Tom Williams AT LARGE:
Bobby Rydell wrote a book. A book about his life in the spotlight and behind the scenes. It’s called “Bobby Rydell – Teen Idol on the Rocks.” The book tells about the Philadelphia native’s rise to fame and his struggles with alcoholism and other problems.
This is one of the biggest and most talented entertainers of the late 1950s and 1960s. The producers of the gigantic hit “Grease” felt he was such an important part of the era that they named the high school in their film and stage show, Rydell High. He was an influence on the Beatles. He was the youngest headliner ever to appear at the legendary New York night club, “The Copacabana.” Even Frank Sinatra was a fan.
Writing the book was quite an experience.
“The whole thing came about from being on the road so many years and sitting around after shows and telling stories,” Rydell said. “People would tell me I had great stories and suggested I write a book. I wondered who would want to read a book about Bobby Rydell. But my wife, Linda, convinced me to write an autobiography. The only guy I would want to do it with was (Grammy Award winner) Allan Slutsky. We’ve been friends for years. We talked back and forth and wrote notes for two years to gather information.”
Writing the book caused him to relive experiences, both good and bad.
“There are things in the book that are hard to talk about, that you might want to forget – the death of my first wife, Camille, after 36 years of marriage; the problems I had with my mother who, as we know now, was bipolar; and my struggles with alcoholism.”
When Rydell’s career started it was important for a new artist to get exposure on American Bandstand, which was located in Philadelphia.
“Dick Clark was a wonderful person,” Rydell said, “but just because we were from Philadelphia didn’t mean we would get preferential treatment. He turned down my first three records, he wouldn’t play them on American Bandstand, but when we brought him “Kissin’ Time” he said, ‘That’s a hit’ and he started playing it every day to a national audience. He had a great ear for what was a hit.
“I like to say that Dick Clark was like the Mike Schmidt of disc jockeys. He would really come through with the bases loaded. If your record was selling in Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, for example, you had three on base and he would deliver.”
Rydell loved his native South Philadelphia and his summer home in Wildwood. They were both very special to him.
“Absolutely. My grandmother had a boarding house at 232 E. Montgomery Avenue in Wildwood. My mother starting taking me there when I was an infant and I went there every summer up until about 17 when things started to happen in my career. Both Wildwood and South Philadelphia are very dear to me. A lot of people in South Philly those days would visit Atlantic City. But my special friends would go to Wildwood and they would go every summer. Some of the best times of my life were hanging out with friends in Wildwood – on the beach, the boardwalk, on the rides, at the record hops. It was a great time in our lives.”
He even recorded a song about it – “Wildwood Days.”
“I just found out a few years ago,” Rydell said, “that ‘Wildwood Days’ was originally a flip side of one of the Dovells’ hits (‘You Can’t Sit Down’). They knew about my love for Wildwood so they suggested I record it. We got a new arrangement and it became a nice hit for me. Whenever I perform on the East Coast, in particular, they want me to sing that song. I love it.”
The same year that “Wildwood Days” hit the charts, Rydell was Hugo Peabody in the hit film “Bye Bye Birdie.” His love interest in the film was Ann-Margret.
“I got a call from her when I was just in Florida,” he said. “I was actually in the shower and her message went to voice mail. She had read the book and was calling to say she didn’t know about all the things that happened in my life. I called her back and we had a great conversation. We talk every few months. She calls me Hugo and I call her Kim.”
Rydell still performs with fellow Philadelphians Frankie Avalon and Fabian as The Golden Boys of Bandstand. They will next be in this general area on Oct. 2 in Bethlehem, PA.
“Frankie and I go back to when I was about 10 years old. We used to go to hospitals and other places and put on a little show. We have been friends for more than 60 years. And Fabian lived right up the street from me – I was at 2400 S. Eleventh and he was 2500 S. Eleventh. It’s one of the great things about South Philadelphia – the friendships never wane. Even though you might not see somebody for years, when you run into them again it’s like you’re hanging on the street corner again.”
Rydell will also be performing in the Wildwoods Convention Center on Oct. 15 with Little Anthony and Shirley Alston Reeves of The Shirelles. He will be at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City on Nov. 12. And, on Sunday night from 8-11 p.m. in an appearance broadcast on WOND Radio, he will be signing books at Jerry Blavat’s Memories in Margate.
“I love Jerry,” he said. “He is a super dynamite guy who is always there for you. We do a cruise together called ‘Malt Shop Memories.’ We’ve been doing it for about seven years and he goes all over the ship to meet people, even in the boiler room. When the book came out he called and said we have to have a book signing at Memories. I love that club and I love the people there. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Four years ago Rydell underwent a double organ transplant to replace his liver and kidneys. The donor was a young girl named Julia, who had died after being hit by a car.
“The donor program is called ‘The Gift of Life’ and you aren’t supposed to contact the family of your donor until at least a year goes by,” Rydell said. “We waited a year and then got together with Julia’s mother. It was very warm, but very emotional. I placed her hand on my stomach just to show that her daughter still lives within me.”
Bobby Rydell is one of the major names in the history of popular music, starting from a row house in South Philly and touring the world. But he always will come back to the Delaware Valley.
“I intend to stay here,” he said, “at least until either I die or the Eagles win the Super Bowl, whichever comes first.”
“Bobby Rydell – Teen Idol on the Rocks” can be purchased online through BobbyRydell.com or at Amazon.com. You can watch him perform live in an outdoor concert in North Wildwood here.
Words of Wisdom: “Bobby Rydell was discovered by the bass player for Dave Appell and The Applejacks, Frankie Day. Bobby was in the group Rocco and The Saints. Both groups were working in Somers Point. During a break, Frankie caught Bobby and was impressed. Bobby had that knack, his tremendous talent came out very quickly on stage.” (Dick Clark)