April 17, 1943 - June 4, 2016
Goodbye dear friend ~ So many good times ~ So
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die
An e-mail informing us of Bobby's sudden passing came
as a shock.
Memories from over 50 years have come in a flood
and it helps somewhat to jot down some of these anecdotes
from a much happier time.
TEEN RECORDING STARS
I was excited when two Canadian teenagers recorded hit
45s at the end of the '50s - I bought them both.
* Bobby Curtola - "Hand in Hand with You" on Tartan
* Ray St. Germain - "She's A Square"/"If You Don't
Mean It" on Chateau Records
I saw Ray in Strathclair Bend Theatre in '50s - The
teenager from Winnipeg was an Elvis impersonator on the touring Hal Lonepine
show. The young guitarist in the band was Hal Lonepine, Jr. who later gained
worldwide fame as Lenny Breau. My two obsessions back then were Elvis and
guitar. It was a thrill to finally meet Ray many years later when we were
both up for the Manitoba Entertainers of the Year Award -- We won at the
Bobby's later release kicked off a response from adoring
fans that could only be compared to the reaction of Elvis' fans. He had
radio play all across Canada to a degree that homegrown singers had never
experienced. I never dreamed that in a few years I'd be performing on Bobby's
shows as his lead guitarist. . . and I certainly never dreamed that
40 years later I'd have the thrill of appearing on shows with both of these
PHOTOS: Ray and Lenny Breau - Hal Lonepine Show
CURTOLA TOUR: 1964/1965
Our success in backing Newbeats and opening for Roger
Miller and Everly Brothers in the Winnipeg Auditorium led to even greater
We were hired by Bobby as his backup band for a Western
Canada tour in 1964 and 1965
Since we had been the house band at the Brandon roller
rink it was a thrill to do the New Years Eve dance there with Bobby
Most of Bobby's hits were written by the Hurdon
Brothers of Port Arthur who discovered him at age 16 and managed his
We never met the Hurdons but Marie Martell was Bobby's
road manager-- she ran the shows with an iron hand and the shows went very
Mrs. Martell had small daughter, Ava, who grew up
to become a beautiful lady. Bobby married Ava 10 years later.
Bobby recorded in Nashville and the sessions were very
professionally done -- many of them were produced by Ray Stevens.
Top session musicians and the Anita Kerr singers were
on the sessions.
These sessions turned out a long string of hits --
both nationally and internationally.
By the time we did the tour he had a good number of
hits to draw from.
He had all the right stage moves, well dressed and
groomed and was always in good voice.
We were met with packed houses and screaming teen
fans at every venue.
Bobby was a terrific role model and fans and parents
alike adored him.
Bobby had written and performed the song "Things go
better with Coca-Cola" in 1964 for their ads and he also served as a pitchman
for the company.
In fact he was also given a spot in the Coca-Cola
Since Coke were a major sponsor, there piles of cases
of Coke in our trailer and on and backstage -- The only "drug" that was
ever touched on the tour.
A U-Haul trailer carried the PA and our equipment
which included my Gretsch guitar and Fender Twin Reverb amp.
We opened each show with guitar instrumentals and
hits of the day and then brought Bobby on to screaming applause.
Floppy promo disc of Bobby's Coke commercial
Bobby sings The Real Thing
On stage in Portage La Prairie -
Part of our '64/'65 tour with Bobby.
More info and photos at:
Bill Hillman with lead Gretsch
Warren Hannay on drums
John Bishop on bass
Delkeith Dubbin on rhythm
A few months later in Spring 1965 I took my fiance
Sue-On on a date to see and meet Bobby when he played in Minnedosa.
We had a good chat backstage and he gave autographed
photos to each of us.
Sue-On was impressed when Bobby shouted "Hey, Red!"
from the stage as we walked in the door.
He had asked us to carry on to tour in US with him
but I was going to University - other guys were starting careers.
We had to turn down the offer - a very difficult decision
So eventually he asked another Brandon band, since
he had good luck with us, his first Brandon Band.
Brandon's Challengers went on to tour as Martells
- a name that his backing bands were often given that was based on his
click for larger images
"To Bill ~ Best Regards ~ A Swell Tour! ~ Bobby Curtola"
"To Suzie ! Love and Hugs xxxx ~ Pretty As Ever ~ Bobby Curtola"
Click for full-size
After the tour we lost touch for 25 years.
Bobby eventually became a popular longtime act in
Las Vegas show rooms and lounges.
