SLCR #192: Bobby Curtola (September 6, 2013)
Travel with me, if you will, back in time to some indeterminate point in the middle of 2013. Those were good days. It was roughly six weeks after Mika and I saw Dr. John at Casino Regina, and I was struggling for content so I could finally scratch the concert review off my to-do list. Digressing from my main point (that being “Dr. John was fine. Hey, what’s new to read on the internet?”), I wrote out the following:
We got to the casino to discover that Bobby Curtola will be playing there in September. I texted my dad with this news. As I suspected/feared, he immediately insisted that we all go together as a family. Yes. And we’re doing this. Given our (I should probably be polite here) divergent tastes in music, I suppose it isn’t surprising that it will have taken 190+ reviews for my dad to make his official SLCR debut, but let me tell you, I am pumped for this opportunity. Half of that review is already written in my head and we’re still almost two months out.
Bobby Curtola, for those among you who aren’t eligible for the Denny’s senior’s discount, had a series of hit songs in the 60s. Fortune Teller was the biggest of the bunch. If you don’t know it, go look it up on YouTube and you’ll likely go “ohhhh, THAT one.”
Curtola’s peak of popularity occurred just as my father was becoming a teenager, and my dad was a big fan. It is now roughly a billion years later and the bands I liked in my 20s now only get played on the radio as ironic Retro Jams (I am assuming that “radio” is still a thing), but my dad never got off the Curtola train.
It’s weird. I remember my dad always listening to music when I was a kid. He played multiple instruments, he was in bands before I was born, and yet he’s largely shown no interest in new music. He likes what he likes, and in 2013, that’s largely certain country music and the Elvis satellite radio station. I won’t say that he’s out of touch, but he once famously said “CSI must be really popular; I heard the theme song on the radio today.”
This is where people tell me to quit making up stories. I assure you I did no such thing.
More time traveling. Let me tell you about the early 90s. Garth Brooks was selling millions of records and leading a commercial revival of country music. My dad went to the Calgary Stampede in 1993 or thereabouts, and who should be playing there but Bobby Curtola. Hoping to ride the new-country wave of success, Curtola had just released a new record, called “Gotta Get Used to Being Country.” The combination of Curtola and country proved irresistible, and my dad brought the CD home.
Actually, he brought the CD into his car, which was worse. I didn’t live with him but I did drive places with him. I heard that record a lot. In fact, it was the only thing my dad played for months, apart from breaking out the song 18-Wheeler by Alabama for special occasions.
In my advancing age, I’m hesitant to call a band or an album “bad” when it doesn’t do it for me. I don’t feel qualified; I can’t play an instrument, I can’t sing, I can’t tell a genuinely good musician from someone who’s just putting on a big show. But I feel confident in stating, unequivocally, that Gotta Get Used to Being Country is… SO VERY MUCH not my thing. If you get what I mean.
Its greatest offense was that it just felt so disingenuous. I have nothing against Curtola’s older songs and I wouldn’t have cared if he genuinely wanted to record some country songs for whatever reason, but it felt like trend-hopping in the hope of a quick cash-in. Even the album cover, with Curtola posing awkwardly in western wear, just grated on me. Bear in mind that at the time, I was listening mainly to Nirvana and Public Enemy*, so, y’know. Not my thing.
* it’s my review and I can choose to single out the bands that have retained their high critical praise if I feel like it and you can’t stop me
It has been many, many years since I’ve heard or even seen that record. I have no idea if my dad still has it or if it has been lost to time. And I had no idea what this show would actually be like. I asked my dad “I wonder if he’s used to being country yet?” and I wasn’t being facetious. I really did want to know. And after twenty years – TWENTY YEARS, GOOD LORD – I was about to find out.
My dad and stepmom picked us up and drove us to Casino Regina – correction, the SOLD OUT Casino Regina – to have dinner before the show. We were there in plenty of time, or so I thought, but it seemed like everyone else who was going to the show had the same idea. I shouldn’t have been surprised; it’s a restaurant in a casino on the night of a concert by a 60s star, no wonder the place was packed like the Co-op on seniors’ day. We waited in line for a while for a table, but the casino restaurant staff are pros at this sort of thing and we wound up seated and fed with time to spare. I had chicken, making this the first official concert since… I can’t even remember when. Since the last time I remembered that thing from early concert reviews about chicken being a requirement, I guess.
Our server asked my dad about Bobby Curtola’s biggest songs. He effortlessly rattled off a half-dozen titles. “But what was his biggest,” she asked, and he drew a blank. I felt a twinge of self-consciousness which kept me from jumping in with “Ooh! Ooh! I know! Fortune Teller!” And it’s good that I didn’t, because otherwise, she wouldn’t have sang it to us. She turned to me and Mika. “You’re too young! You don’t know what you missed out on.” Lady, you have no idea.
