Bobby Rydell, teenage idol with enduring appeal, dies at 79
By Michael Pollak
Bobby Rydell, a Philadelphia-born singer who became a teenage idol in the late 1950s and, with his pleasant voice, stage presence and nice-guy demeanor, maintained a loyal following on tours even after both he and his original fans were well past retirement age, died on Tuesday in Abington, Pennsylvania. He was 79.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Maria Novey, a spokeswoman.
Rydell and two other affable performers who became stars in those years, Frankie Avalon and Fabian, grew up within about two blocks of one another in South Philadelphia. Long after their days on the pop chart were past them, they enjoyed great success on the oldies circuit. The three had toured extensively together since 1985, billed as the Golden Boys.
Rydell did not just have staying power; he also made a comeback after years of alcohol abuse, which he chronicled in his autobiography, “Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol on the Rocks” (2016), written with guitarist and producer Allan Slutsky. Near death, he had a kidney and liver transplant in July 2012. By that October he was back, singing on a cruise ship with Avalon. But five months later, he underwent cardiac bypass surgery. Some of his later appearances were charity promotions for organ donation.
By 2014, his schedule was heavy again, including 11 concerts in Australia that February. He continued to perform for the rest of his life.
Rydell’s recording prime encompassed the era roughly between 1959, when Elvis Presley was in the Army and Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, and 1964, when Beatlemania hit America. It didn’t hurt that Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” was broadcast in those years from Philadelphia, the home of Rydell’s label, Cameo Records.
Rydell’s repertoire included plaintive love ballads; slow, danceable tunes; occasional frenetic rockers like “Wild One” and “Swingin’ School”; and ageless songs like Domenico Modugno’s 1958 hit “Volare,” which became Rydell’s signature song in his later touring years.
Rydell was a pop phenomenon but hardly a cutting-edge rock star. Still, he sold a lot more records than some of those who were. Over the course of his recording career he placed 19 singles in the Billboard Top 40 and 34 in the Hot 100. His name alone could conjure up an entire era: The 1970s rock musical “Grease,” in both its Broadway and movie versions, was set in 1959 at the fictional Rydell High School.
Rydell was born Robert Louis Ridarelli on April 26, 1942. His father, Adrio, was a machine shop foreman, and in 1995 the city of Philadelphia honored South 11th Street, where he grew up, as Bobby Rydell Boulevard.
Rydell’s 1963 song “Wildwood Days” paid homage to Wildwood, the New Jersey beach town where his grandmother had a boardinghouse and he spent his early summers; like Philadelphia, Wildwood later held an honorary street-naming for Rydell.
Unlike some of the other pretty faces of his era, Rydell was a real musician. His father, a fan of the big bands, would take him as a child to see Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia. At age 6, he told his father he wanted to play the drums like Gene Krupa, and he was singing in local nightclubs a year or two later.
Bandleader Paul Whiteman had an amateur talent show, “TV Teen Club,” on Philadelphia television in the early 1950s. Young Bobby entered the contest when he was 9; he soon became a regular on the show, remaining for three years. Bobby’s father shortened the boy’s name to Rydell for the show.
After a brief period as the drummer for a local group, Rocco and the Saints, which included Frankie Avalon on trumpet, Rydell went solo as a singer. His first three songs on the Cameo label were flops, but he scored in 1959 with “Kissin’ Time,” which Dick Clark, whose show had succeeded Paul Whiteman’s, immediately liked. It reached No. 11 on the Billboard chart.
By his 21st birthday, Rydell had made three trips to perform in Europe and three others to Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan. In a 2011 interview, he recalled the reaction in Australia: “They stormed the stage, thousands and thousands of kids. The Australian police had to make a wedge to get us out of Sydney Stadium. It was scary, but all in all it was absolutely tremendous.” (Rydell went on to tour in Australia more than 20 times.)
He also recalled that in 1963, in England, the Beatles climbed onto his tour bus to meet him. He didn’t know them, but they knew him. In the 2000 book “The Beatles Anthology,” Paul McCartney was quoted as saying that he and John Lennon based “She Loves You” on a Bobby Rydell song. He didn’t name the song, but his 1960 hit “Swingin’ School” includes a “Yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain. (Some sources say the song was “Forget Him,” which is somewhat similar lyrically.)
Columbia Pictures signed him to a contract in 1961. But the only movie in which he made much of an impact was “Bye Bye Birdie,” released in 1963 and based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name, which poked fun at show business in general and rock ’n’ roll frenzy in particular. Rydell played Hugo Peabody, the meek high school steady of Kim McAfee, played by Ann-Margret, the small-town girl chosen to give the Elvis-like Conrad Birdie a kiss on national television. Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh were the film’s stars, but the parts of Hugo and Kim were considerably beefed up in the transition from stage to screen.
In a radio interview in 2013 with Ted Yates of CKOC in Hamilton, Ontario, Rydell explained why he hadn’t stayed in Hollywood to make more movies: “I couldn’t. There was something about the lifestyle in California that I really wasn’t used to. I was basically a South Philadelphia kid, and I was an East Coast guy, and I really couldn’t stay out in California.” (Rydell also played a nightclub singer in the 1975 film “That Lady From Peking,” which was shot in Australia.)
Underscoring his ties to his family and his city, and going against recommendations that he live on the West Coast, Rydell bought a house in 1963 in Penn Valley, a suburb of Philadelphia, and moved in with his parents and grandparents. He raised his children there, and moved in 2013 only because the house had grown too big for him and his wife.
“I had the good fortune to spend my peak years as a recording artist during the golden age of the TV variety show,” Rydell wrote in his autobiography. “Throughout the early ’60s, I appeared on almost all of them.” Those included shows hosted by, among others, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Perry Como, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and, most notably, Red Skelton.
After his television appearances dwindled, he continued to perform in nightclubs and nostalgia shows, and to tour Australia, until promoter Dick Fox put the Golden Boys together in 1985, initially for a PBS special. Rydell, Avalon and Fabian would perform their own songs and then sing together; there would also be tributes to Frank Sinatra and to Rydell’s favorite singer, Bobby Darin.
“When the three of us are onstage, we’re having fun,” Rydell said in a 2012 interview with writer Pat Gallagher. “We’re not trying to fool anybody. Everybody has known us for the better part of 50 years. We just go out there and have fun and the audience can see that.”
Rydell married his high-school sweetheart, Camille Quattrone, in 1968. She died in 2003. He is survived by his wife, Linda J. Hoffman (who is not related to Linda F. Hoffman); two children from his first marriage, Robert Ridarelli and Jennifer Dulin; and five grandchildren.