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Dan Hill (right) records a version of his hit "Sometimes When We Touch" with boxer Manny Pacquaio. (www.mannysings.com)
Dan Hill (right) records a version of his hit "Sometimes When We Touch" with boxer Manny Pacquaio. (www.mannysings.com)

Music

Dan Hill and Manny Pacquiao: How a knockout duet came to life Add to ...

Nov. 3, 2009: My home in Toronto

"Oh my god, Dan! Get up here. Now!"

I'm in my basement studio, cutting a vocal, when my wife's shout all but shatters my headphones. The last time Bev shrieked this loud was a life-and-death situation, when a young man, armed and recently released from jail, had tried to shake our family down for money.

This time, though, I find Bev hopping up and down in front of the television like a tween watching Justin Bieber. A charismatic young man is singing to talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel's studio audience. Women of all ages squirm, whoop and howl.

At last Bev says dreamily, "It's Manny Pacquiao, the boxing champ. But don't you recognize the song?"

It's my song Sometimes When We Touch, and the audience is going crazy. Crazier still, is that Pacquiao - a Filipino pound for pound regarded as the world's best boxer - is crooning this song with surprising tenderness and conviction.

Since I co-wrote and released that song in the late seventies, there have been thousands of covers of it, and most have left me underwhelmed. Because of the song's uber-emotionality and demanding vocal range, pop stars tend to over-sing it, turning the lyric into a four-minute soap opera. But something about Pacquiao's vocal leaves me strangely moved.

Two weeks later, Nashville

I'm in a deli with Fred Mollin, my long-time friend and co-producer. I casually flip open my computer and click on "Manny Sings." Fred becomes glued to the screen.

Eerily, at this very moment, a TV mounted on the wall spews out news of an upcoming boxing match between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.

"We've gotta make a record with Manny," Fred says.

"And who, other than God, is able to actually contact Manny Pacquiao?" I ask. "This guy is the Elvis of the boxing world. Did you know that whenever Manny boxes, crime stops in the Philippines? He's even been elected to Congress there. He's got about as much free time to record with me as Barack Obama."

December, 2010: Toronto

A phone call wakes me in the middle of the night. It's Matthew McCauley, the other half (with Fred Mollin) of my production team. If it were anyone else, I'd be mad as hell. But I've been waking up to Matt's 3 a.m. phone calls since we were both scrawny Toronto kids making music together in the 1960s in our Don Mills neighbourhood.

"Danny, I've set up a meeting with Manny Pacquiao and his handler, Mike Koncz. We're going to Manhattan to discuss making a record."

June 4, 2010: New York

I'm sitting in a café with Matt and Fred, in Manhattan's opulent St. Regis Hotel. My friends wear the gloomy look of adolescents stood up by their dream dates. We've been here for a couple of hours.

"What if Manny doesn't show up?" Fred asks.

Matt shuffles restlessly in his seat, doubtless feeling responsible.

"Look, guys, they'll be here," Matt says. "We're on boxing time, that's all."

A few more lonely minutes tick by, then Koncz finally appears to escort us to Manny's suite. Just as he reveals that Sometimes When We Touch is Pacquiao's all-time favourite song, the door to the suite swings open, and there is the man himself, beaming as he greets us in a soft voice.

Though I'm thunderstruck to be meeting this brilliant boxer - in town to accept a Fighter of the Decade award - Pacquiao humbly flips the script, making us feel as though we're royalty. Or better: family.

Room service wheels in a feast, and he insists we eat. "It's part of Filipino culture to make guests feel at home," he says.

As we dig in, Matt cuts to the point: We want to record a Sometimes When We Touch duet with him.

"We were all so struck by the sincerity of your cover," I venture.

Barely a beat later, Pacquiao replies with a boyish grin: "When can we get started?"

While the others work out the details, Pacquiao and I talk about the similarities of singing and boxing - the importance of rhythm and breathing, discipline and devotion.

But clearly, the last thing Pacquiao wants to dwell on is boxing. He'd rather talk music and family.

"I never talk to my children about boxing," he says wistfully. "There are no photos, trophies - nothing in my house exposes them to my career in the ring." His face clouds over as he recounts what a brutal sport boxing is, and how he started at age 14 (the same age I began writing songs) as a means of supporting his mother and siblings.

Then he quickly jumps back to music, his face brightening. "I sing my children to sleep every night," he says.

Moments later, he disappears down the hall to his bedroom to rest. Music flows from his room into our sitting area. To my stupefaction, it's a song from my new CD. I can hear Pacquiao gently singing along to my lyrics.

October, 2010, Capitol Recording Studios: Hollywood

"Hi, Danny."

I somehow hear the shyest voice above the chatter of the room. Pacquiao is waving and smiling in the midst of his entourage. Dashing to the studio on the heels of a punishing 12-hour training session, he is still dressed in workout clothes, preparing for his fight with Antonio Margarito.

Within minutes, Pacquiao and I are singing together at the same mike. He is blessed with a superb musical ear and a champion's ability to hyper-focus; despite cameras whirring, people whispering and makeup artists hovering, he loses himself in the song.

The few suggestions I toss his way - "Drink more water, swirl it around in your throat," "Take a breath, less vibrato," "End your vocal phrases sooner" - he quickly absorbs. He takes every vocal line I throw at him and sings it back better than I've sung it.

Still, I wonder if he'll be able to nail "I wanna hold you till the fear in me subsides," with the impossibly high-pitched and sustained "subsides" that ends the song. He does - then pumps his fist in triumph as if he's delivered a knockout punch.

Weeks later, I'm alone in my basement studio, locking into Pacquiao's vocal and carving out harmonies. I feel as though I have slipped beneath his skin, that we are one. The afterglow leaves me floating for days.

April 20, 2011: Los Angeles

Pacquiao enters a press conference waving a copy of our CD. Befuddled journalists across North America (CNN, Los Angeles Times, Showtime) try to make sense of why the world's best boxer would collaborate with the world's most sentimental songwriter.

And the spoofs and questions begin: Funny or Die releases a video called Sometimes When I Punch. I'm even accused of being bought by Top Rank Boxing, the promo company that handles Pacquiao (remember, I sought him out).

Frankly, this is the wildest roller coaster I've ever been on. All I can do is hang on, be in Pacquiao's "musical corner" and take the hype in stride.

May 1, 2011: Las Vegas

I've just flown into Vegas. Pacquiao fights Sugar Shane Mosley here on Saturday and he generously gave me two tickets. But I can't bring myself to go. I don't care if he's the world's greatest boxer, he's my friend - and I don't like watching my friends fight. However, following his fight, I will be singing Sometimes When We Touch with him in a Las Vegas nightclub.

Will we spar when Pacquiao sings the lines "a hesitant prizefighter, still trapped within my youth?"

Let's put it this way, Pacquiao is an infinitely better singer than I am a boxer.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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