#165: Indian Giver by Bobby Curtola
Bobby Curtola was born in Port Arthur, Ontario, in 1943. (The town would become amalgamated into the city of Thunder Bay in 1970). His cousin Susan Andrusco remembers “Bobby would always be singing at our family gatherings. The family loved him. And he loved being the centre of attention. He would sing Oh My Papa, and my grandpa would cry.” Oh My Papa was a number-one hit for Eddie Fisher in January 1954, when Bobby Curtola was still ten-years-old. In the fall of 1959, sixteen-year-old high school student Bobby Curtola went from pumping gas at his father’s garage in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to the life of a teen idol. Within a year he went from playing in his basement band, Bobby and the Bobcats, to recording his first hit single in 1960, “Hand In Hand With You”, which charted in June ’60 in Ontario, but not in Vancouver.
After performing on the Bob Hope Show in 1960, the charismatic teenager, with his handsome boy-next-door looks was quickly finding himself within a whirlwind called “Curtolamania.”
Bobby set out on his first Western Canadian Tour in the fall of 1960. From there Curtola went on to become a trailblazer. He toured the first coast to coast tour circuit in Canada. In 1961 he went to Nashville to record with Bill Porter for RCA Studios. That relationship continued for decades. “Don’t You Sweetheart Me” was his first Top Ten hit in Canada. The song climbed to #1 in Winnipeg, #4 in Vancouver and #5 in Toronto. In September 1961 Curtola was back on the CFUN chart in Vancouver with “I’ll Never Be Alone Again”. He had another hit on his hands four months later with “Hitchhiker“.
Between 1960 and 1968 Curtola had continual single and album releases on the Tartan label in Canada. The managers and main songwriters were brothers Dyer and Basil Hurdon. The Del-Fi label released some of those singles in the US. His biggest hit, “Fortune Teller”, was released in 1962 and went Gold in Canada. The now Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame DJ, Red Robinson, was key in the success of “Fortune Teller.” Seeing its potential internationally, Robinson sent it to Disc Jockey’s in Seattle at KJR and Hawaii’s KPOI in Honolulu. A major US record deal was signed and “Fortune Teller” went on to sell two and a half million copies.
Curtola traveled to many towns in British Columbia, including the Vancouver Island town of Ladysmith on April 7, 1962, while “Fortune Teller” and “Johnny Take Your Time” were charting all over the province.
Bobby Curtola was invited in 1962 to tour with Dick Clark and his Cavalcade of Stars. Curtola also enjoyed other Top 20 hits in ’62 in Vancouver with “You Must Belong To Me” and “I Cry And Cry“. After these, Curtola was back in the Top Ten in Vancouver with “Aladdin”.
In early 1963 Bobby Curtola had his second number-one hit in Vancouver titled “Destination Love”. After the single began to chart on CFUN in mid-January ’63, Curtola was in Vancouver and had a live interview with Red Robinson. Curtola performed in concert in Vancouver in 1963 when he was at the height of his popularity. Red Robinson said in an interview after Curtola died “Bobby broke out in the early Sixties and when he appeared in Vancouver at Park Royal mall over 3,000 kids showed up. I met him when I was program director at C-FUN/Vancouver and he (later) performed for C-FUN Day at Kits Showboat. Almost 10,000 showed up for this annual event, big numbers for the Sixties!”
While on tour in England in 1963, Bobby met The Beatles and appeared on the famous British TV variety show Thank Your Lucky Stars. The episode on June 15, 1963, also featured performances by John Leyton, Jackie Trent, Kenny Ball, and the Bachelors.
“Indian Giver” was cowritten by brothers Dyer and Basil Hurdon, the latter was Bobby Curtola’s manager. They wrote all of Curtola’s hits. “Indian Giver” opens with “Indian” – First Nations – drumming and chanting. It quickly shifts to typical pop music hook of the early Sixties. And in this case draws on a metaphor that has not worn well over the ensuing decades. As Curtola tells it, “You put your ring on your finger, for all your friends to see. They told me you’d never linger, that you’d give it right back to me.” The young woman has second thoughts, or cold feet, so she gives the engagement ring back to her beau. There could have been other possible metaphors to offer, but the one the Hurdon brothers chose for their lyrical panache was “Indian Giver.”
Indian Giver has been an expression used by non-native people to describe a person who gives a gift (literal or figurative) and later wants it back. As observed and documented by Lewis and Clark in their journal, trading with “Native Americans” had a very unusual aspect, as understood by European settlers. Any trade, once consummated, was considered a fair trade. If on one day beads were traded for a dog from a tribe, days later, the trade could be reversed. Upon surrendering the beads, the tribe expected the dog back. The original idea of “giving” in this fashion connotes trade ~ “I’ll give you this, and you give me that” ~ and not presents or “gifts.” The phrase originated, according to researcher David Wilton, in a cultural misunderstanding that arose when Europeans first encountered the indigenous people on arriving in North America in the 15th century. Europeans thought they were receiving gifts from First Nations peoples like the Algonquian, Huron, Iroquois, Seneca and others. Meanwhile, the First Nations peoples believed they were engaged in bartering. This resulted in the Europeans judging the behavior and customs of the First Nations peoples as ungenerous and insulting. However, the First Nations people intended bartering as a way of establishing relationship and peace between peoples.
The chorus in “Indian Giver” tells us the young woman’s friends were right about her getting cold feet: “(They were so right), You Indian giver. (They were so right), You Indian giver. (Just wait and see) You’ll be alone and so lonely, and your little heart breaky-be.”
