’s
the only regret. You see the sand starting to run out. There’s so much
more to do.
Journal: If you were a person to sing in the shower,
what might the song be?
Hillman: (Laughs) It would be something
. . . you know the songs that get stuck in your head and can’t get rid
of it? They’re obscure. They come from way in the past. They’re the types
of things I’m stuck with. They usually come without thinking.
Journal: You’re not pigeon-holed into being called
a country singer or any other brand, are you?
Hillman: People like to. We’ve done every style
of music. Blues to classic rock and roll to folk to country. To cowboy
songs. Absolutely everything. It’s whoever hires us, really.
Journal: Redheads have the reputation of being
a little hot-headed, yet you’re the opposite. Why is that?
Hillman: That’s a stereotype I really can’t defend.
Journal: You’re a pretty calm, cool quiet kind
Hillman: I don’t know. I guess everyone is at times.
Journal: What website do you visit most?
Hillman: I’m on e-Bay
quite a bit, largely for photographs, pictures of items I can use on some
of my other sites.
Journal: How do you hope people remember you?
Hillman: With some sort of kindness, I guess. I
hope they don’t pigeon-hole me into one little facet. I hope along the
way, I make a mark in many different areas, and I’m remembered for that.
In more than 60 previous Page 3 interviews, there
has only been one occasion when the space on Page 3 wasn’t enough
and I was inspired to “spill over” into my column space on Page 6.
That was a few months back, and the subject was the intriguing
Gordon Carnahan, a musical icon in the Brandon area. Well, it’s happened
again, and it’s another music man. Bill Hillman is just too darn nteresting
– and far too varied in his interests and activities – to confine to the
space allotted on Page 3.
So, if you have read the interview this week on Page 3
about Hillman and reacted with a ‘Is that all there is?’ when you
got to the end, well, here’s more.
One of the best parts about conducting these page 3 interviews
– normally done over the telephone – is that we get together for the photo
shoot – the two or three “mug shots” showing the interviewee with various
With no chatter, it takes me 45 to 60 seconds to
get the three pictures, but with Bill Hillman, it was a good half hour
– and still not long enough for me. Unfortunately, duty called, and our
chatting had to be kept to a minimum.
It might be quicker to explore the breadth and width of
Hillman’s existence by visiting his website. Be warned: Don’t go there
if you’re in a hurry. If you followed every link on the “Bill
and Sue-On Hillman Eclectic Studio” without a break, you would get
saddle sores from sitting for so long, and you would lose weight because
of not eating for a couple of days, and your eyes would get sore.
But at the end of it all, you would be filled with more
information than you’d ever need, for the Hillman Eclectic Studio website
has few rivals for actual volume of information. There is music information
on the Hillman’s. There are links to Bobby
Curtola and dozens of other websites in the musical world.
There are Edgar Rice
Burroughs and Zane Grey
tribute sites; there is Penny Singleton information (whaaa!??
Singleton is the actress who played Dagwood’s “Blondie” and Hillman
is the ‘webmaster’ who set up the site about her career.) There are family
page web sites; sites about the Hillmans’ personal careers; education websites;
and more than 20 community volunteer sites, which include things such as
military museums, Classic Rock 2000, Waves of Hope Dragon Boat team; and
the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum.
The Hillmans’ website is aptly named. The word ‘eclectic’
means “composed of elements drawn from a variety of sources, styles, etc.”
That describes it to a T.
But it doesn’t help to explain the hot tub in Hillman’s
basement. The people who built the house built it around the hot tub, so
it’s not one of these pieces of furniture that can be moved in or out.
It’s a piece of the home’s basement foundation, but because the Hillmans
have little time or interest in hot-tubbing, the hot tub has become a container
for musical equipment.
On the wall behind the hot tub are 12
to 15 guitars of many shapes, age and style. Hillman said each guitar
has dozens of stories to tell. There are keyboards here, a set of drums
there, sheets of music and other evidence of a musical museum in the formative
Hillman chats about Sue-On’s
life, in which she was smuggled out of China at an early age, eventually
moving to Canada (Newdale, Man.) where her parents operated a cafe. He
talked about the problems of acceptance of a red-headed Canadian youngster
falling in love with a young Chinese lady. He strummed a few bars on one
of the guitars from the hot tub and then casually mentioned on top of everything
else, that he and Sue-On are also black
belts in karate, too.
I realized then that Bill Hillman might be my first Page
3 interview subject to be reinterviewed a few months down the road, on
a variety of different topics. One of his comments in the interview is
that if he had one regret, it was that the normal span of human life is
far too short. You know where he’s coming from: Bill Hillman has done perhaps
10,000 different things in his life, and sees 10,000 more that he’d like
to try. Yet, he’s 60 years of age, and understands the restrictions placed
on the human body.
Oh, one more thing: He may be one of the nicest people
I’ve talked to. I’d heard his music before, but never had the pleasure
of chatting with him. His niceness is one thing – perhaps the only thing
– that you won’t discover on his web site.
Copyright 2003 ~ Wheat City Journal
CROSSROADS Reprint ~ September
The above interview was reprinted in Nesbitt Publishing's
Crossroads, serving Shoal Lake, Birtle, Hamiota Rossburn and surrounding
areas. Editor Greg Nesbitt added the following introduction and photo:
Hillmans still making music in Brandon
Dynamic couple have roots in the Strathclair and Newdale
Bill Hillman and his wife Sue-On, who have their roots
in the Strathclair and Newdale area, have been making music in Western
Manitoba for more than four decades. They have 12 albums to their credit,
and hundreds of great stories about the music industry.
Hillman, a high school educator (history and geography)
for 30 years, is now a professor in the Education Department at Brandon
University. Oh, yes, he and Sue-On are both black belts in Wado Kai karate.
Bill talked about music, history and more with Wheat City
Journal editor Bruce Penton in Brandon recently. The interview is reprinted
here courtesy of Brandon's community newspaper.