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“I was Justin Bieber before Justin Bieber,” Bobby Curtola observed not long ago. Aside from the younger pop singer’s bad-boy behaviour, it was true.
At the height of his popularity, Mr. Curtola, too, was a fresh-faced, young heartthrob with mobs of screaming fans. “It was wonderful because the girls just wanted to get close to you,” Mr. Curtola told an interviewer last November before performing in Peterborough, Ont. “The back of the line wanted to be [at] the front of the line. For a young guy like me, that was like a dream come true. But sometimes it gets pretty scary when it starts to happen and you don’t know what to do.”
What Mr. Curtola did know was how to make hit records. His biggest chart topper, Fortune Teller, sold 2.5 million copies internationally.
Three days after Mr. Curtola died on June 4 at the age of 73 while visiting Edmonton, Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith paid tribute with his own soulful rendition of Fortune Teller, released on YouTube.
Mr. Curtola dominated the Canadian pop charts in the 1960s with a string of hit singles, including Aladdin, Three Rows Over, Corine-Corrina, Hitchhiker and Indian Giver.
In the 1960s, he released six albums in as many years and, according to one archive, was apparently so busy touring, he didn’t realize he was wearing the same sweater on the jacket covers of three of them.
And except for a five-year interregnum performing in Las Vegas, he did it all without leaving the country. As his 1998 Order of Canada citation stated, Mr. Curtola “proved to Canadian artists that it was possible to pursue a career in the recording industry without leaving Canada and still enjoy international success.”
With his clean-cut, boy-next-door looks, enhanced by that sweater or a cardigan, and a bouncy voice that slid effortlessly from a silky tenor to falsetto and back again, Mr. Curtola was part of the early wave of domestic teen idols: Paul Anka had huge hits, but south of the border, with Diana in 1957, followed by 1959’s Lonely Boy; the Diamonds’ Little Darlin’ had reached No. 3 on the U.S. charts in 1957; while The Four Lads and the Crew-Cuts (whose cover of Sh-Boom was a huge hit stateside in 1954) owed their origins to Toronto.
But it was Mr. Curtola who “became Canada's first homegrown national rock ‘n’ roll star,” proclaimed arts critic Bob Mersereau in his History of Canadian Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Nevertheless, some stern words from his father stopped Mr. Curtola from letting his star status go to his head. “My father said to me, ‘Remember, Bobby, don’t you ever embarrass your family.’ That stuck with me. I was more afraid of my father than the police. I still had fun, but I never really got crazy.”
The squeaky clean star was “a terrific role model and fans and parents alike adored him,” noted one fan’s website. Indeed, he was met by screaming fans mobbing him everywhere. Local papers called it “Curtolamania.”
Robert Allen Curtola was born on April 17, 1943, in Port Arthur, Ont., which later merged into Thunder Bay.
His father, John Curtola, owned local auto-body shops and car washes, and his mother, the former Mary Franchie, was a homemaker. Their son sang in a choir, took a music course and, while pumping gas at his father’s garage, performed at high school sock hops with his group, Bobby and the Bobcats.
“He was singing from a very young age,” said his son Chris, who managed his father’s later career. “He was all about the sock hops, the crooning, just that teenaged, teen idol, teen-love style.”
A classmate told his father and uncle of young Bobby’s talents, and soon the singer came to the attention of brothers Basil and Dyer Hurdon, local songwriters who penned Mr. Curtola’s first hit single, Hand In Hand With You, in late 1959 for their Tartan label. The record sold 20,000 copies within eight months, and by the following spring, the 16-year-old embarked on a tour of Western Canada, including opening for a Bob Hope show in Winnipeg. By 1961, he was recording for RCA in Nashville with the likes of guitarist Chet Atkins and sax player Boots Randolph. He never looked back.
The Hurdons “were thorough in their marketing of Bobby as the sweet, sincere, ideal sixties beau,” reported the Port Arthur News-Chronicle at the time. “Bobby’s popularity and the fan craze that surrounded him came about due to strategizing on the part of his management team. It was Basil and Dyer Hurdon who got the first chapter of the Bobby Curtola fan club off the ground.”