In 1972, Walter Kane, who hired the entertainment
for the Hughes hotels, signed him to a five-year multi-million dollar contract.
He was the first Canadian entertainer to receive such
a long term deal in Las Vegas.
Bobby continued to perform there for 20 years and
rubbed shoulders with all the greats
Elvis had presented Bobby with a ring with a large
gem stone that he wore proudly
He bought a house in a gated community behind the
Years later Robert and Bobby claimed that they had
bought Vernon Presley's house behind Graceland - but lost it somehow.
He married Ava in 1975 and they settled in Edmonton.
Their two sons, Michael and Chris, were born and raised
Starting in 1990 he played on the Love Boat for the
Princess Cruises for 12 years.
Bobby was a philanthropist, raising money for numerous
charities, including his Bobby Curtola Foundation for Children in Ecuador.
He also received Canada’s highest honor, the Order
of Canada, and the Gold Medal of Merit in 1998.
There is also a street named after him in his hometown
called Bobby Curtola Drive.
He received many awards for his music and his charity
work, but somehow he was slighted and never entered into Canada's R &
R Hall of Fame.
SOO'S TURN OF THE CENTURY
One evening Sue-On and customers noticed a big Lincoln
with Elvis plates parked out front of our SOO'S Restaurant on 10th St.
The Brandon Sun had just run a newsstory showing Bobby
and his car with the Elvis plate
They were in town to scout out an unfinished truck
stop development along Trans-Canada highway.
Bobby wanted a '50s style diner and truck stop in
the yet unfinished structure.
(They backed out of the deal because the owners owed
too much on it)
Two mafia type guys in black with earbud phones entered
and were ushered to more private room in the back.
A customer said he thought it was Bobby Curtola.
Sue-On had met him 50 years ago but it was too long
ago to remember.
So she sent Barry Forman's Sister-in-Law who was working
for us -- to ask if he was Bobby.
She said my boss played for you on tour.
It was Bobby and his chubby "Elvis" manager, Robert
(We had met Robert years before - he ran a booth at
the Boggy Creek Festival
and we had worked with him on the Boggy promo booklets)
Sue-On called Bill to come down to join our guests.
They talked old times and Bobby presented us with
merch: book, CD, photos, etc.
This was the start of a long reunion and four year
association after they moved to Brandon.
They invited us to a show in Virden Auditorium
It was an impressive show done to taped music tracks,
but with full costume and many guests
One of the guests was Elvis's cousin - we added her
book to our Elvis collection
As with all of Bobby's shows we had seen, he spent
a long time meeting fans, signing autographs and selling CDs
A short time later
they moved to Brandon to construct and promote a water purification system.
They had a Hutterite colony manufacture this large
unit that could turn dirty sewer water into drinking water.
Many investors got on board - mostly farmers -
They formed a company called Home Farms.
The invention and business venture looked promising
with contracts in US but failed when US and world economy took a nosedive.
Robert was a character - and he had many colourful
stories about their many deals and investments.
There was a Caesar cocktail called SeaCza, bottled
water, CDs, booklets, property, the headlining of ocean cruises, etc.
There were stories of owning Vernon Presley's house
behind Graceland . . .
. . . almost getting the James Bond franchise during
its low period
. . . mining operations in Asia
Robert had married an Indonesian girl and built a
mansion over there, but she and the kids were with him in Brandon.
YEARS OF GET TOGETHERS
During their years
in Brandon we had many get togethers at our house - birthdays - events
Meals, chats and show and career planning -- Bobby
was almost one of the family for the next 4 years
Bobby lived in a mobile home for a while in Brandon.
When they bought Kadambi's Office complex mall on
18th Street, part of it became Bobby's office and career museum.
Bobby moved into the upstairs suite in the complex.
We dined and partied at many restaurants in Brandon
. . . and made many visits to the Hutterite
colony that manufactured the water purification machine
Bobby shared many CD booklets, posters, clippings,
notes, etc. for the Website I created.
He had sketched out many life events for a bio and
gave me the rough notes -
We planned to put a draft on the Web and then expand
it into book form
Unfortunately, business difficulties arose and he
moved East before we could finish these projects.
BIRTHDAY PARTY DIM-SUM AT THE HILLMAN HOUSE
Bobby and friend (our Pyr dog, Atticus) ~ Bobby and
his then-manager (Robert Hubbard) snooze on our couch after feasting
SOCK HOP REUNION - BRANDON
During Bobby's stay in Brandon I was hired by Brandon
University to teach three sessions in Pukatawagan First Nation for 4 months.
