This year has seen the loss of so many of our pop-culture
icons, and we’re not even halfway through 2016. Much publicity and outpourings
of tribute have followed many of these passings. However, there was one
celebrity death that, sadly, fell below the radar of most of us. Canadian
popular music lost its original 1960s teen idol, Order of Canada
recipient Bobby Curtola, June 4. He was 73.
Decades ago, Canadian music was divided by regions, our
vast size and geography making it nearly impossible to achieve national
stature. Until the kid from Port Arthur, Ont., (now Thunder Bay) came along.
Curtola was Canada’s first homegrown national pop star.
"There was not another pop star on that level in Canada
at that time than Bobby Curtola," says Larry LeBlanc, a veteran
Canadian music journalist and senior editor at Celebrity Access.
"Everybody knew his name and his records. He was all over Canadian television.
He was in our collective consciousness. Bobby and Juliette were
our two big domestic music stars."
Born and raised in Port Arthur, his father, Johnny, owned
a Texaco gas station where Curtola often worked after school. But the young
teen had his eyes set on more than being a gas jockey. "Johnny Curtola
was my mom’s older brother," says Curtola’s cousin Susan Andrusco,
eight years Curtola’s junior and now living in Winnipeg. "Bobby would always
be singing at our family gatherings. The family loved him. And he loved
being the centre of attention. He would sing Oh My Papa, and my
grandpa would cry."
The Shondels perform with Curtola in Winnipeg circa 1962.
Pictured are Jack Wong (from left), Ken Hordichuk, Curtola and Gary
Singing at school sock hops, Curtola soon came to the
attention of budding local music impresarios Basil and Dyer Hurdon.
The brothers signed the 16-year-old to management and a recording contract
with their label, Tartan Records. The brothers also wrote songs
for Curtola to record.
From the get-go, Curtola had a strong connection
to Manitoba. Winnipeg radio stations were the first to play his debut
single Hand in Hand With You, released in February 1960. It quickly
climbed the local record charts all the way to No. 1, prompting an invitation
for Curtola to open at the Winnipeg Auditorium for comedian Bob Hope
in March. It was Curtola’s first big break. He received a 10-minute ovation
after his set.
As he told writer Julijana Capone in 2015, "We
go back to our dressing room, and there’s more people outside my dressing
room than Bob Hope’s. Bob comes to my room and says, ‘I don’t know who
the hell you are, Bobby, but I gotta meet you because there are more people
at your dressing room than mine.’ So he comes in and congratulates me.
What a guy, eh? Ever since that show he and I were good friends."
Even before his star began to rise, Curtola was tapping
Winnipeg musicians to back him up, a pattern that would continue for several
years. As local drummer and musicologist Owen Clark recalls, "In
1959, I was playing with the CKY Playboys at the Vermilion Bay,
Ont., Fish Derby. The promoter said he had a young singer there and asked
if we would back him on a few tunes. It was Bobby, age 16, and starting
his career. He did a good job. He was polite and respectful, good-looking,
well-groomed and well-dressed. He was confident onstage, knew the songs
and how to sell them, even at that young age."
The Dovermen circa 1965. Bill Hillman (centre) remembers
‘girls rushing the stage everywhere’ when the band toured with Curtola.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL HILLMAN
With his debut recording topping the charts, Curtola played
several dates in our province using the Galaxies as backing band.
"We were the first band in Manitoba to back up Bobby Curtola," says drummer
Don Maloney. "The first engagement was at Windsor Park Collegiate.
We didn’t practise with him, but we rehearsed the music that was sent to
us. The whole thing went off without a hitch. This was because (guitarist)
Bill Jaques was the consummate musician and had Curtola’s material
down perfectly. This was 1960. I think we were 18. A year later, we were
asked to do two shows with him, one in Selkirk and one in Portage la Prairie.
This was when Fortune Teller came out. This time we rehearsed with
him at CKRC studio. He was so easy to work with. At the gig in Selkirk,
the place was packed, and when we started Fortune Teller, the screaming
was so loud I couldn’t hear my drums. It took five times to get that one
going. The next night we played Portage la Prairie. The place was also
packed, and we all got mobbed and had to be locked in a storage room. I
have never experienced anything like that before."
Fortune Teller became a massive hit for Curtola
both here and in the U.S., where it sold more than two million copies.
'We all got mobbed and had to be locked in a storage room.
I have never experienced anything like that before'-- Galaxies drummer
Don Maloney on performing with Curtola
"It’s going up the charts like crazy, with no records,"
Curtola told Capone. "So we’re transporting a plane full of records from
Canada to Hawaii. I got the No. 1 song in Hawaii. Then it’s No. 1 in Seattle.
