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Jewish singer from the Prairies got advice from all the greats as he rode the wave of 1950’s pop music

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The Rover Boys (L-R Larry Amato, Doug Wells, Buddy Victor, Al Osten) were a pop group sensation in the 1950’s. (Photo: Supplied)

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90-year old Al Osten has seen plenty of ups and downs.

From a 1950’s pop music career to becoming a pioneer Weight Watchers franchisee in Western Canada, sprinkled with a commitment to family, philanthropy and community service, he’s living quite the life.

When long-time friend Ellen Sue Mesbur asked if I was aware of The Rover Boys, the 1956 tune Graduation Day came to mind, but that was it. I couldn’t name any of the members or that group.

As it turns out, their bass singer Al Osten is Ellen Sue’s uncle.

Alex Allen Osten is the seventh child of Aron and Bessie Ostrovsky (née Polsky). His parents immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s. They settled in Winnipeg then moved to Saskatchewan, where Al was born in 1931. The family moved to Edmonton when he was six. He attended Strathcona (Scona) high school, where “the showbiz bug bit him,” and changed his surname in 1944. Osten appeared in musicals and community theater with prominent cast member Robert Goulet.

Moving to Toronto to pursue a singing career in 1950, Osten “connected with first tenor Larry Amato from Toronto and second tenor Doug Wells, who hailed from Southampton England.” 

Onehitwonderesthebook.com reports “With a voice of a cherub and an interest in money, Dougie (Wells) quickly fashioned the idea of forming a pop group along the lines of his heroes, the Four Aces. He spotted Amato at the United Music Center and Osten on a New York TV program. Larry and Al thought the idea was swell.”

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The first gig for the as-yet-unnamed group was scheduled at McVann’s Nightclub in Buffalo, NY. While driving to where we were to perform we heard a local DJ call us The Rover Boys. We quickly agreed on that name before we went on stage,” Osten said. But according to whitedoowopcollector.blogspot.com, “They (actually) took their name from the famous series of children’s books.”

For the record, Osten says that isn’t true. Regardless, the name stuck.

A Jewish boy from the Canadian prairies, Al Osten found success in both music and business. (Photo: supplied)

They relocated to Long Island, NY, and after playing various nightclubs in the US, signed a contract with Coral Records in 1954. But their first single, Show Me, was actually pressed on the Decca label and featured bass singer Osten as the lead. Not long after, Brooklyn-born Billy Albert joined as their “official lead singer”.  

They signed on with ABC-Paramount and recorded Graduation Day, written by Joe Sherman, which reached #16 on the US Top 20 Chart in 1956.  Osten said, “We recorded it first and of all groups that also recorded it, we made that tune ours. I Hear Music was on the flip side. The Four Freshmen’s version reached #27 on the Best Sellers in Stores chart the same year.” Other records the Rovers released included Whoop Doodly Baby with the flip side The Piano Tuner, Come To Me with the flipside Love Me Again, and 16 Teens. None ranked very high. Still, they successfully toured nightclubs across North America including the Rainbow Room in Manhattan and appeared on the Alan Freed Rock And Roll Show at the Brooklyn Paramount.

Al Osten (with bandmates Doug Wells and Larry Amato) faced a lineup change in 1957 when guitarist Billy Albert departed the Rover Boys; new lead singer Buddy Victor became a lifelong friend and business partner (Photo: Supplied)

In 1957, Billy Albert left the group and was replaced by New Yorker Buddy Victor as the lead singer. Victor was still learning the band repertoire hours before a performance.  They recorded other numbers: From a School Ring to A Wedding Ring, Little Did I know, Soft Sands, Julia and Sweet Violets, but none of the tunes had the success of Graduation Day, “despite competition from a cover of (that) ballad by the more well-known Four Freshmen,” according to onehitwondersthebook.com.

The Rover Boys appeared in Michel Legrand’s La Parisienne in Las Vegas for which they rehearsed in Paris, opened for Tony Bennett in Atlantic City, and appeared on the Tonight Show and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand with legendary performer Bobby Darin.