I flew home every 10 days and flew back after 4 days
(This led to my being hired on campus as a Prof with
office and two computer classrooms)
We planned a Sock Hop Reunion show during these trips
I had been jamming regularly at a private club in
the country - Ken Daniels' Cantina
We rehearsed there for the Sock Hop show.
I flew home in a raging blizzard to join Bobby for
radio promo show with CKLQ's Bill Turner
Two of our old DOVERMEN band members flew in from
Warren Hannay and John Bishop -- Sue-On played
congas -- jam buddy Doug Matthews joined us on keys and rhythm
2002 Sock Hop Reunion took place at Brandon's Keystone
It was a huge sellout crowd - there was great response.
Show had classic car displays, two Brandon backup bands:
We - The Dovermen were first band he hired out of
Another Brandon Band: The Challengers toured as the
Martells backup band named after manager Marie Martell.
The support act was Ray St. Germain - a great reunion
Our son Robin was in the Brandon University Jazz band
he enlisted some of those band members, including
Scott Grills Dean of Arts, to form a horn section for Bobby.
Back-up singers were Bobby's wife Ava, Birdie, and
Robert's wife Wulan.
30 of my BU students from Puk heard our NCI radio
ads in the North and got excited about the event.
Bobby and I gave them free tickets and they came down
from Puk - Ice roads and Bullet Train - and then vans from The Pas.
My students had worked hard at raising money for the
trip: fish derbys, bake sales, auctions, etc.
The students had a great time and partied in front
of the stage all night
Sock Hop Reunion | Sock
2 | Sock 3 |
4 | Sock 5 |
Bobby and original Dovermen band at Sock Hop Reunion - Brandon Keystone
Bobby, Bill, Warren, John, and Sue-On
Back-up singers: Birdie (L) and Bobby's wife, Ava (R)
Bob and Bill hamming it up on stage - with Dovermen and Sue-On
Son Robin Hillman (trombone - 3rd from left) and Bobby's horn section
from Brandon University
Ray St. Germain
Bobby Curtola demolishes the Cantina stage
The rehearsal sessions
had gone so well at the Cantina that we returned for jams.
It was great fun jamming all the old rock classics
. . . into the wee hours.
One night was particulary memorable:
Two of Bobby's business partners had joined us that
The three of them gathered around one mic and were
bouncing up and down to the beat.
This was too much for the stage floor -- we heard
a loud crack!
Turning around we saw that Bobby and his buddies had
fallen through the stage floor.
They were still standing upright - but in a large
hole in the stage.
We all went into laugh hysterics, and eventually everyone,
including Bobby, autographed the stage slab.
The slab took an honoured place on the Cantina wall.
Bill ~ Sue-On ~ Ken ~ Ray ~ Robert ~ Bobby
Wild jam finale before Bobby and crew broke through the stage floor
Autographing the stage floor slab
OUR CURTOLA WEBSITE
Bobby and Robert
spent many hours scanning a large collection of Bobby's career photos.
They passed them on to me I used them to help created
a huge Website.
(Years later when Bobby moved to the Liverpool area,
NS, and formed a company with sons they took over his Website.)
I kept my creation
Bobby appeared at
the Winnipeg Casino with another working Brandon band backing - Big Dyck
Sue-On's conga percussion had worked well at the reunion
show in Brandon so she played the Casino gigs.
This was a great chance to explore backstage and see
the workings of the Casino
Bobby put on his usual polished and entertaining show.
We all stayed at a major Winnipeg hotel.
For a follow-up show the next year Bobby used a hometown
Thunder Bay show band.
When Ray St. Germain played a later gig at the Casino
he invited Bobby and us as guests.
It was the St. Germain family show - his very musical
offspring - and even Chet Breau (Lenny's son - Lenny had married Ray's
We had a wonderful time visiting backstage and sitting
in reserved tables in front of stage.
During our many Winnipeg visits we stayed at good hotels
and ate at many restaurants including the Keg
Bobby had to make at least one visit to the Salisbury
House for old time sakes to order a Hamburger Nip that he remembered so
I usually drove us all home in Robert's Lincoln with
the ELVIS plates
MOVE TO NOVA SCOTIA (Port
Mouton 'Port Mah-TOON'/Liverpool)
Eventually after his
divorce, the failure of the purification company, and the sale of his Alberta
home Bobby moved to Liverpool, NS
He started splitting his time among homes in Edmonton,
Nova Scotia and Las Vegas.