It is hard to put into context the historic misunderstanding of settlers and pioneers regarding bartering practices of First Nations peoples of Canada and “American Indians” in the United States in a two-and-a-half-minute pop song. When one group of people don’t understand the meaning and intent of an action or gesture of another group, perceptions and biases get entrenched leading to stereotypes and worse.
Of course, in 1963, many listeners to Top 40 radio didn’t get into the weeds sorting out what an “Indian Giver” was, and its impact on non-native understandings of native peoples. The matter of sorting out what a healthy relationship between Canadian First Nations peoples with the rest of Canadian society has been left to subsequent generations.
“Indian Giver” peaked at #1 in Toronto, #3 in Vancouver, #4 in Kingston (ON), and #13 in Ottawa (ON).
Bobby Curtola was not the only singer to record a hit with the title “Indian Giver”. In 1961 Annette charted her own song, “Indian Giver“, into the Top Ten in Vancouver. Instead of a ring being returned in Bobby Curtola’s song, it was her boyfriend’s heart that Annette wanted back.
In 1963, Winnipeg’s Chad Allan & the Reflections (later the Guess Who) were introduced to Curtola. “We backed him on some Winnipeg dates and across Western Canada, all the way to Edmonton for Klondike Days and Calgary for the Stampede,” says guitarist Randy Bachman. “It was an opportunity for us to travel and promote our records. 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 enough 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.”
On August 18, 1962, “I Cry And Cry” began to chart. From then on, Curtola kept on charting one (or more) of his singles on the C-FUNTASTIC FIFTY on consecutive weeks until January 11, 1964. He managed to have one of his songs on the pop chart for 70 of 71 weeks in a row. (Curtola had earlier charted for 20 consecutive weeks on the C-FUNTASTIC FIFTY from February 2 to June 16, 1962).
With the British Invasion in early 1964, Bobby Curtola struggled to get into the Top 20. Of his five single releases that year, only “Little Girl Blue“, made the Top 20, peaking at #15.
In June of 1964, Bobby Curtola got to sing what would become an ear-worm for radio listeners across all radio and TV stations in the mid-sixties. He became the first pop singer to record a jingle that sounded like a Top 40 Hit Single. The jingle was “Things Go Better with Coke.” He signed an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola to be their #1 Spokesman. Bobby, also co-wrote “The Real Thing” which was used for the commercial “Coke’s The Real Thing.” After turning twenty-one, Bobby was interviewed by John Pozer on his TV show in Ottawa, Saturday Date, which ended with the pair toasting to his success with coke bottles. In the interview Curtola reveals that the jingle was made in Nashville and that Elvis’ former backup group, The Jordanaires, backed Curtola in recording the commercial.
Bobby Curtola went on in 1965 to host The After Four Show in Toronto. On a comment thread on his obituary, Dee Gionet wrote that Curtola performed at a sock hop at Vincent Massey High School in 1965. At another performance somewhere in Vancouver in July ’65, a member of the audience recalled “…when Bobby took to the stage, the place went wild, the girls all screamed and the hits started rolling. He could really work the crowd, and what a singer – he danced and moved around that stage and sang right to you. He wore flashy stage clothes and beetle boots; we all thought he was the coolest dude.”
In 1966 he won a RPM Gold Leaf Award for becoming the first Canadian to have an album go gold. In 1973 Curtola became the CTV host of Shake, Rock and Roll. For many years he also hosted the Miss Canada and Teen Canada beauty pageants. And from 1972 into the mid-90’s Bobby Curtola had a career performing in Las Vegas, often as the opening act of Bob Hope. Over the years Bobby Curtola has toured Asia, Europe, South America and across North America. On August 10, 1986, Bobby Curtola appeared in concert at the Expo Theatre during Vancouver’s Expo ’86 celebrations.
Besides his musical work, Curtola is also a business entrepreneur, marketing a successful brand of Caesar Cocktail. From 1990 to 1998 Curtola was on yearly Princess Cruises Love Boat as a performer.
In 1996, Toronto City Council made April 26 Bobby Curtola Day. Curtola also has been given the keys to the city of Edmonton, Brandon, Calgary, and Hamilton. In 1997 Bobby Curtola flew to Las Vegas to become an inductee of the Coca Cola Hall of Fame.
In 1998 Bobby received the Order of Canada for his humanitarian work. His website states that in March 1998 he launched his “Stand By Me Tour” in Vancouver. However, the venue where he performed is not listed.
In 1999 Curtola traveled to Malaysia to tour in that country. And in 2001, Bobby embarked on a European tour and visited France, Italy, Switzerland, and England. Later that year he continued his relationship with Princess Cruises by performing on Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises.
In 2011 he received a star on Toronto’s Italian Walk of Fame. Curtola died in 2016 at the age of 73.
May 13, 2022
John Einarson, “Sharing the Stage with a Music Sensation: Multiple Manitoba Bands Backed up Crooner Curtola, Canada’s First Teen Idol, in his Heyday,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 18, 2016.
Bobby Curtola biography, Bobby Curtola.com
Janet French, “Canadian Singer Bobby Curtola Dies During Edmonton Visit,” Edmonton Journal, Edmonton, Alberta, June 6, 2016.
Bobby Curtola, Canadian Bands.com.
Red Robinson, “Remembering Bobby Curtola,” redrobinson.com, June 6, 2016.
John Pozer, “Bobby Curtola Coca Cola Interview,” Saturday Date, Ottawa 1964.
Ray McGinnis Review: Annette with the Up Beats, “Indian Giver,” Sparton Records, 1961.
“The Drums of our Lives,” native-drums.ca.
“C-FUNTASTIC FIFTY,” CFUN 1410 AM, Vancouver, BC, July 6, 1963.
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