RIP: Bobby Curtola 1943-2016

Kerry Doole's picture
Circa 1961 fronting his band The Corvettes featuring Tom Ambeau (drums, guitar), Milt Budarick (bass guitar), Bert DesRochers (piano), Larry French (lead guitar, vocals) and Gary French (lead vocals, drums)
Circa 1961 fronting his band The Corvettes featuring Tom Ambeau (drums, guitar), Milt Budarick (bass guitar), Bert DesRochers (piano), Larry French (lead guitar, vocals) and Gary French (lead vocals, drums)

RIP: Bobby Curtola, age 73, in Edmonton, June 4. Described as “Canada’s original teenage heartthrob,” Curtola passed away at his son's home on Saturday evening. In a press release received yesterday, his sons Chris and Michael Curtola stated that “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 over you.”

Further details will follow but as stated privacy is requested at this time.”

Robert Allen Curtola was born in Port Arthur, Ontario (later renamed as Thunder Bay) on April 17, 1943. As a teenage high school student, he started playing in his basement band Bobby and the Bobcats, then had his first hit in 1960 with “Hand In Hand With You.”

His first Western Canadian tour, in the fall of 1960, brought quick success, and In 1961 he scored a string of top Ten Canadian hits singles, including “Don’t You Sweetheart Me,” “I’ll Never Be Alone Again,” and “Hitchhiker.”

Within a year he was recording in Nashville.ecording in Nashville with Bill Porter for RCA Studios, where he continued to record for many years.

His 1962 single “Fortune Teller” became his biggest hit. It went gold in Canada and landed him a US record deal, going on to sell 2.5 million copies internationally. Curtola was invited to tour with Dick Clark and his Cavalcade of Stars. While on tour in England that same year, he met The Beatles and appeared on the famous British TV variety show Thank Your Lucky Stars.

He continued to have a long run of charting Canadian singles until 1967. Some of his biggest hits included “Indian Giver,” “Three Rows Over,” “Little Girl Blue,” “Mean Woman Blues,” “Makin’ Love,” "Aladdin," and “Walkin’ With My Angel.”

Most of these songs were written by brothers Dyer and Basil Hurdon, and released on the Tartan label in Canada. Tartan was owned by the Hurdons, who also managed Curtola.

Bobby Curtola is recognized as becoming the first Canadian to have an album go gold. In 1966 he won a RPM Gold Leaf award (a precursor to The Junos) as Best Male Vocalist.

In the early 1970s, Curtola hosted a CTV musical series entitled, Shake, Rock and Roll and he went on to a successful singing career at Las Vegas casino venues. He is believed to have been the first Canadian entertainer to receive a long term deal in the city, according to his website.

He occasionally had moderate hits on the Canadian AC and Country charts, including 1973's "Songman," 1976's "Oh My Marie" and 1990's "Playin' the Shadows Of Glory."

In 1998, in recognition of his long service to the Canadian music industry as well as his humanitarian work around the world, including a children's charity in Ecuador, Curtola was made a member of the Order of Canada. His pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. 

Curtola was the first pop singer to record a pop-sounding jingle in Canada with “Things Go Better With Coke.” He became a Coke spokesman in Canada, and wrote the jingle “The Real Thing” for the company. In 1997, Curtola was inducted into the Coca Cola Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

Curtola received a Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 and a Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. In 2011, he was honoured with a star on the Italian Walk of Fame in Toronto.

He remained active as a performer, including work on cruise ships. Curtola recently attended and performed at Canadian Music Week in Toronto.

Twelve of his albums and 25 of his singles were certified gold.

FYI reached out to those who had performed and worked with Curtola, and here are some of their responses:

George Johns (former musician, radio consultant):

“When I was a pup in Winnipeg we had a band called The Phantoms but when we started recording we changed our name to The Jury.  We, like Neil Young and the Guess Who, played all over Winnipeg and the surrounding area. Occasionally from out of nowhere Bobby Curtola would suddenly jump up in front of us and just start singing. We had no choice but to play along but after a couple of songs he would disappear as suddenly as he appeared. RIP Bobby.”

Warren Cosford (broadcaster):

“I grew up in Winnipeg at The Dawn of Rock & Roll.  We didn't know where The Music was coming from for sure but we knew it wasn't from Canada......   It was The '50s. Two of the four radio stations in Winnipeg were now playing Rock & Roll records most of the time.   

In those days, each community in Winnipeg had a Community Club usually featuring outdoor sports and indoor ping pong, cards and, on weekends, Teen Dances.

In 1959 there were 38 Community Clubs in Winnipeg.

It was a Friday night. I was 14 at Clifton Community Club trying to get up the nerve to ask one of the girls to dance when suddenly some guy in a suit jumped up on the small stage and started singing a song I'd heard on the radio called "Hand in Hand With You." 