We kept in touch for quite awhile. Bobby sent many
show pics and pics of the Liverpool home.
He even made a few calls from Las Vegas - one time
while celebrating out on the strip with the party goers.
Another time he called about finding a new partner
he was going to marry.
Eventually we drifted apart - I never met his new
partner, Karyn Rochford
It was a shock to hear that she had died in a car
accident on December 15, 2015
Bobby moved to Edmonton in early 2016 after Rochford's
Half a year later we got the shocking news that Bobby
too had died suddenly on June 4, 2016 at his son's home in Edmonton.
We have many regrets that we hadn't gotten together
at least one more time before he died.
Bobby and partner Karyn Rochford
PART II: ODYSSEY EXCERPTS
Anecdotes and photos previously
shared in our book:
BILL AND SUE-ON HILLMAN: A 50-YEAR
GIG NOTES 2: THE SWINGIN' SIXTIES
A highlight of our rock days in the mid-'60s was our tour
as back-up band for Canadian teen idol, Bobby Curtola. We started this
a few weeks after our Dovermen performance at Winnipeg Auditorium where
we opened for the CKY Fall Festival of Stars with headliners The Everly
Brothers and Roger Miller. We had seen the crowd go wild for the
Everlys and now on the Curtola tour we experienced more shades of Elvis/Beatles
mania as teens packed every venue we played.
The girls pushed in a frenzy against the stage trying
to touch their idol and later to get autographs. This winter tour took
us into Saskatchewan -- the Regina Armoury packed in the largest crowd
there -- and east to Portage La Prairie. The most exciting date was in
our home base at the Brandon Roller Rink -- on New Year's Eve. Bobby was
about our age and was a super guy to work with.
Bobby's manager, Marie Martel, ran the shows with an
iron hand so things never really got out of control. Bobby had sung some
of the first Coca-Cola singing commercials (he is in their Hall of Fame),
so Coke sponsored the shows and made sure there were always huge cases
of Coke backstage. This was back in the days when ODing on coke had a slightly
different meaning than it does today.
I saved the set lists from these tours, written in
Bobby's hand, and they are featured on our Curtola Webpages. I had a reunion
with Bobby 40 years later and those shows are also described on our Curtola
Webpages and later in this saga.
PART VI: WHAT A RIDE
Band Reunites at the Cantina
For many years now the regular house band for the Cantina
jams has consisted of owner Ken Daniels (bass), Ken Storie (guitar), Doug
Matthews (keys and guitar), John Fulgaris (drums) and myself (guitar).
We have welcomed a long line of jam visitors over the years -- and even
Sue-On (drums) and son Robin (drums and bass) have made numerous visits.
Although we specialize in rock and heavy blues it's
always fun when our visitors bring other styles of music to the jam and
we've tried to make it known that visiting musicians from near and far
are welcome. Ken has generously opened the doors to many other bands who
have used the facility to party and rehearse.
Back in the '60s I had toured as lead guitar player
in Bobby Curtola's band and it was a real thrill when Bobby moved to Brandon
for a few years in the early 2000s. We had some great chats about old times
over many of Sue-On's special meals at our house. Out of some of our late
night chats came plans to put on a rock 'n' roll band reunion at Brandon's
The natural place for us to rehearse was the Cantina.
Two members of our old Dovermen band -- Warren Hannay (drums) and John
Bishop (bass) flew in to do the show and we enlisted Cantina jammer Doug
Matthews to play keys and Sue-On to join us on congas. We had a great get-together
and the show played to a packed house.
GIG NOTES VIII: FESTIVALS AND
Curtola or Bust
Around the time I was teaching Brandon University courses
up North in Pukatawagan, Canadian pop idol Bobby Curtola moved to Brandon,
where he sank roots for a few years. During that time we got together many
times, chatting over Sue-On's home-cooked meals. Since two of Bobby's
back-up bands from the '60s had been from Brandon: our Dovermen and The
Challengers (renamed the Martells while on tour), we planned a "Sock Hop
Reunion" Show at Brandon's Keystone Centre.
My students in Puk heard all the radio promos and all
30 of them started to raise money to attend the show and see their old
prof in action. They held money-making events: fish derbies, bake sales,
garage sales, raffles, etc. I sweetened the pot by giving them 30 complimentary
show tickets courtesy of Bobby.