Then I go to L.A., and it’s on the Top 20. I do a show with Dionne Warwick;
I’m on Hullabaloo, I’m doing all of these dance shows. Bob Keane,
who owned Del-Fi Records, signs a deal with us because we’re getting
so much airplay everywhere. That single really changed everything for me."
He also joined Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars
bus tour across the U.S. and appeared on British television’s popular Thank
Your Lucky Stars.
On his return tour in Manitoba, Curtola hired Winnipeg’s
Shondels to back him up. "We played all over Manitoba," bass player
Jack Wong recalls. "We would play one or two numbers before he came
out. Girls would be screaming and passing out at every gig. At one show,
we had to smuggle him out of the room afterwards. He was quite a showman
and could really work the crowd. He was a big star but also a real gentleman
and a lot of fun to work with."
Decades later, Wong attended Curtola’s concert at Club
Regent Casino. "He spotted me after all those years and invited me
up onstage to introduce me. Later, he invited me to sit with him at his
autograph table after the show. That was quite a special moment for me."
In 1963, Winnipeg’s Chad Allan & the Reflections
(later the Guess Who) hooked up with Curtola. "We backed him on
some Winnipeg dates and across Western Canada, all the way to Edmonton
for Klondike Days and Calgary for the Stampede," says guitarist
Randy Bachman. "It was an opportunity for us to travel and promote
our records. We had Shy Guy out at the time. At the Stampede we
played the Teen Tent with him, sponsored by Coca-Cola. That was
our first encounter with screaming girls who came to see Bobby every night.
It was our taste of the rock ’n’ roll limelight. Bobby Curtola was a decent
singer and performer and a nice enough guy who came along when Canadian
teenagers were looking for their very own Elvis or Cliff Richard,
and he filled that void. And he was very successful."
The Galaxies circa 1961, when they backed up Curtola.
Pictured (from left) are Jim Ackroyd, Don Maloney and Bill Jaques.
With an eye to the business end, Bachman took note of
the machine behind Curtola’s success. "Brothers Dyer and Basil Hurdon were
smart businessmen for their time and the brains behind Bobby," says Bachman.
"They had their own record label, wrote the songs and published them, owned
the masters and had a good-looking young guy to go out and promote them
live. They had it made." Bachman was also inspired by the young star. "His
success prompted me to believe that if a guy from Port Arthur, Ont., could
make it, then Chad Allan & the Reflections from Winnipeg, a city 10
times that size, could do it, too."
Ray St. Germain was hosting CBC Winnipeg’s Music
Hop Hootenanny when Curtola guested on the show several times. "We
really hit it off," he remembers. Years later, Curtola flew St. Germain
out to Vancouver to perform with him. He once gave the Winnipeg singer
the use of his tour bus for a ride home after a gig together in Port Arthur.
"He was very professional but always had time for his fans," says St. Germain.
Curtola and cousin Susan Andrusco at McPhillips Street Station in
COURTESY OF SUSAN ANDRUSCO
Indeed, Curtola’s fans were dedicated and determined.
As Shondels drummer Ken Hordichuk recalls, "We were playing in Dauphin,
and after the gig we headed back to the motel, and Bobby’s manager found
a fan under Bobby’s bed with a suitcase." "There was a dance held in the
Miles Macdonell school gym in February 1964," recalls Corinne Mooring.
"My friends and I all attended. Bobby started to sing Corinna Corinna,
and we were standing in front of the stage. My friends yelled out my name
to him. Bobby bent down, held my hand and continued to sing the song. When
he finished, my friends told him it was my birthday. He sang Happy Birthday
to me as well. Pretty special moment for a shy high school student."
Coca-Cola tapped Curtola’s popularity by having
him record a pop jingle, Things Go Better With Coca-Cola, which
aired on Canadian radio. Coke also sponsored Curtola across Canada. "I
developed a Coke habit touring with Bobby," laughs Brandon guitarist Bill
Hillman. "Coca-Cola that is. They would load up our band trailer with cases
of Coke. We got so sick of Coca-Cola."
Curtola had an affinity for Brandon musicians (he even
lived in Brandon for a time). Hillman’s band the Dovermen backed him locally
and on tour between 1964 and 1965. "It was standing-room-only and girls
rushing the stage everywhere," says Hillman. "He loved his fans,
and they loved him. He really fit the role of a teen idol and developed
a polished act. He was known as Mr. Personality. He was always happy and
easygoing, no pretensions."
Curtola had a strong connection to Manitoba.
Winnipeg radio stations were the first to play his first single,
Hand in Hand With You, released in February 1960.
THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES
Hillman recalls another dimension of Curtola’s fame.
"Bobby did a lot of charity work and devoted time and energy to charities."