There wasn't a band. There wasn't a microphone. But there was some guy jumping around and, somehow, singing his heart out.

There were probably 50 or 60 kids in the hall. We were stunned. How was this happening? I remember gradually all of the kids stopped dancing and began to gather around the stage. But then, suddenly, the song was over, the guy in the suit jumped off the stage and as the crowd parted, he ran outside to a waiting car.

I found out later he was Bobby Curtola from Port Arthur Ontario and he was "opening" that night for Bob Hope at The Winnipeg Arena. 

Within a month I had convinced my parents to buy me a used set of drums. Suddenly, it seemed, a lot of my friends were learning to play guitar. You could be a Canadian, get on the radio and make hit records like Bobby Curtola!

Looking back, to me, it was the birth of The Winnipeg Band Scene which would develop through the early '60s doing "covers" and mature and gain confidence with The British Invasion.

BTW.....I was a lousy drummer.

Martin Melhuish  (music journalist/author/documentarian)

“I last worked with Bobby when I invited him to be part of a production I was writing and directing for USA Networks and Bravo Canada titled The Scream Heard 'Round the World: Teen Idols and Their Fans. Even though it dealt with mainly American and British pop idols like 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, The Monkees, The Beatles, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Hanson, David Cassidy, New Kids On the Block, Bay City Rollers, Rick Springfield, The Osmonds and many others, Bobby held his own in the film with his songs and crowds of screaming fans.

He showed up in a leather outfit with Linda Thomas, the president of his fan club, for his interview at one of the Nickels retro restaurants, created by Celine Dion, when there was one north of Toronto on Hwy 27.

Bobby played the pop idol to perfection, still as in form as he was back in his teen years when he was still in high school and flying off on weekends to make personal and TV appearances, among them, The Bob Hope Show.

Bobby told me at the time, ‘My claim to fame was that I was the first Canadian artist created by Canadians. Up to that time, everyone had to go to the United States to make it but I was the first homegrown artist in Canada that was respected and appreciated by Canadians and I went to America and all those countries as Canada’s Bobby Curtola.’

“Curtola had thousands of amorous fans from coast-to-coast and more than a dozen fan clubs,” Linda Thomas recalled during her interview, ‘Everybody wanted to be Bobby’s girl, in fact, we used to go around singing, I want to be Bobby’s girl…

“The fan club presidents all across Canada would write to one another and ask, ‘Do you have long hair or short? Do you have long nails or short?’ They all wanted to know what everybody looked like, I guess to see what their competition was. All these girls were thinking they were going to be Mrs. Curtola. One was actually out buying wedding dresses. Everybody was in love with Bobby. He had a knack of making everybody feel special and sang just for you.’

Of course, as a young man, Bobby didn’t mind the female attention. As he told us , ‘… the screaming, who wouldn’t love it? I was just on Cloud 9 and, of course, being Italian… hoo, hoo! The hormones were working. I was more excited than they were. I used to tell all the girls, you don’t know how many times you were responsible for that cold shower of mine.’”

Doug Chappell (musician/record label exec)

 1961 at Central United Church Teen Town. L to R is
Doug Chappell, Mike Brough, Bobby, George
Semkiw, Richie Knight.

“So sorry to hear that Bobby has left us. Our band Richie Knight and The Mid-Knights not only knew Bobby but we also backed him up with our band. That was pre 1963 when we had our own hit with "Charlena".

Bobby was always very warm and friendly and always with a smile on his face. He continued that way, I saw him a while ago doing a set with Robbie Lane."

Duff Roman (CHUM broadcaster and founder of Roman Records)

The recent Broadway smash Jersey Boys tells the story of The Four Seasons. Bobby Curtola deserves the same respect and adulation. He was Canada’s original teen idol and, like the Four Seasons, he survived the same plot twists of controlling managers, endless touring, broken promises and those Las Vegas connections. Ten years before Canadian content regulations on radio and 20 years before FACTOR funding became available, Bobby, with the support of his song-writing backers, the Hurdon brothers of Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), broke into the Billboard charts. First came Fortune Teller in 1962 and then Aladdin and the hits just kept on coming. He was the good-looking, smooth-singing kid from The Lakehead who had the best fan club in the country - a relentless, well-oiled machine that would swamp the 1050 CHUM Battle of the Bands phone lines and routinely beat up on the biggest international groups of the 60s. He worked the high school gyms, hockey arenas and shopping malls across the country – and yes, the girls swooned and the guys were jealous. He was slick and professional but always a thoughtful, generous friend. Please, let’s not forget the young man who opened the door to opportunity for a nascent Canadian music industry. -- Thank you, Bobby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources: Billboard, Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, artist website