On the day of the show they took "The Bullet," a slow
train to The Pas (spring weather had made the winter roads impassable).
At The Pas they crowded into vans to complete the trip south to Brandon.
The show was a sell-out and it was a treat to see my Puk friends reelin'
and rockin' near the front of the stage all night. Our original band members,
Warren and John flew in for the reunion gig and my jam buddy Doug Matthews
played keys. Sue-On rounded out our sound by joining us on congas and vocals.
I had to make the trip home from Puk a few days earlier
for press and radio interviews and to help with the planning, but ran into
a major problem. A blizzard hit. My teaching stint at Puk had just ended
and I had to get home. All flights out of Puk were cancelled. A few of
us managed to talk a daring pilot into flying us into the teeth of the
storm to reach The Pas for a connecting flight where the weather had cleared
a bit. The Pas has two airports and after a white-knuckle flight we landed
at the one miles from where the departing plane was waiting for me.
I hired a cab to rush me over to the other airport.
The obliging cabbie broke all speed limits to get to the waiting plane.
We slid to a slippery stop in front of the terminal and I jumped out just
as a hose broke under the hood of the taxi. I left the poor driver scratching
his head, while standing in a billowing cloud of steam and swirling snow.
A few minutes later we were in the air and headed for home. Goodbye Puk
-- Thanks for the great memories and friendships.
GIG NOTES IX: WINNIPEG
When our old '60s group, The Dovermen, re-united to back
Bobby Curtola in his
Sock Hop Reunion show, Sue-On joined the band
on congas. This went so well that when Bobby and his regular band played
the casino in Winnipeg she was asked to join them in the show. Bobby has
invited us to a number of Casino shows, and hanging out backstage and in
the dressing rooms is always a fascinating experience. Through the years
I've always maintained that the best seat at any show is backstage or in
the wings. I get very restless and even uncomfortable sitting out front
with the sit-down audiences.
A few years ago Manitoba music legend, Ray St. Germain,
generously invited Bobby and us to be his special guests at one of his
Casino shows that featured the whole talented St. Germain family. Another
memorable Casino visit was the 50th Anniversary show of the Ventures group
-- a group we had met and worked with almost 50 years ago in the Brandon
Roller Rink where we worked as the house band. There are two surviving
members of this world famous group that seem to be more popular than
ever -- a great chance to get my rarest Ventures albums autographed.
Rockin' with Bobby Curtola
GIG NOTES X: TRIALS AND TRIUMPHS
ON THE TRAIL
Curtola Demolishes the Cantina Stage
Popular Canadian singer, Bobby Curtola who I toured with
in the '60s, lived in Brandon for a few years in the early 2000s, which
made it possible for us to get together again after so many years and to
plan and play numerous Manitoba special events and casinos. Even more fun
were our numerous jam sessions at the Cantina club. They were always rockin'
One night while really getting it on Bobby called his
manager and a business associate to the stage. We plunged into a loud and
raucous old rock song that everyone knew. Bobby and his two buddies shared
one mic and were having a great time belting out the lyrics and stomping
to the beat. The stage was bouncing from the weight of the three exuberant
Suddenly there was a loud "crack" and we looked around
to find the cause. The stompin' trio had partly disappeared. There was
a large hole in the stage where they had fallen through. Since no one was
hurt it really was a hilarious scene and all of us, including the embarrassed
singers, rolled on the floor in laughter. Bobby, always the great sport,
autographed the big chunk of stage, which was later hung in an honoured
place on the Cantina wall.
OFFICIAL RELEASE OF BOBBY'S DEATH FROM
It is with heavy hearts that we confirm the passing of our father,
Bobby Curtola. He was an amazing man who did so much for the people in
this world, but even more as a father, uncle, godfather and Nono. His entire
family requests privacy at this time while they grieve their loss.
To his fans...he loved each and every one of you more than you
will know, and never took for granted the life you gave him. He would want
you to do something kind for one another today and each day. He would also
want you to know he loves you, and that you have another angel watching
- Chris and Michael Curtola
Born: April 17, 1943 - Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay),
Died: June 4, 2016 (aged 73): Edmonton, Alberta,
Spouse: Karyn Rochford
Back to our
MAIN CURTOLA SITE
Photos and Pages Copyright 1996-2016
Bill and Sue-On Hillman