We strolled over to the show lounge and found our table. True to casino form, the show started right on time. Curtola’s band, the Sensational Hot Rods, took the stage to play The Twist while Mika and I wondered if Chubby Checker was still alive. (Wikipedia says he is.) After the song, one of the Rods (*snicker*) introduced “Canada’s rock-n-roll legend.” This was how Curtola was introduced at the start of the second set and at the end of the encore as well, which is good, because up until the very last time I heard it, I was convinced the guy was saying “Canada’s rock-n-roll engine.” and that seemed weird. It kinda makes sense, though. Maybe?
Curtola took the stage wearing a smile that never once wavered, even for a second. I have to think his face must hurt by the end of a show. He played a mix of tunes. Maybe one-third were ones he was famous for, including Corrina Corrina, Three Rows Over, Hand In Hand With You, and Fortune Teller (of course). No country, but they did play a Coke jingle, which made my dad sad that he didn’t bring his record (which he got at the Red Deer, Alberta Coca-Cola plant) to get signed. The majority of the songs were various hits from the 60s, all stuff you’d know. Covers of Paul Anka, Roy Orbison, Louis Armstrong, Ben E. King, and a pair of medleys.
Curtola came across like someone who truly loves his job. And why wouldn’t he? 50 years removed from his biggest hit, here he was, still doing his thing in front of a sold-out crowd. From the ages in attendance, you could tell that the vast majority of the people there were fans dating back to when he first hit it big. At one point, he introduced a lady who’d been the president of his fan club in 1960.
There was a lot of audience interaction, some of it amazing and awesome and the best. Curtola would walk through the floor of the show lounge, singing. When he got to a repeating chorus, he’d sing it and then hold the mic to an audience member to give them a shot. Some did well. Some did… not. There was some screeching. One gentleman did not understand that microphones amplify your voice and thus there was no need to yell. This was great.
While singing Mambo Italiano, Curtola and one of the Rods danced on stage with big stuffed animals. I had no idea what to make of this. Then they threw them into the crowd, causing mini stampedes. I feared for hips, but nobody got hurt. One of the stuffed animals was a blue hippo! I wanted that one, but we were too far removed from the splash zone.
Near the end, the hippo made his return. Curtola started singing Old-Time Rock n’ Roll, then segued into The Loco-motion. He went out onto the floor and found the lady who caught my hippo, and invited her to do said Loco-motion with him (you gotta swing your hips now). She brought the hippo along. So there’s Bobby Curtola leading a three-person conga line of himself, one lady, and a stuffed blue hippo. This proved to be irresistible to a certain demographic, and women from all over the show lounge ran up to join in. He moved into singing Mony Mony but the train kept a-rollin’. There were probably 15-20 people at its peak. I tried offering Mika $100 to join the chain but wasn’t even allowed to finish the sentence. She did suggest that I ask my dad, which I did. He thought this idea was hilarious but declined to take me up on the offer. Anyway, Curtola eventually went back up onto the stage and most of the women dispersed, but there was one who followed him up the ramp and was REAL mad that none of the other women would rush the stage with her. So great.
Curtola has probably done 10,000 shows by now, so much of the evening felt like it was “just part of the show,” if that makes sense. When he’d chat with his band members, you knew that they have the same conversation every night. The impromptu moments, like the lady wanting to rush the stage, were the most fun for me. My favourite was when he was talking to the crowd and found a man who was from Italy. The band tried to start into the next song (they always seemed to start in about a sentence or two too early when Curtola was talking) but Curtola cut them off. He talked to the fan, telling him what his parents’ last names were and what part of Italy they were from, and then said “I’ll just do this without the band” and sang a brief song in Italian for him. This was a pretty cool moment. Mika noted after the show that Curtola’s voice actually seemed the strongest when he was singing in Italian, and I had noticed that too.
Much like how I felt about the country CD years ago, Curtola seemed at his best when he wasn’t trying to be someone else. His voice isn’t quite what it once was, but it seemed at its weakest when he was singing covers. If you’re singing Stand By Me or What A Wonderful World or Oh Pretty Woman, you’re setting the bar pretty high for yourself. And it’s anecdotal, but I could really tell that my dad enjoyed the Curtola originals much more than the covers. Makes sense, right? He IS who we were there to see, after all.
Curtola also made a few off-hand remarks along the lines of “You never expect a song to take off like this one did… and I’ll tell you, you don’t realize when it’s over, either.” The brief hints at introspection were intriguing and I’d have been interested to hear him talk more about this sort of thing, but I suppose that’s not what anyone was there for.
There was an undeniable Vegas show lounge feel to this concert – the permanent smile, the rehearsed patter, so much audience interaction – if I’ve ever seen a show that I would compare this to, it would be seeing Wayne Newton at the same casino a few years ago. Which, I suppose, is not bad company for Curtola to be in.
As for my dad, he declared loudly after the show that he’d had a fine time. 17-year-old me might kick my ass for saying this (not true; he’d just scowl and make fun behind my back), but for something that was not my thing, I did too. We’re going to head out again in a few months when Herman’s Hermits (the Peter Noone version, even) come to town, so we’ll see if lightning strikes twice.