Earle Hill: From ‘Dainty’ to ‘Cave Man’ Music

CVA 99-4556 – Earle C. Hill and Hotel Vancouver orchestra in Spanish Grill Sept 20 1933 Stuart Thomson.

Earle Hill (1887-1955) was a noteworthy orchestra leader in Vancouver in the late 19-teens and the ’30s and ’40s.

Earle Channell Hill was born in 1887 to William and Vella in Vanvert, Ohio. He played the violin. He had his first performance opportunity when he was in high school in Ohio, by playing Brahms in a hotel lobby with a string trio he’d assembled. He later played for vaudeville theatre in various Ohio locations and also joined the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra.

Earle Hill. Cropped image taken from the cover of sheet music for “Sittin’ Around”. Tom Carter collection.

Shortly after that, a friend of Hill’s who’d left Ohio for Canada, wrote to him, suggesting that he come up to Winnipeg where he could probably find performance work. He took his friend’s suggestion, and he went to Winnipeg in about 1912 where he worked at various small music jobs, but then he heard of an opportunity at the Canadian National Railway’s (CNR’s) Hotel Macdonald (1915- ) in Edmonton. Together with his brother-in-law, Calvin Winter (organ) and Frank Emde (cello) they formed the Macdonald Trio and played the hotel for about three years (1915-18). The three also offered studio classes in violin, cello, and piano as well as “orchestral classes” at the Majestic Theatre building on Jasper Ave. in Edmonton.

In late 1918, Hill was offered the job of leader of the Hotel Vancouver orchestra (succeeding Oscar P. Ziegler — the first VSO conductor — who had recently died). Hill’s music stylings were described in the local press as being “tasteful and dainty.” Hill was even vice-president of Vancouver’s Clef Club — an organization which had as one of its aims to eliminate jazz music (World, 5 June 1920).

He stayed at the Hotel Vancouver for just a couple of years; by July 1920, he was orchestra leader at the Barron Hotel (SE corner, Granville at Nelson). A typical programme at the Barron included selections from Grieg, Verdi, and Beethoven. Pretty longhaired stuff.

1921 saw Hill making a departure, both physically and musically. He returned to Winnipeg where he was employed to succeed E. Joseph Shadwick as the conductor of the “Famous Capitol (Theatre) Symphony Orchestra”, where his group would play for the silent films of the day. By about 1925, the name of the group was changed, at Hill’s suggestion, to the “Famous Capitolians”. The new name had such cache that the management group in charge of Western Canadian Capitol Theatres (Famous Players) changed the names of all of the Western Capitol orchestras to match that of the Winnipeg theatre.

Hill led his Famous Capitolians in Winnipeg until May 1931 when he agreed to lead an orchestral group in the CPR’s Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg. He was at the Royal Alex for just a matter of months.

In autumn of 1931, Hill accepted a return call to Vancouver. His first job was with the Strand Theatre Orchestra. In 1932, he would lead the Orpheum Theatre Concert Orchestra. And in 1933, he would return to the Hotel Vancouver — this time playing the Spanish Grill (see featured photo above), where his group would provide dance music on Wednesday and Saturday nights (from 9.30 p.m. to 1 a.m.; “No cover charge, $1.50 supper included”!) He seems to have been attached to the Hotel Vancouver until ca1935.

Hill took a 3-year sabbatical from Vancouver starting in about 1936. (1) This period seemed to mark a fundamental change in the kind of music on offer from Hill’s orchestras. He accepted a position as the leader of the band attached to Winnipeg’s branch of the Cave Supper Clubs. It would be known as “Earle Hill and the Cave Men”, and it would not be known for its dainty renderings of Greig!

When he returned to Lotusland at the end of 1938, it was to take on the job as the band leader of Vancouver’s Cave Supper Club (626 Hornby). The Vancouver Cave advertised itself as being “Vancouver’s Newest and Most Novel Cabaret. Gay informal dancing and floor shows of distinction. Dance to Earle Hill’s scintillating rhythm.” With his Vancouver Cave position, he left the ‘dainty music’ of his earlier professional life behind for good.

Hill played the Cave from 1938-44 and then, abruptly, stopped performing. In 1945, he took a job as a department manager at Kelly Piano. That was followed by various other posts with music shops in the city.

In a profile on his life written a few years before his death, he attempted to explain why he quit leading bands in the mid-’40s: “If I put my head in a lion’s mouth and I get an idea that it is thinking of closing its mouth, I take my head out, to make it easier for him. But I still get the urge to put it back again.” (Sun, 9 January 1951)

He resisted the urge, however, and died of heart failure in 1955 at the age of 67.

Earle Hill and His Cave Men at the Winnipeg establishment of the Cave Supper Club. 1937. Source.


(1) Hill’s first wife, Leona, died in 1934 at the age of 38. He married his second wife, Marion, in 1942.

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