Russ: “You might have to be from Ontario, Canada to really appreciate tonight’s story. I’d like to touch on some early days in the career of one of Canada’s first Teen Idol pop stars, Bobby Curtola. I’ll focus mainly on Bobby’s initial rise to popularity and the first band that was assigned to tour with him across Canada.
This band was originally called The Corvettes, but renamed The Martells. After working and recording with Bobby, they would strike out on their own and ultimately become The Martels Rock n Roll Show. (I currently have the honour of playing sax in that group).
Back in 1957, a group of 5 friends in a Midland, Ontario high school formed a band and called themselves “The Corvettes”. They played concerts and Teen Sock Hops throughout Southern Ontario for several years. In their home town they developed a huge following with Teen Town dances at the Odd Fellows Hall and the Midland arena.
Larry French (lead guitar, vocals)
Gary French (lead vocals, guitar, drums)
Milt Budarick (bass guitar)
Bert DesRochers (piano)
Tom Ambeau (drums, guitar)
The Corvettes played several years for Sock Hops as the house band at the Midland arena, which was the summer home for Teen Town.
Meanwhile, in the fall of 1959, there was a young sixteen-year-old high school student, Bobby Curtola (born Robert Allen Curtola, in Port Arthur, Ontario). He started out pumping gas at his father’s garage in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and went on to form his first “basement” band: “Bobby and the Bobcats”.
Bobby’s singing talent had attracted the attention of two songwriting brothers, Basil and Dyer Hurdon, who owned the Tartan record label. The Hurdons would become Bobby’s managers and Basil, a tall, mild mannered, gentle, almost father figure, would often be seen at his shows.
The Hurdons wrote all of Bobby’s songs, and their first one, “Hand In Hand with You” was recorded at a radio station in Thunder Bay, with a “45″ released on their Tartan label in January 1960.
By February 1960 “Hand In Hand With You” was sent to radio stations nation-wide. Response was immense and by July of that year it had reached #26 on Toronto’s CHUM Chart *.
With Bobby’s good looking, boy-next-door popularity mushrooming, he was now making many promotional and professional appearances, a significant one being his opening for the Bob Hope Show in March.
After performing on the Bob Hope Show in 1960, the charismatic Bobby was quickly finding himself in a whirlwind of success that would be referred to back then as “Curtolamania.”
Bobby Hits Midland, Ontario…
In 1961, 17-year-old Bobby Curtola was on one of his weekend tours of southern Ontario and booked to perform at the Midland Summer Teen Town. Now, the manager of the Midland arena, Ken Stonehouse, introduced the Corvettes to Bobby Curtola, who was looking for a new backup band.
Since they worked so well together at Teen Town, Bobby’s agent, Maria Martell, decided they should use the Corvettes for his first coast to coast tour across Canada..
“The Corvettes” become “The Martells”…
Contemplating the name “Bobby Curtola & The Corvettes“, it was discovered that there was already an American band called The Corvettes, so they became “Bobby Curtola & The Martells“, the new name coming from, guess who?… Maria Martell !
When it was decided that Bobby and the Martells should tour across Canada, Tom and Bert opted to not go on the road. So, Larry, Gary and Milt added Bill Laramey as their keyboard player and Gary switched to drums, reducing the band to a 4-piece for their really big tour.
Bobby Curtola with The Martells became trailblazers, establishing the very first coast to coast Canadian Rock n’ Roll tour. Larry French:
We did stops at such places as Massey Hall and Johnnie Lombardi’s CHIN Picnic in Toronto, “Klondike Days” in Edmonton, Montreal, the Calgary Stampede, the Pacific Exhibition and other exhibitions and festivals across Canada… 52 shows in 48 days with 4 Matinees thrown in for good luck.
During this frenetic time, the Martells also managed to cut several records with Bobby; after playing Friday and Saturday nights they would go into the studio in Toronto on Sunday to lay down bed tracks. Bobby would then take the bed tracks to the RCA Studios in Nashville where Bill Porter would work with him on overdubs of his vocal and final mixing. The Anita Kerr Singers were used extensively for backup vocals during many of these sessions.
Bobby would continue to record there for many years to come.
This earned the band the reputation of being one of the top ten in Canada… they were Studio Musicians!
Bobby never had a # 1 hit, even in Canada, but charted 20 times with Toronto Radio’s CHUM Chart *.
“Fortune Teller” became Bobby’s biggest chart-topper as it was successful internationally. It went Gold in Canada. The song sold over 2 million copies and became a legitimate US hit. This erupted into a successive string of hits during the fiercely competitive British Invasion era culminating into a ‘Male Vocalist Of The Year’ pre-Juno in 1965.
Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s DJ, Red Robinson, was instrumental in Fortune Teller’s success. Seeing its potential of being a hit internationally, he sent it to Seattle’s KJR and Hawaii’s KPOI radio. A major US record deal was signed and Fortune Teller went on to become a 2.5 million seller internationally!
With it’s moderate success on Tartan Records the team were encouraged to continue with a carefully calculated campaign of record releases, club dates, and the early formation of the Bobby Curtola Fan Club following the phenomenal success of “Fortune Teller” and its double A-side “Johnny Take Your Time” in 1962.
The Martells Return to Normalcy
Coming home from their whirlwind tour, the boys decided to get back to being normal teens again and just play locally, so they were obliged to modify their name to: “The Martels” with one “L”. This slight change meant that the Bobby’s agency could continue seamlessly with “The Martells” for his succeeding shows and recordings.
