You could say that I have a true love/hate relationship with Bobby Curtola. I’ve never been a fan of his music, but the man left one of the deepest impressions on me than any other performer I’ve ever encountered.
A big part of my musical education was listening to oldies radio on 980 KRUZ FM out of Peterborough, Ontario during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Like most oldies stations at the time, they played a great selection of music from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and on-air personalities Mike Melnik and Gordon Gibb were like musical professors, who introduced me to a lot of the music that I would go on to love. Remember that this was a time when “oldies” didn’t include The Spice Girls, Ricky Martin or Lou Bega. It’s insane to me that anything that was popular during or after I got out of university can be considered an “oldie” on modern oldies stations, which never seem to play anything before 1975 anymore, denying radio listeners access to so much of the greatest music of all – but that’s another rant for another day.
Now due to Canadian content laws, which state that a certain percentage of Canadian media must be played on television and radio stations, I learnt a lot about Canadian music which is probably why I love the history of this unique sub-genre so much. On an oldies radio station there was only so many Canadian classic pop you could play to meet that mandate, and as a result those artists were played a lot. But that meant The Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Edward Bear, The Poppy Family, Ian and Sylvia, Andy Kim, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Mashmakhan, The Defranco Family, The Bells, The Original Caste, Steppenwolf, Dr. Music and the list goes on and on. I loved it, and I began to curate my own collection of Canadian music.
But then there was Bobby Curtola.
Originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Bobby Curtola was one of Canada’s first pop stars and teen heart throbs, and whether you liked his music or not, he was a true pioneer which had fans coast to coast in Canada and had some success in the US. Having his first hit in 1961 with “Hitch-hiker,” Bobby released a string of hits on early Canadian rock radio including “Aladdin,” “Fortune Teller,” “Don’t You Sweetheart Me,” and “Corrina Corrina.” In terms of Canadian pop stars, he was to Paul Anka what Bobby Sherman was to David Cassidy in the 1970’s – sort of the same thing but with more of a specialized fan base, highly personable, completely inoffensive and seeming to have a much nicer disposition. Bobby was a solid pinpoint in the history of Canadian music, and 980 KRUZ played his music…repeatedly.
For some reason Bobby Curtola’s music triggered me. Perhaps I was too cynical for it, or maybe it’s just that, for the most part, I’ve never liked the saturated brand of music that was produced by cute boys in the years between Elvis going into the military and the coming of the Beatles. But no matter where I was when I heard a Bobby Curtola song, I’d feel like Malcolm McDowell listening to Beethoven in “A Clockwork Orange.” The worst was when his 1965 hit “Makin’ Love” became an ear worm in my head for nearly a year. As I have discussed before, ear worms last anywhere for a few months to up to a year, and that was a particularly painful one.
One of the first pieces of writings I ever did that gained any sort of attention was an early blog rant about just how much I didn’t like Bobby Curtola’s music. It was back when cynicism was selling, and every young writer was trying to be the next Perez Hilton. My rant made its point, but it was sloppy, mean spirited and vicious. Well, somehow or another people noticed it and I got some feedback, including some very angry messages from his devoted fan base. Every now and then I’d get a message by someone who actually knew Bobby or had met him and they kept saying the same thing – “Bobby Curtola is actually a very nice man.” It was something I kept hearing again and again.
Well, time went on and I started working as a semi-professional writer. But, you learn by your mistakes and after a few hard knocks and a few tough lessons, not to mention a boat load of therapy and medication, I came to the conclusion that cruelty isn’t cool and what I thought made my work so “cutting edge” when I was younger was actually lazy and vile. It didn’t make me a good writer. It made me a troll. I began to look back in embarrassment at the harsh and cynical writing that I had created in my early days as a writer and tried desperately to get it off the internet. This included my critique of Bobby Curtola.
And then I found out that Bobby Curtola was coming to town.
I was working as an arts and entertainment writer for a local on-line media company, and Bobby was scheduled to play at a venue which we had a marketing contract with. Now normally I probably wouldn’t have got the story, but I began to lobby to do an interview with him. My publishers were not aware that I didn’t like his music nor my earlier writings about him, but I guess I was looking for some sort of personal redemption. By this point he had received a Governor Generals Order of Canada Award and was on the Canadian Walk of Fame. Furthermore, I had come to the conclusion that when someone is in the entertainmen industry as long as Bpbby was, that they really had paid their dues. It didn’t matter if I liked his music or not. I wanted to experience this guy and write something half decent and respectable about him.
I got a phone interview with Bobby and from the moment I started talking to him I just loved his vibe. He was warm and friendly and an incredible conversationalist and storyteller. I had done my research on him, and asked about how he got started in music, how he grew his audience in a time before the internet and social media, about his time in Las Vegas and about maintaining a personal relationship with his fans. Bobby entertained me with stories and made me laugh multiple times, and after a while I realized, I really enjoyed talking to Bobby. I really liked him. Just as I had been told, he really was the nicest man.
I remember that he said something interesting to me. When I was winding down the interview, he said to me “Hey Sam, you are one of the first people who haven’t ever asked me if I ever met Elvis Presley.” Well, I had researched his career and had asked him questions to bring out his story and, honestly, I hadn’t thought at all about Elvis. I tried to explain this, but I could tell that he was disappointed I didn’t ask it. So, I said “Well, did you ever meet Elvis?”
