A Year
for Music!

I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing

I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing

Apple Trees, Honeybees, Snow-white Turtle Doves


Bill Backer, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"





Bill Backer died in May. He was 89. He is best-known for creating "Hilltop," the 1971 ad for Coca-Cola that features his song "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." I remember 45 years ago when the ad first aired. "Have you seen it?" Grandma Jensen asked all of us when she and Grandpa drove down to visit. We hadn't. We watched for it through the CBS Evening News, then through supper. Finally someone called: "It's on!" We all ran to watch. What we saw was a group of young people from around the world singing a song of hope: hope that the world could come together, as in the song, and even sing together.


There are lovely stories behind the creation of this ad. The idea for it came when Backer was delayed at Shannon Airport in Ireland—planes couldn't take off, due to fog. He watched his fellow travelers from around the world calm down; buy a Coke to drink; and start talking, laughing, making new friends. Inspired by what he was seeing, Backer started writing the words to the song: "I'd like to buy the world a Coke," he wrote, "and keep it company."


When it came time to produce the ad, Coca-Cola found 500 young people stationed at embassies in Rome with their families. They had them wear costumes of their native countries: you see a young Japanese girl in a kimono, Africans in their brilliant colors, two girls in headscarves. They took them to a hilltop outside Rome, where they sing the song. The camera pans back at the end of the ad, and you see that these young people are standing in the formation of a fan opening out.


Here is a link to Kristina Monllos's tribute to Bill Backer in Adweek (18 May 2016):


"Famed Adman Bill Backer, Best-Known for Coca-Cola's 'Hilltop,' Dies"


You can watch a remastered version of "Hilltop" on this site, as well as a charming interview with Backer. I wish I had known him.


The ad cost $250,000, making it the most expensive ad ever produced to that time. It was a worldwide success. To its credit, Coca-Cola refused a request from the apartheid South African government for a version of the ad without the black singers, and shortly afterwards Coke divested itself entirely from South Africa, until apartheid ended.


At Christmastime in 1971, Coca-Cola issued a holiday version of the ad. This time, the singers on the hillside hold lit candles at dusk. When the camera pans back, you see that they are in the formation of a Christmas tree. Here is a link to that version of the ad:


Christmas version of "Hilltop," for Coca-Cola



In 1971, The New Seekers, a British pop group with a folk influence to their music, recorded an expanded version of "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." The new lyrics did not include references to Coca-Cola. The song became a worldwide hit, and it sold millions of copies. Here is a link to this song on Amazon.com:


The New Seekers, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"





In February 1993, I convinced a couple buddies to backpack through Maui's Haleakala Volcano with me—from the summit to the sea. We retraced an expedition Jack London went on in 1911. London's expedition included scientists, a backup crew of over 40 men, and donkeys to carry their supplies. We had to carry in our backpacks all of our supplies for the five days it would take to cross the caldera and climb down to the sea, including every drop of water we would need to drink, wash up and cook with. Our backpacks almost weighed more than we did, it seemed, when we started out. The nice thing was that day by day they grew lighter, as we ate the food and used up the water.


The morning we drove to the summit to begin out journey—it was a blizzard. At 10,023 feet, there is often snow on top of Haleakala. Three tour buses had also struggled to the summit that morning, and the tourists, from around the world, were crowded into the visitor's center.


The national park requires that you make plans a year in advance to overnight in the crater: they allow only a limited number of people down at a time. We checked in with the park rangers, then unpacked our rain gear and sweaters and began to pull all that on before setting out. A Hawaiian man walked up to me. "Are you walking down into this?" he asked. "We are," I told him. He stuck out his hand. "Let me shake your hand," he said. "You are a braver man than me."


When we set out, you could not see ten feet in front of you, and the trail down the side of the volcano was slippery. But after a time, we hiked below the level of the clouds, and the snow turned to rain—the view below us was magnificent. The caldera is filled with volcanoes, some taller than the Empire State Building. It's a barren landscape, austere, and that day it was made mysterious by the storm.


We were two days crossing the caldera. On the third day, we came to the Kaupo Gap. Here, the crater wall has collapsed, and through the gap you can see out to the Big Island of Hawaii. It is the only watered place in the caldera: mists and rains waft up through the gap, and they create a lush rainforest. Plants have survived there from the Cretaceous, and hundreds of species of birds are endemic to the gap. It has been set aside as a preserve for the scientific study of birds. The birdsong there was rich and varied.


The next morning, we hiked down through the gap and over terrace after terrace that had formed when the crater wall collapsed, or so they claim. The perfectly flat terraces average 10 to 15 feet wide, and the drop down to the next terrace is only ever six or eight feet. The terraces looked man-made, to me, especially since on the north side there were generally steps down to the next terrace. The steps looked to have been carved, and the terraces secured by stone retaining walls. I've wondered if investigations there wouldn't turn up evidence of a lost civilization.


Wild guavas were in season, and, as we hiked down, we picked and ate guavas. Eventually, we stopped for lunch and shared the last can of sardines and a few crackers. We drank the last of our water. We had hours still to go till we reached the sea, where we planned to camp that night.


We came to a dirt road, and to a small store with a veranda looking out over the sea toward the Big Island. We went inside and bought cold Cokes, then sat on the veranda to drink them. Nothing ever tasted so good.





I created "Beautiful upon the Mountains," on my computer in 2006. It features the Fern, one of the named structures in Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Isaiah 52:7 (KJV): "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good."








Jose Cuervo

Jose Cuervo