The Martels (moins Bobby) went on to have a significant role as back-up musicians, opening shows for top Rock n Roll artists that appeared at the Midland Teen Town: Little Caesar & The Consuls, Ritchie Knight & The Midnights, David Clayton Thomas & The Shays, Pat Hervey, Linda Lane, The Stampeders, The Beau Marks, Shirley Mathews, Peggy Lynn and Mary Lewis.
They also backed up such stars as Del Shannon (“Runaway“), Bryan Hyland, Barbara Lewis, The Cadillacs, The Newbeats, Chuck Berry and R.Dean Taylor, to name a few.
Ultimately however, the British Invasion would take Rock n’ Roll in a new directions so The Martels eventually disbanded in the late 1960′s…
Bobby With Subsequent Bands…
After that first Trans-Canada Tour, Bobby Curtola, with another Martells group, did more recording in Nashville, releasing hit songs such as “Gypsy Heart“, “Destination Love“, and many more. In 1966 he won the RPM Gold Leaf Award for becoming the first Canadian to have an album go gold.
As English Canada’s only ‘teen idol’ in the early 1960s, Curtola specialized in what the Hurdons called “rock-a-ballads” and sang in what Frank Rasky described as a “silvery tenor” with “a soft-sweet quality”. Curtola toured widely in Canada until 1967, his performances often creating hysteria among his young audiences.
As a teen idol he had an amazing 32 Top Ten hits from 46 released singles and over 20 albums, appeared on The Bob Hope Show, and hosted CTV television’s ‘After Four‘ show.
By 1968 it was time for a change to cater to his aging audience and Adult Contemporary seemed more suited to his new direction. Curtola turned to a nightclub career, first in Canada; in the early 1970s, he hosted a CTV musical series entitled, Shake, Rock and Roll.
By 1973 and into the 1980s, he shifted some of his entertaining for part of each year to Las Vegas (where he opened for Louis Armstrong).
He recorded sporadically during the 1980s, sometimes using the name Boby Curtola, or just Curtola. Releases in 1990 from RBI and RCA/BMG found him singing in a country-gospel style and included the modest Canadian hit ‘Playin’ in the Shadows of Glory.’
Curtola went on to a successful singing career at Las Vegas, Nevada casino venues and still performs at various clubs today.
Curtola’s musical career benefited from the 1990s’ nostalgia wave; he was active singing at clubs, telethons, cruise ships, and conventions into the 2000s. His recordings during this period included Christmas Flashback (Tartan, 1992), Gotta Get Used to Being Country (Tartan, 1993), Turn the Radio Up and Reflections: Legend to Legend (both Tartan, 1997). He toured Canada and Malaysia in 1998, and Europe in 2001. He also embarked on other business ventures, eg a tomato drink company.
In 1998, in recognition of Curtola’s long service to the Canadian music industry as well as his humanitarian work around the world, he 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 proved it was possible to succeed in pop music and still live in Canada, thus breaking ground for later Canadian pop musicians. He was an innovator on a number of musical fronts:
Curtola was one of the first Canadians (along with Paul Anka) to be offered a multimillion dollar contract in Las Vegas; and his jingle “Things go better with Coke” was the first commercial to sound like a hit pop record.
Things Go Better With Coke
In addition to material by the Hurdon brothers, Curtola recorded songs written by Paul Anka, Ben McPeek, Gary Buck and Gene MacLellan.
As an aside: The first incarnation of Toronto’s “The Consuls” included Gene MacLellan, shown in this photo below.
Oh yeah, back to Bobby Curtola – he was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1997, and is in the Coca Cola Hall of Fame.
And As For The Martels…
Fast forward to 1979… as fate would have it, the 5 original Martels (Larry, Gary, Milt, Bert and Tom) were invited to reunite with Bobby Curtola for a surprise Birthday Bash for Toronto – Maria Martell arranged this surprise for Bobby. Larry French recalls:
“We walked into the club (a now defunct place on Yonge St that was across from the Eaton Centre) and there was Bobby talking with Jack Scott (a Canadian icon of 50′s Rock n Roll from Windsor)”.
So it is that those 5 high school friends from Midland, Ontario, once called the Corvettes, have been actively playing together ever since that 1979 birthday reunion.
From time to time, they have augmented the group; for example with Doug Woods (vocals, percussion), with Larry’s son, Landon French (vocals, percussion), and now with Madeleine French (vocals, piano) and sax man Russ Strathdee (the writer of this post).
The Martels Live in Concert at The Kings Wharf Theatre, Penetanguishene, Ontario
In 1999, the Martels performed a concert for a full house at the Opera House in Orillia, Ontario, and recording of this live show was released on a CD.
The Martels Rock n’ Roll Show has recently introduced Bill Chambers (guitar, vocals) into the Martels family, formerly of the Canadian band “Lisle“.
Unfortunately, we all have a shelf life. Former radio DJ Ken Rowland was an integral part of the show, serving for many years as the band’s Master of Ceremonies and occasional percussionist until his untimely death in 2008, after a battle with cancer.
The Martels have released a new album of Rock & Roll classics to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of their founding.
In August 2012, The Martels played for Barrie, Ontario’s Kempenfest Arts and Crafts Festival for the 22nd straight year, to an audience of more than 5,000.
In April 2013, the Martels’ latest CD “Lost In The Fifties” was released.
Here is the first track, Shake Rattle and Roll!
For current information, please refer to their web site: The Martels Rock and Roll Show.
* The CHUM Chart was the longest-running Top 40 chart in the world produced by an individual radio station. From 1957 to 1986, it was a ranking of top 30 (and, until August 1968, the top 50) songs on Toronto, Ontario radio station CHUM 1050 AM .