Sharing the stage with a music sensation
Multiple Manitoba bands backed up crooner Curtola, Canada's first teen idol, in his heyday
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/06/2016 (2421 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
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 74.
‘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
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.”
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.”
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 startedFortune 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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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 Twist.”
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.
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.”
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 St. Germain.
And what of Curtola’s stature in Canadian music?
“It’s not as big as it should be,” sighs Hillman.
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Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.