The quintessential teen idol, Bobby Rydell ruled late-’50s charts with hits like “Volare,” “Wild One,” “Kissin’ Time,” and “Forget Him.” He was so influential and ubiquitous up through the early ’60s that the high school in Grease was named after him.
Throughout the years, he’s continued to tour in ebbs and flows, slowed a bit by his health struggles and heartbreaks: in 2012, he quit drinking after a late-in-life dance with alcoholism and underwent a double-organ transplant, followed by a double-heart bypass the next year. Add to that the loss of his wife of over 30 years and a contentious, emotionally abusive relationship with his mother, and you start to realize that the pompadoured superstar with the 1,000-watt smile on American Bandstand had a lot going on behind the scenes, too.
Rydell’s new autobiography, Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances, is a blunt retelling of his life with a surprising amount of levity and laugh-out-loud humor. (For example, he talks about stringing together four of his forgettable non-hits in his live show and calling it the “Who Gives a Shit Medley.”)
Raised in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia, when I spoke to Rydell, he was miles from his childhood home — he still lives in the house he bought for his family when his career took off. He spoke with the same candidness peppered about his unbreakable resilience, friendship with Frankie Avalon, and even how he feels about his successors, like Justin Bieber.
REBEAT: I have to admit, I sat down a week or two ago to start reading your book on a Saturday morning, and I just couldn’t stop. I read it straight through. It’s so engaging.
I’ve been reading a lot of reviews on the book and most of the people are saying exactly what you’re saying, that they started [it] and can’t put it down and how brutally honest the book is. I figured if i was going to do an autobiography after so many years of living my life, being 74 years old right now, it would have to be very sincere and honest, and I think that’s the way the book comes off.
I think another great attribute of it is the humor. There were parts where I just laughed because your levity is so great.
There’s a lot of parts in the book where [readers] feel so bad and they’re crying, and then there are other parts of the book where they laugh like crazy so, you know, that’s a good thing, you know, it’s comedy and tragedy put together. You love every day as it comes.
How were you able to maintain that attitude through the darkest times in your life, dealing with alcoholism and the death of your wife? It seems like your humor has come out intact.
I think I’m the same guy today that I was back when things started happening when I was 17 years old. I’m just a normal type of guy; I live my life the way the cards have been dealt to me and some of them have been good and some of them have been bad. You gotta just roll along with the punches, and I feel at this particular point in my life that I’m extremely lucky.
The book says “a tale of second chances,” and I’ve been given a second chance with the double transplant and heart surgery [laughs]. I think I’m bionic at this particular time. I’m just very, very thankful with everything that’s happened in my career — the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve been very very fortunate, and I’ve been able to deal with it.
A lot of the things in the book were very easy to talk about, and there were parts in the book [like] my first wife, Camille, passing in 2003 from breast cancer and talking about my mother, that were kind of hard but, like I said earlier, I wanted [my autobiography] to be brutally honest and very, very sincere, and that’s the way it came out.
You’ve obviously identified as a Philly boy your whole life, and you never left, which is a real rarity when most people in showbiz relocate to New York or Los Angeles. Do you ever regret staying in your hometown?
No, not at all. Like you just said, I’m a Philly guy. One of my dearest friends is Frankie Avalon, who [asked me] years ago, “Bobby, why don’t you move out to LA? We can play golf every day,” and I said, “By the time I move out to LA, Montana’s going to be oceanfront property. You people are nuts out there with fires and earthquakes and mudslides.” [Ed. note: As an LA resident watching a mountain burn while editing this, he’s 100% correct.]
I’m just an East Coast guy. When I’m home every Wednesday night, I get together with a bunch of guys. We’re all Italian, [so] we go to an Italian restaurant in south Philadelphia and it’s the camaraderie, just hanging out [talking] about sports, old girlfriends…We bring up all kinds of stuff, and it’s just a lot of laughs. I would miss that if i moved to the West Coast. I don’t think I could find those kind of people like I [have] here in Philadelphia.
There have been things that I kind of regret. Maybe if I made the move out to California I would’ve had a motion picture career. I only did a couple of movies, but if I did one movie that I’m extremely proud of, it’s Bye Bye Birdie with Ann-Margret. It’s become a classic, but I may have missed out on things, but I just couldn’t make that move out to the West Coast.
Another product of Philadelphia was obviously American Bandstand. You mention in the book you were the most frequent performer in the show’s history, which is quite an accomplishment.
American Bandstand emanated out of 46th and Market Street, not too far from where I live now, and God forbid an artist didn’t show up, I would get a phone call from either Dick [Clark] or the producer, Tony Mamarella, saying, “Bobby, can you get over here? We need a spot filled.” So if I was home, I’d go over and lip sync a record. [laughs]
It seems like your connection to music is somewhat kismet: you’ve been performing since you were very young. Have you ever thought about what you would have done if not music?