The Hurdons wrote all but one of Mr. Curtola’s hits and made him a partner in the record, publishing and touring companies. Members of the Hurdon family became Mr. Curtola’s first backup singers.
Toronto arts writer Sid Adilman took notice in the summer of 1960, describing the teen’s style as “rock-a-ballad – midway between fast tempo and sweet pops.”
His career soared after the release of the melodic Fortune Teller, but it needed a boost to enter U.S. airwaves. Recognizing the song’s potential, Vancouver disc jockey Red Robinson sent it to colleagues in Seattle and Hawaii, and it peaked at number 41 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1962. Mr. Curtola signed a U.S. distribution deal with Del-Fi Records and was invited to tour with Dick Clark and his Cavalcade of Stars. He also popped up on radio shows across the continent, including Wolfman Jack’s and Kasey Kasem’s.
“He was a staple, absolutely a Top 40 staple,” recalled Duff Roman, a top DJ at Toronto stations CKEY and CHUM in the early 1960s. “He was absolutely on par with all the Bobbys of the era. Canada had its own Bobby.”
While touring England in 1962, Mr. Curtola appeared on the popular UK pop show Thank Your Lucky Stars. When security tried to sneak him out of the studios, he and his manager were mobbed, as they had been in Canada.
“Out of nowhere, all these fans showed up and they were all over us, trying to tear pieces of our suits off,” he recalled in an interview last fall with kawarthanow.com. “It was like in a movie. It was unbelievable. As you can imagine, that was a highlight of my career.”
As a pitchman for Coca-Cola, he was among the biggest names in pop music to record the Things Go Better with Coke jingle in 1964, which the company included as a single with purchases of the soft drink. It was good experience: In the late 1980s, he composed an election jingle for his friend Ralph Klein when the then-Calgary mayor took his first crack at provincial politics.
Mr. Curtola never achieved huge stardom in the United States because he came along at a lull between 1950s teen idols such as Frankie Avalon, Fabian and a brace of other Bobbys (Rydell, Vinton, Vee, Darin), and the British Invasion bands, according to veteran Canadian music writer Larry LeBlanc.
“He came out kind of late. It was hard to figure out where he fit in. By the time his career got going, he looked out of place in the United States,” said Mr. Leblanc, who, in his speech accepting a special Juno Award in 2013, said it was a shame Mr. Curtola had never been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Even so, Mr. Curtola parlayed appearances on the U.S. TV shows Hullabaloo and American Bandstand into hosting two TV programs in Canada: The After Four Show on Toronto’s CFTO, and Shake, Rock and Roll on CTV. He also hosted Miss Canada and Miss Teen Canada pageants.
Shedding his teen image in 1972, he signed a five-year contract to perform in Las Vegas, and he continued his Vegas gigs for years after that, rubbing shoulders with such club regulars as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
Mr. Curtola also raised millions of dollars for charities through telethons and started his own foundation for children in Ecuador.
The one-time teen idol never let up, entertaining greying, nostalgic fans well into their advanced years at concert halls in North America and Europe and on cruise ships. In 1996, Toronto City Council proclaimed April 26 as Bobby Curtola Day, and he’s been awarded the keys to the city in Edmonton, Brandon, Calgary and Hamilton. In 2003, the city of Thunder Bay unveiled Bobby Curtola Drive.
A year ago, he received the first ever Cashbox Canada Legacy Award. And just last month, he attended Canadian Music Week in Toronto.
“I believe that dreams come true,” Mr. Curtola said last year, sounding very much like one of his songs of yearning.
In December, Mr. Curtola considered cancelling a show in Peterborough, Ont., after his fiancée, Karyn Rochford, was killed in a car crash in Nova Scotia. Four days after the accident, however, he took to the stage and dedicated his performance to her.
Mr. Curtola leaves his sons, Chris and Michael; brother, Gary; and two grandchildren. His marriage ended in divorce.
When Elvis Presley died in 1977, Mr. Curtola acquired a ring Elvis used to wear while performing at the Las Vegas Hilton.
“I don’t wear it often,” Mr. Curtola told the National Music Centre in 2014, “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?”