More hits followed, including Aladdin, Hitchhiker,
Three Rows Down and Corinna Corinna. In total, Curtola earned 25 Canadian
gold singles and 12 gold albums.
"Bobby’s records were very professional productions,
recorded with top players in Nashville," says Hillman.
Back home in Port Arthur, Curtola’s national acclaim did
not go unnoticed. Bobby Curtola Drive was named for him, and his
hometown shows were always highlights. But to his family, he was just one
of them. "I don’t remember us treating him any differently," says Andrusco.
"He remained down-to-earth and always had time for us." She recalls the
time her cousin rehearsed in her parents’ Fort William basement for a big
show at the Fort William Coliseum. Backing Curtola for the show
was Vancouver band Barry Boyd & the Frantics. "My school friends
would come over after school to listen," recalls Andrusco. "We were the
biggest hit in the neighbourhood. The band even taught us how to do the
Andrusco lost touch with Curtola for many years, but in
2012 she attended his McPhillips Street Station casino gig. "My
friend and I had seats at a front table next to the stage," she recalls.
"Bobby came out and immediately spotted me — I hadn’t seen him in a long
time — and announced that his cousin was in the audience. He reached down
with his hand and pulled me onstage and gave me a big kiss before carrying
on with his show." She stayed after to visit with him. "It took over an
hour for him to meet with each and every fan, and he listened to their
personal stories." The two maintained email contact until his death.
A floppy vinyl record for a pop jingle Curtola recorded for Coca-Cola.
PHOTO COURTESY THE BILL HILLMAN COLLECTION
In 1967, Curtola tapped Brandon band the Challengers
for a national tour to mark Canada’s centennial, including performances
at Montreal’s Expo 67. "I was only 16," says Challengers guitarist
Keith Dodd. "Bobby was always fair with the band members and treated
everyone with respect. We had a woman road manager, Maria Martell,
so Bobby would travel with her and Basil Hurden, his songwriter, in a Cadillac.
On occasion, Mrs. Martell’s young daughter, Ava
Maria, accompanied her." Curtola married Ava in 1975.
"His fan club was a crazy-dedicated bunch of women who
always went all out when Bobby was coming to town," says Dodd. "I remember
his fan club presenting him with a little puppy after one performance."
The Challengers were renamed the Martells
and stayed with Curtola until 1968.
Realizing the shelf life of a teen idol can be brief,
in 1972 Curtola signed a long-term, multimillion-dollar
deal to perform in Las
Vegas. "We all read about that and were jealous," laughs St. Germain.
Elvis Presley became a friend and would drop by Curtola’s shows
incognito. The King even bestowed one of his personal rings on Curtola.
Sadly, the Canadian music industry forgot about Curtola
in later years. He was continually passed over for induction into the Canadian
Music Hall of Fame. Curtola himself lobbied for inclusion to no avail.
"The Canadian music industry should be ashamed of itself for overlooking
Bobby Curtola," says Larry LeBlanc. "He was forgotten. There’s almost an
amnesia with anything that happened before 1971, when Canadian-content
rules came in."
The changes brought on by the Beatles left Curtola
behind. "He was never a rock ’n’ roller," says LeBlanc. "He was more of
a ’50s, ‘ring-a-ding-ding’ kind of nightclub singer, and he didn’t write
his own songs." Nonetheless, his diehard fans remained loyal.
"Bobby had been on Princess Cruise Lines cruises
for about 10 years with fans before, but there was a lapse of quite a few
years," notes fan Cheri Diamond. "Then in February 2014, I was with a group
of his fans, 54 in total, who went on the Princess Cruise Lines cruise
with Bobby. We called it ‘the Bobby Cruise.’ It was awesome. I and the
rest of his fans had a blast. Most cruise lines organizing an artist cruise
will allow only one meet-and-greet for one hour, but our meet-and-greet
lasted four hours. They also only allow one show. Our show continued afterwards
with a party. He visited each table and spoke to his fans and signed autographs."
The Dovermen backing Curtola circa 1964/1965.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL HILLMAN
Curtola’s second wife, Karyn
Rochford, died in a car accident in December 2015. Friends say
he was devastated by the loss. He was living in Edmonton at the time of
his death. Curtola is survived by his two sons from his first marriage,
Chris and Michael.
"Bobby had begun his autobiography but never finished
it," states Hillman, who kept in touch with Curtola over the years.
"He would call me up from Las Vegas and talk about his career. He was
such a genuine guy."
In April 2002, Curtola headlined a Sock
Hop Reunion at Brandon’s Keystone Centre, bringing together many of
his former bandmates, including Hillman and his wife, Sue-On, as well as
And what of Curtola’s stature in Canadian music? "It’s
not as big as it should be," sighs Hillman.
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