Osten added, “I also treasure our group’s direct role in discovering Ottawa-born legend Paul Anka who we introduced to ABC-Paramount, which Paul confirmed in his autobiography.” Niece Ellen Sue Mesbur said her uncle “told me that Anka hung around the club where The Rover Boys performed, often bringing them coffee, cajoling them to let him perform with them and finally, convincing them to take him to New York where he hoped to sell his music to recording companies, including his signature tune, Diana.”

Darin and Anka counseled Osten that “it is important to never give up…to persist until you succeed.”

Al and the Rover Boys had opportunities in the US and Canada to meet Sophie Tucker, the last of the “red-hot mammas” and perform with her twice. Al was so impressed with her and noted that she “was a terrific lady, who was loved for her random acts of kindness, from Jewish causes to Catholic nuns.” 

He said that during the day, people were constantly going to meet her at the theatre or club, asking her for donations. He said that no matter what time of day it was, she always had time to spare, to listen, and “… to give them a little something or a lot of something”.

(Tucker was known for her reverence of the Hebrew principle of Tzedakah (charity) and acts of good will toward others. In 1945, she established the Sophie Tucker Foundation, donating time, energy, and resources to an ecumenical assortment of causes including the Jewish Theatrical Guild (of which she was a life member), the Negro Actors Guild, the Catholic Actors Guild, the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital, the Motion Picture Relief Fund, synagogues, hospitals and homes for the aged. She supported Israel Bonds, and in 1959, on the first of several trips to Israel, Tucker dedicated the Sophie Tucker Youth Center at Bet Shemesh in the Judean Hills. Two years later, she sponsored another youth center at Kibbutz Be’eri in the northern Negev near Gaza, and later sponsored the Sophie Tucker Forest near the Bet Shemesh amphitheater and raised money for another forest.)

“The First Lady of Show Business'', Sophie Tucker (pictured with Golda Meir) used her fame and fortune to help up and coming acts like the Rover Boys, raise millions for charity and goods causes, and support the State of Israel. (Photo: sophietucker.com)

In the evenings, after a show, she would sign autographs and sell her book, the proceeds of which went to her Foundation. One night, Al and the Rover Boys were performing in Montreal and saw that Ms. Tucker was performing at another club. They went to visit her after the show, where she was signing autographs in the lobby. When she saw them, she put out her arms and in a booming voice greeted them with “My Boys”!

Of his Jewish roots, Osten says that like Tucker, “I grew up with the concept of tzedakah and music in our home.” 

He recalls, “I was always singing. In high school I formed a trio with Martin Bernstein and Phil Shragge, called the Tritones.  I wrote a song based on a Hebrew tune and later, in the early Rover Boys’ years when we didn’t have enough songs for a club date, I borrowed Hebrew tunes and wrote new lyrics.  Later the Rover Boys recorded Shalom and Avinu Malkeinu.”

With the advent of the Vietnam War, the group disbanded. Osten returned to Canada in 1963 and performed at the Embers, an Edmonton nightclub owned by friends Tommy Banks and former Tritone member Phil Shragge. Victor followed Osten to Edmonton and soon fans were listening to The Buddy Victor Show on CBC Radio.

As lifelong friends and business partners, Osten and Victor soon became the first Weight Watchers franchisees in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The business thrived under their entrepreneurial spirit over the years until both sold their interests back to Weight Watchers Canada in 2013. Osten moved from Edmonton to Calgary in the early 1980s and with Victor, who moved to Calgary in 2018, became active in many organizations through their respective Foundations.  Al Osten was honoured in 2017 by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), and is a long-serving member of the Board at Theatre Calgary.

Osten is active at Temple B’nai Tikvah and is known for his philanthropic and community support initiatives. He and Buddy Victor are recognized for their contributions to the Art Gallery of Edmonton, to establishing a tennis centre in Calgary, and for a palliative care wing in the Roozen Family Hospice Centre in Edmonton.

Here are some Rover Boys songs we found online you can enjoy:

Their big hit Graduation Day:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OscdOi_cvsc      

The bouncin’, rockin’ 16 Teens:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tbx2_ZRlkXw

The do-wop styled Love Me Again:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBRSzxnwP0w

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communication.  He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary

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Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

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