I guess it would go back to music in one way or the other, because at five years old, my dad took me to see Benny Goodman and introduced me to big band music, which I’m a big fan of today. I saw a guy by the name of Gene Krupa, who played drums for Benny Goodman, and I said to my father, “I don’t know who he is, but I want to be that guy playing drums.” So, I guess if the recording career didn’t happen, I guess I would’ve been a drummer.
I was going to ask you about your drumming, since it was your first instrument. You might have been the first pop singer to lead a band behind the drums.
[Laughs] I truly enjoy the instrument. To this day, I still have my drums set up in my music room. When I’m on the road, and I’m in a restaurant somewhere, and there happens to be a trio — piano, bass, and drums — playing, if I’m recognized in the audience, they’ll ask me if I want to get up and sing a couple of tunes. I say, “No, man, I want to sit in and play some drums.”
One of the most interesting things that our readers may not know is that you recorded Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love” before their version was released.
Yeah, we had it in the can, and then all of a sudden, Peter and Gordon’s [version] was on the radio, so just on principle, we released it a couple of weeks later. I didn’t chart as high, but my record did chart. [The British Invasion] not only hurt me as far as recording-wise, but it hurt [Frankie] Avalon, it hurt [Paul] Anka, it hurt Bobby Darin, but you live with it, you just continue to do what you do and nurture your craft and keep on going, and basically, that’s what I did, and I guess that’s what a lot of guys did. We survived, and everything was fine.
Speaking of Frankie Avalon, you have such great stories about him in your book, including a drunken fistfight. It’s rare to see such a camaraderie after all these years and through some really tense times.
Frankie has a line he says sometimes: “Here’s the three of us [Rydell, Avalon, Fabian] — we were all born and raised in south Philadelphia a couple of blocks away from one another, and we used to hang out on the street corner together. Here we are now hanging out onstage together.”
It’s so true. I mean, we’re three guys who’re having a lot of fun, and the people are aware of that. We’re just up there having really a good time, and the people are enjoying it, so that makes us feel good as well. [Ed. note: The three singers tour together as “The Golden Boys.”]
There’s a passage in your book where you talk about how people should cut young performers like Justin Bieber a break. It’s interesting, because I think a lot of people are quick to vilify these artists, but you’re saying that they’re really a product of what’s going on around them.
Things happened with Justin Bieber, who’s evidently a very, very talented young man so quickly. What was he, 13, 14 years old [when] his mother put him on YouTube, and then, overnight, the kid becomes a millionaire? That’s tough, That’s really tough to handle when you’re that age.
I was fortunate enough when I was seven, eight years old, my dad took me around to clubs to ask the club owners, “Can my son get up and sing a song and do a few impersonations?” Doing those clubs at that age was my kind of vaudeville, and it helped me later on in my career.
I remember Bernie Lowe, who was the president of Cameo Records. He said to me, “Remember, Bobby, you meet the same people going up the ladder as you do on the way down. And if you happen to be a son of a bitch while you’re up there, if you happen to slip, well, they’re gonna give you a shove to get you down a little bit quicker.” That always stuck with me from the start of my recording career up until today, and I think I’ve been like that all of my life.
It’s tough, it’s really tough for these young kids today to handle that situation, but I was lucky to be surrounded with great people, family, great management, and you know, I was very, very fortunate throughout my career.
I imagine it’s gotta be even more challenging with today’s access, social media, and all of that.
Yeah, we didn’t have that stuff back then.
Which is probably a good thing.
Oh my god, all we had was magazines. You know, “Who’s Bobby dating today?” 16 magazine, Photoplay, Motion Picture [laughs]. Now you say, “Boo” and the whole world knows it.
Although, I did notice you’re on social media. Do you do that yourself?
I guess my fan club president [or] my wife [runs it]. I don’t know anything about Twitter or Facebook. They take care of all of that stuff. Whatever they put on there, that’s their problem [laughs].
Would you ever consider the “R-word” — retirement?
You know what, no. I got a second chance at life with the double transplant, my chops are still great, I’m singing really, really good, and as long as that continues, as long as I’m able to sing the way I’m singing now and feel the way I feel now, I’ll keep doing it.
Hey, let’s look at one of the greats in the business: Tony Bennett; he’s 90 years old for crying out loud. God bless him. If I can live to be 80-something, that would be absolutely wonderful — to continue to do what I do because I love what I do.
Special note: It was a huge honor to interview Bobby Rydell, but it was extra special because he was one of my mom’s favorite singers. She didn’t really like a lot of music and never got my infatuation with it, but if you asked her who she did like, she’d always say Bobby Rydell. She passed away suddenly in November, but I know she would have gotten a huge kick out of this.