Bobby’s voice lit right up. “Of course I did” and he proceeded to tell me about how one of his most prized possessions was a ring which he wore everywhere that wad owned by Elvis. This was something he was very proud of.
I also mentioned to him about the fact that “Makin’ Love” was a year long earworm. Bobby laughed and laughed and began singing it to me –
“Makin’ l-uh-uh-uh-ove, Makin’ luh-ove!
Makin’ l-uh-uh-uh-ove, Makin’ luh-ove!”
“No no! Stop that” I yelled back at him, and then we had a good laugh about it. Bloody surreal, but it felt good to find the humor in it with Bobby.
Well, when the interview came to an end, I told him that I’d be going to his concert (I always got complimentary tickets to all the shows I did write ups on for that venue). Bobby said “Well that’s great! Whey don’t you come early and tell them I’m expecting you and watch our sound check. I’d love to meet you and you can meet the band and I’ll give you a copy of the new CD.” Well, I didn’t want the new CD, but I am an autograph nerd, and I did want to meet Bobby. I really liked the guy a lot.
But then the unthinkable happened.
What was a string of Christmas concert dates across Ontario in 2015 that was on nobody’s radar, suddenly made national headlines. Bobby’s wife Karyn, who was in Nova Scotia, was to fly out and join Bobby and his son, who was Bobby’s road manager, for the final show on his tour. However, on the way to the airport, the car she was driving in went into a skid during a freezing rain storm and she was killed. Bobby had only one show left to do – the Peterborough one.
My first thought was that the show would be cancelled. I mean, how could Bobby perform a song like “Three Rows Over” while grieving over his wife? It was heart breaking to think that such a horrible thing had happened to such a nice guy. So to say the least, it was a surprise when it was announced the show was going to go on. Bobby wasn’t cancelling.
If tickets weren’t selling before, by the day of the concert you couldn’t get a seat in the house. People were reportedly coming in from the US and other provinces to see the show and support Bobby. Every chair in the venue was taken and eyes all over Canada was on Peterborough. News crews from Toronto and Ottawa were there to report that Bobby was going on. Now, respecting Bobby in his time of crisis, I didn’t show up to the sound check as invited. The situation had obviously changed. I took my complimentary seat and was amused to find that I was seated next to Gordon Gibb who brought Bobby’s music to me for years via the radio. Thanks for that Gord…I guess.
Well, Bobby eventually took the stage, all smiles and energy, but after a few numbers he got serious, and he addressed his tragedy. He said he didn’t believe Karyn would have wanted him to cancel the final show on the tour, and that he believed that she was there with us. He then put his game face back on and did his entire show. He still managed to make it fun, and the audience gave him a vibrant energy which he could play off of. It was often very moving to watch a man in the middle of a major life crisis push it off to be a showman, but then Bobby had been doing it for over fifty years.
After the show was done, the audience made their way out to the lobby, and a line formed for autographs, although nobody was sure if Bobby was going to come out. We all waited, until we got word that, yes, Bobby was going to come out and meet the public. Bobby has been famous for being accessible to his fans and, again, he didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I waited in a line of primarily elderly women who waited to talk to the guy they loved since they were young girls, and after what seemed to be awhile, I got in front of Bobby.
When he looked up at me Bobby was all smiles. I introduced myself and, recognizing my name, he shook my hand and said “Hey, thanks for coming and for that fun interview.” Well, I didn’t know what to say and, knowing I only had a few moments, I just decided to say what was on my mind.
“You know Bobby,” I said, “What you did today was remarkable. I know that it was a very hard show for you to do and I don’t think anybody would have blamed you for not doing this show. It really showed a lot of strength, and a lot of bravery.”
Well, whatever that mask that Bobby was wearing suddenly fell off. His face fell, and his eyes went very dark. He looked me right in the eye with the most intense stare, and I could suddenly see all the weariness and sadness in him. I could see he was suffering emotionally.
“Sam, if you really want to do me favor, just please say a prayer for me next week,” Bobby responded. “The real hard part is going to happen once this tour is over and I go home. That’s when I’m really going to have to be brave.”
I didn’t know what to say so I just did what I thought I could do. I reached over and embraced him, and Bobby hugged me back. I took his arm for a moment and said goodbye and that I’m glad I met him and walked away.
That was Bobby Curtola’s last official concert. He did make another unofficial public appearance later on, but six months later he was dead. You hear of people not lasting long after they lose their spouse. I always wondered if his broken heart was too much for him to live with.
To this day, that look in Bobby’s eyes continues to haunt me. I’ll never forget it, and how raw and real his emotions were. Now, whenever I hear a Bobby Curtola song or come across one of his albums while digging through records I kind of smile. I think about how nice and warm and genuine he was when I interviewed him, how giving he was with his stories and how, even in his own personal hell, he entertained like the showman he was.
But despite all this, I gotta admit, I still don’t like his music
For those interested in reading my 2015 interview with Bobby Curtola, visit Before Bieber there was Bobby at KawarthaNow.com.