Bobby Curtola: Rise of a Canadian teen idol

Aug 11, 2014

Canadian teen dream, Bobby Curtola.

During the tail end of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, radio airwaves across North America were dominated by names like Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, and Johnny Crawford. In Canada, a dimple-faced singer named Bobby Curtola became the nation’s very own rock ‘n’ roll teen idol.
Within months of releasing his first single, “Hand In Hand With You,” in January of 1960, a 16-year-old Curtola went from pumping gas at his father’s garage in Thunder Bay, Ontario to performing on The Bob Hope Show. And, in 1962, thanks to DJs such as Vancouver’s Red Robinson supporting his single “Fortune Teller,” Curtola became an international star, receiving the first gold record in Canada, and spurring on a coast-to-coast craze.

“Hand in Hand With You,” Bobby Curtola’s 1960 hit single.
With his charm and boy-next-door good looks, Curtola quickly made a name for himself in the fall of 1958, singing with his band Bobby and the Bobcats at high school assemblies around Thunder Bay.
“I sing the Richie Valens song ‘Oh Donna’ at an assembly—and the kids love it, they go crazy,” the now 72-year-old says from his home near Liverpool, Nova Scotia. “Now we’re playing at the noon sock hop and we’re just making up songs.”
Before long, kids started coming from other high schools to see Bobby and the Bobcats perform. Then the band was filling gymnasiums at other high schools and playing dances at the inner-city coliseum. Stories about the young upstarts soon followed in the local papers. The craze that would later be referred to as “Curtolamania” had begun.
“I guess I sounded enough like the other Bobbys, Frankies and Johnnys to fit in,” he says.
Brothers Dyer and Basil Hurdon, Curtola’s future managers, main songwriters, and founders of the Tartan Record label, heard about the young vocalist and asked him to sing lead on one side of an album they were recording at a local radio station. 
“They invite me over and I’m all shook up to do this,” Curtola says. “You know, this is like a dream come true. What are the odds that two brothers would have a songwriting hobby and actually be trying to record music—and I get to sing on it? This is unbelievable. It’s like you’re making this up. Was this really going on?”

Bobby Curtola with Richie Knight & The Mid-Knights in 1961.

The 1960s was a time when radio ruled, when the DJs were bigger superstars than the acts. Winnipeg was an epicentre for rock ‘n’ roll, breeding acts like the Mongrels, the Pallbearers, Chad Allan & The Reflections, the Deverons, the Guess Who and Neil Young and The Squires. DJs, such as PJ the DJ and Doug Burrows, were the first in the country to play Curtola’s record in February of 1960, helping to make it the biggest selling single in the city until the Beatles obliterated record sales during the British Invasion of 1963.
“There was an impresario in Winnipeg that heard about the success of my record,” Curtola says. “Bob Hope was coming to town in March, so from February to March it just ran up the hit parade and stayed #1 for quite a while. Then, in March, I get invited to be on The Bob Hope Show in Winnipeg. Like, how did this happen? I tell everyone the vibrato in my voice was fear.”
His appearance on The Bob Hope Show in Winnipeg ended in a ten-minute long applause, as Curtola remembers. The gig solidified his star power and marked the end of any sort of normalcy while on the road. After that, Curtola couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed by screaming girls.
“We go back to our dressing room and there’s more people outside my dressing room than Bob Hope’s,” Curtola says, laughing. “Bob Hope comes to my dressing 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.”

Being swarmed by rabid fans wasn’t unusual for the young singer at the height of his career.
Although the young Curtola had a hit in Canada, he hadn’t yet penetrated the American market. But Vancouver’s undisputed king of radio Red Robinson would soon change all of that. As Curtola notes, you can’t tell his story without including Robinson. The noted DJ championed rock ‘n’ roll in its early years, and was the first Canadian DJ to play records by Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
“In all of these pockets across the country were these superstars: the DJs,” Curtola says. “If you went to Vancouver in those days, there was nobody bigger than Red Robinson. If there’s ever a story to be told or one that’s always missed, it’s the one about Red.”
Robinson sent Curtola’s single “Fortune Teller,” which was only available in Canada, to his friend at a station in Seattle, who then sent it to someone in Hawaii.

“Fortune Teller,” Bobby Curtola’s 1962 chart-topper, made the singer an international star.
“It’s going up the charts like crazy with no records,” Curtola remembers. “So we’re transporting a plane full of records from Canada to Hawaii. I got the #1 song in Hawaii. Then it’s #1 in Seattle. Then I go to L.A. and it’s on the Top 22.
“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.”
With the massive success of “Fortune Teller,” which sold 2.5 million records worldwide, Curtola was asked to join Dick Clark and his Cavalcade of Stars, and that same year in 1962 he met the Beatles and appeared on the famous British TV variety show Thank Your Lucky Stars.
“Music was limitless at that time,” he says. “It wasn’t about being a Canadian or an American—it was about the hits. If you had a rock ‘n’ roll hit, you were in the gang with all of them. You got on the bus with Dick Clark.
“That was the beginning of that whole thing. The rock ‘n’ roll explosion, the explosion of the transistor radio—that changed everything.”

Bobby Curtola ran up the hit parade again with single, “Move Over,” in 1964.
Amid Curtola’s coast-to-coast tours of Canada, he befriended an emerging Winnipeg rock group, who would act as his occasional backing band for Winnipeg dates. That band’s name was Chad Allan & The Reflections (later called Chad Allan & The Expressions). This was before 1965’s Shakin’ All Over, of course, and before they become the supergroup known as the Guess Who.

When they put out that first record (1963 single ‘Shy Guy’), we were on a western tour of Canada,” Curtola says. “Burton (Cummings) wasn’t in the band at this time. I went into every radio station during our western tour and got all the guys I knew to play the record and it really kicked their record in the butt.”

In the Randy Bachman and John Einarson-penned Tales From Beyond The Tap, Bachman wrote about touring with Curtola across Western Canada from Edmonton’s Klondike Days to the Calgary Stampede. “It was an opportunity for us to travel and promote our records,” Bachman wrote. “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 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 at it.”

“Shakin’ All Over” off the 1965 debut self-titled album by the Guess Who.
By 1972, Curtola had outgrown his teen idol image, and had secured a residency performing in hotels and in Las Vegas.  Like so many crooners before and after him, he found himself singing in the same lounges where Frank Sinatra wooed Hollywood stars and high rollers, and Elvis made his comeback.
“Elvis used to come to my shows,” he says. “I could always tell when he would come. It was always in the winter when there weren’t a lot of people in town—mid-January before the tours came…he’d come in with his disguises and he always came in with two beautiful women—one on each side—so you could never sit with him…he’d stay for no more than two songs, give me the sign and then go.”

Bobby Curtola performing in Las Vegas. 

When Elvis passed away, Curtola was given a ring that Elvis used to wear while performing at the Las Vegas Hilton.
“It’s one of my prized possessions, “ Curtola says. “I don’t wear it often, but I like to look at it on stage to remind me of how unreal my life has been. How does this happen to a guy from Thunder Bay?”

–Julijana Capone