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The Martels – Canada’s guardians of Rock & Roll

Original article August 2010; updated June 2019

Neil Young once sang, “Rock and Roll will never die.”  The Martels are doing their best to ensure that never happens.  This year they will be celebrating their 20th straight year performing at Kempenfest, a remarkable accomplishment and a testament to their popularity and place in the history of Rock & Roll.

The Martels first emerged on the music scene in 1957 when Midland musicians Tom Ambeau (drums, guitar), Milt Budarick (bass guitar), Bert DesRochers (piano), Larry French (lead guitar, vocals) and Gary French (lead vocals, drums), formed The Corvettes while attending Midland-Penetang District High School.  Rock & Roll was becoming a powerful force on the music scene and The Corvettes became a part of that, playing concerts throughout Ontario.

The Corvettes would go on to become the backing band for Canada’s first teen idol Bobby Curtola as he toured the university circut.  Changing their name to Bobby Curtola & The Martells (after Curtola’s manager, Maria Martell) in 1961, the band went on to record hits such as Indian Giver, Hand in Hand with You and Fortune Teller with Curtola.

After leaving Curtola, the band toured across Canada and recorded with big stars of the day such stars as Del Shannon, The Stampeeders and Chuck Berry.

The Martels disbanded in the late 1960s, but in 1979, the band reunited and continued playing together until disbanding in 2015.

For their second incarnation, the band members also included Madeleine French on vocals & piano, Dr. Sax (a.k.a. Russ Strathdee) on saxophone and Bill Chambers, formerly of Canadian band Lisle, on guitar & vocals. Former radio DJ Ken Rowland served as the band’s master of ceremonies and occasional percussionist until his death of cancer in 2008.

In 2007, The Martels released a new album of Rock & Roll classics to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their founding.

In August 2015, The Martels played the Kempenfest Arts and Crafts Festival in Barrie, Ontario for a record-breaking 25th straight year, taking their usual slot on the Monday afternoon as the festival’s closing musical act.

Citing their age and and a desire to bow out gracefully while they were all still standing, The Martels decided to disband at the end of 2015 after a 58 year career.

However, four years later the call of duty proved too much to ignore and The Martels re-united for two special shows in Barrie; the first one in June to celebrate the first anniversary of Barrie’s new Meridian Square in downtown Barrie, and the second one was re-claiming their usual Monday afternoon spot at the Kempenfest Arts and Crafts Festival.

Maybe retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all.  Stay tuned to see if this reunion is a permanent thing.  I know music lovers at Kempenfest certainly have missed them.

For more information on The Martels, visit www.themartels.com for details.

Gary French, drummer and lead vocalist for The Martels, graciously agreed to a short question and answer session for this article:

Q:  You appeared on the scene when Rock & Roll was a relatively new musical genre.  Did you realize then what a powerful and long lasting musical force it would be?

A:  When we started playing “rock & roll” we just knew it was fun music and the teens loved it. I don’t believe we realized the powerful force it would be in our lives or the longevity it would have.

Q:  Were you ever told that you would never make it playing “the Devil’s music”?

A:  I can’t recall ever being told we would never make it but some parents didn’t agree with the hair-cuts, clothing style or the slang expressions. Our parents were very supportive and put up with a lot from us. I can remember my Dad building our first trailer to haul out west on a summer concert tour.

Q:  Did you ever think that you should quit music and just go and get “a real job”?

A:  We all had real jobs and got married. Most of our traveling was done when we were teenagers and still in school. We played on weekends and toured with big rock & roll shows in the summer.  What a great time we had and always considered ourselves fortunate to have had that opportunity.

Q:   In the time you have been playing music, many musical genres have come and gone, or at least dropped off in popularity (Disco, Punk, New Wave/New Romantic, Grunge), but Rock & Roll keeps going.  Why do you think that is?

A:  I think the main reason that rock & roll keeps going is it reminds us of happier times. Life was not too complicated then and neither was the music. The fast cars, drive-ins, soda shops and beach parties. There were dance halls all over the place with rock & roll bands. Kids were not bored; there was lots to do and those memories are still alive in all those that lived in that era.

Q:  How does it make you feel seeing both young and not-so-young dancing and swinging to your music at the show?

A:  One of the many pleasures we have entertaining is seeing both young and not-so -young dancing and singing along to all those old great songs. I think the young 20 & 30 year olds that we see at our shows have heard their parents or even their grand-parents singing and listening to this music

Q:  Any advice to young up & coming musicians?

A:  As far as advice to any young up & coming musicians is have fun with it. Most of the successful musicians are the ones that play because they love what they are doing… not treating it as a job. Listen and learn to play all types of music.  Most of the Martels play in other bands, from country to jazz to pop.

Q:  While Rock and Roll will never die, you guys (and gal) aren’t getting any younger.  While I hope all of you keep rockin’ for years to come, are there any plans to eventually bring your children or grandchildren into the Martels fold to keep the band going?

A:  It’s nice that you asked about our children and grandchildren playing music. They too have been very supportive and all love music. They come to our shows and we always have music at our family functions. They all have their favourite songs that we play but as far as bringing them into the Martel fold, time will tell.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-guardians-of-rock-roll/

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