Bob & Grace French

Bob & Grace French

Bob and Grace French were among the original performers and promoters of bluegrass in New England. For over 60 years, from the mid-1950 into the early 2000s, they had an extremely active schedule that included shows at clubs, festivals and local fairs along with regular radio and television appearances as a duo and with The Rainbow Valley Boys, The Country Folks and The Country Nighthawks.

Early years

Born April 23, 1930, in West Acton, Massachusetts, Bob was the youngest of 11 children, and attended Acton public schools, graduating in 1948. After that, he worked at several jobs including as a driving taxi, a Firestone tire salesman, a farm worker and an auto mechanic. Grace was born several months after Bob, on August 2, 1930, in Readville, Massachusetts, and attended Readville public schools for eight years, then Hyde Park High School in Boston, graduating in 1948. After that, she worked for Liberty Mutual Insurance and enrolled in the Bryant Stratton Business College. She started a professional modelling career with the Rolly Rogers Modelling Agency in Boston using the name Gae Merrick. The two met on a blind date dated for several years before tying the knot on July 30, 1950. They raised four children.

 The Rainbow Valley Boys and Sweetheart

Both Massachusetts natives enjoyed singing and in the early ‘50s they each learned how to play guitar from Jack Kelly, one of their friends. Kelly introduced them to Joe King, who had a country group called The Rainbow Valley Boys that played regularly at the Sudbury Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. In 1952, Bob and Grace joined the band (renamed The Rainbow Valley Boys and Sweetheart) and they stayed with the group until 1955.

While he was part of The Rainbow Valley Boys, Bob saw the bluegrass group Toby Stroud and The Blue Mountain Boys at the Mohawk Ranch in Boston. He was so impressed with the group’s 17-year-old banjoist, Eddie Johnson, that he decided to learn how to play banjo and asked his friend Ralph Jones to buy him one at E.U. Wurlitzer in Boston. When Ralph delivered said instrument, he told Bob that he had to keep it warm to prevent the skin head from stretching and, since Bob and Grace were living in a poorly heated apartment at the time, Bob decided that the best way to keep the it warm was to keep it in bed with him and Grace at night.

 Clyde and Willie Mae Joy, Randy Hawkins

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, then trying to perfect his own style of playing the five-string banjo.

In 1957, Bob and Grace joined Clyde and Willie Mae Joy & The Country Folks for their weekly program on WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire, and they left that group in 1959 to join Randy Hawkins & The Country Nighthawks. The band played shows throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and performed on Sundays on Pawtucket’s WPAW and Taunton’s WPEP.

When The Country Nighthawks dissolved around 1960, Bob and Grace reformed The Rainbow Valley Boys and Sweetheart with a new lineup. The first members were the Frenchs, Ralph Jones and Norm DeLaney, followed by the additions of Herb Applin, Bill Phillips and Everett Allen Lilly. In 1963, Bill Phillips, Louis Arsenault and Charlie Patterson came on board and in the early ‘70s the band’s final iteration formed with Howie Dearborn, Brian Mason and Bobby St. Pierre.

Later activity, Awards, Legacy

Throughout the early 2000s, 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. Grace, now in her early 90s, resides at the family farm in Cambridge, Maine.

Over the years Bob mentored a number of younger bluegrass musicians from around New England who later became well known. He became close friends with many acclaimed artists – among them Sonny and Bobby Osborne, Mac Wiseman, Peter Rowan, Jimmy Cox, Dan Tyminski, Jimmy Cox, Joe Val, Lee Moore, Don Reno, Everett and Bea Lilly, Don Stover, Fred Pike and Sam Tidwell – and was honored by the Kentucky Bluegrass Museum for being a bluegrass pioneer. He had an impressive collection of awards from other organizations and halls of fame throughout the US for his contributions to the genre.

Through all the years and various band members, Bob and Grace French held true to their promotion of traditional bluegrass. Bob was known for being one of the first-generation “Scruggs-style” style five-string banjo pickers and he and Grace were among the first musicians to introduce bluegrass to New England audiences. Both are remembered as extraordinary entertainers and as caring spirits within their community whose generosity helped countless people over the years.

(by Charles Patterson)


Published On: November 4, 2020