Bob and Grace French were among the original promoters of Bluegrass Music in the New England area. From the mid 1950’s to the early 2000’s their band, The Rainbow Valley Boys and Sweetheart, had a very active schedule of clubs, concerts, festivals, radio and television appearances, local fairs and town halls.
Bob French was born April 23, 1930 in West Acton, Massachusetts. He was the youngest of 11 children and attended schools in Acton. He graduated in 1948. After high school Bob worked at several jobs including, driving taxi, Firestone tire salesman, farm work, and auto mechanic.
Grace Haley was born August 2, 1930 in Readville, Massachusetts. She attended schools in Readville for 8 years, and then attended Hyde Park High School in Boston, Massachusetts graduating in 1948. Following graduation, Grace worked for Liberty Mutual Insurance and also enrolled in the Bryant Stratton Business College. Grace also started a career as a professional model with the Rolly Rogers Modelling Agency in Boston. Her professional name during her career was Gae Merrick.
Grace met Bob for the first time on a blind date, and after dating for several years they married on July 30, 1950. Bob and Grace had four children.
Bob and Grace both enjoyed singing, and in the early 1950’s they both learned to play guitars from a friend Jack Kelly. Jack introduced them to a friend of his named Joe King who had a country band called the Rainbow Valley Boys that were playing at the Sudbury Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. In 1952 Joe invited Bob and Grace to join his band and they worked with this group until 1955. The group became known as the Rainbow Valley Boys and Sweetheart.
It was during this time that Bob decided to take a bus trip into Boston to visit the old Mohawk Ranch to hear Toby Stroud and the Blue Mountain Boys, a southern bluegrass group. Toby had a 17-year-old banjo player named Eddie Johnson playing with him. Bob was so impressed with Eddie’s banjo playing that he went home and announced to Grace that he was going to buy a banjo and learn to play it.
As a side note: Bob asked his friend Ralph Jones to go into Boston to buy him a banjo at Wurlitzer Music. Ralph returned with the banjo and told Bob that he had to keep it in a warm place to prevent the skin head from stretching. At the time Bob and Grace were living in a small, poorly heated apartment, so Bob decided that the only way to keep the banjo warm was that he would keep it in bed with him and Grace at night. Grace must have been a very patient wife.
After leaving the Rainbow Valley Boys in 1955, Bob and Grace decided to take some time off to spend more time with their growing family. During that time Bob spent many hours listening to recordings of banjo artists like Earl Scruggs, Don Stover, Sonny Osborne, and others. Bob then worked on perfecting his own style of playing the 5-string banjo.In 1957 Bob and Grace were asked to join Clyde and Willie Mae Joy and the Country Folks on WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire.
In 1959 they left Clyde and Willie Mae and joined Randy Hawkins and the Country Nighthawks. During that time they were playing shows throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and broadcasting every Sunday mornings on WPAW in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and afternoons on WPEP in Taunton, Massachusetts. This band dissolved around 1960, so Bob and Grace decided to reform The Rainbow Valley Boys and Sweetheart. The first members were Bob and Grace, Ralph Jones, and Norm DeLaney. Then Bob and Grace had Herb Applin, Bill Phillips, Evrett Allen Lilly in their band. Then in 1963 they were joined by Bill Phillips, Louis Arsenault, and Charlie Patterson. In the early 1970’s the band changed again with members Howie Dearborn, Brian Mason, and Bobby St. Pierre until the early 2000’s.
Throughout the early 2000’s, Bob and Grace remained very active in Bluegrass music as a duo. They performed many benefit shows with other guest bands in the Central Maine area until Bob’s death in August of 2016. Through all the years and various band members Bob and Grace French held true to their original promotion of the traditional sound of Bluegrass. Bob was known for being one of the first-generation “Scruggs” style 5-string banjo pickers, and among the first musicians to introduce bluegrass music to New England audiences. Over the years Bob encouraged and mentored many younger bluegrass musicians from New England who later became well known bluegrass artists. He also became close friends with Sonny and Bobby Osborne, Mac Wiseman, Joe Val, Peter Rowan, Dan Tyminski, Jimmy Cox, Lee Moore, Don Reno, Everett and Bea Lilly, Don Stover, Fred Pike, Sam Tidwell, and many, many other nationally known artists. Bob was also honored by the Kentucky Bluegrass Museum as being among the first pioneers of bluegrass musicians. He also has a large collection of music awards from various organizations and Halls of Fame throughout the country for his contributions to the Industry.
Bob and Grace French will be remembered as extraordinary entertainers in Bluegrass music, and as kind and caring spirits within their community. Their generosity has helped many, many people over the years.
Grace is in her 90’s, and still resides at the family farm in Cambridge, Maine
(by Charles Patterson)
Published on November 4, 2020