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.
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 smoothly
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 Museum.
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 to make.
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 manager's name.
click for larger images
"To Bill ~ Best Regards ~ A Swell Tour! ~ Bobby Curtola"
"To Suzie ! Love and Hugs xxxx ~ Pretty As Ever ~ Bobby Curtola"
He married Ava in 1975 and they settled in Edmonton.
Their two sons, Michael and Chris, were born and raised there.
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.
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 Hubbard
(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.
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
Show had classic car displays, two Brandon backup bands:
We - The Dovermen were first band he hired out of Brandon.
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 in itself.
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
The planned follow-up 2003 Hop was put on hold
Bobby's Sock Hop Reunion | Sock 2 | Sock 3 | Sock 4 | Sock 5 | Sock 6
Bobby and original Dovermen band at Sock Hop Reunion - Brandon Keystone Centre
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
Martells Ray St. Germain
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 sister)
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 fondly.
I usually drove us all home in Robert's Lincoln with the ELVIS plates
PART II: ODYSSEY EXCERPTS
Anecdotes and photos previously shared in our book:
BILL AND SUE-ON HILLMAN: A 50-YEAR MUSICAL ODYSSEY
GIG NOTES 2: THE SWINGIN' SIXTIES
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
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 Keystone complex.
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 SPECIAL EVENTS
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
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
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 singers.
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.
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 over you
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Bill and Sue-On Hillman