Bobby Rydell, the epitome of the early ’60s “teen idol,” who parlayed that fame into a starring role opposite Ann-Margret in the 1963 film “Bye Bye Birdie,” died today at age 79. The cause of death was pneumonia.
His death just days away from his 80th birthday was confirmed by radio legend Jerry Blavat, Rydell’s longtime friend from the singer’s South Philadelphia stomping grounds. “Out of all the kids” from that era, Blavat said, “he had the best pipes and was the greatest entertainer. He told the best stories, did the best impersonations and was the nicest guy.”
Rydell’s fame as the epitome of an American teen pop star in the days just prior to rock’s British Invasion was such that Rydell High School in the Broadway musical and subsequent film “Grease” was named after him. An actor also portrayed him in a performance scene in the film “Green Book.”
“It was so nice to know that the high school [in ‘Grease’] was named after me,” he said. “And I said, ‘Why me?’ It could have been Anka High, Presley High, Everly High, Fabian High, Avalon High. And they came up with Rydell High, and once again, total honor.”
The singer had 34 singles chart on the Billboard Hot 100, the most well-remembered of which include “Wild One,” which reached No. 2, and “Volare,” a No. 4 hit. Other top 10 songs included “Swingin’ School,” “The Cha-Cha-Cha.” His run of top 10 songs began with “We Got Love,” which reached No. 6 in 1959, and ended with “Forget Him” in 1964.
One of his first hits, “Wildwood Days,” only made it to No. 17 in 1963 but continues to be an anthem in the New Jersey area for which it was named. A mural of Rydell adorns the Wildwood, NJ boardwalk.
In a 2020 interview, Rydell recalled how his role in “Bye Bye Birdie” expanded once he was cast. “I go see the play, and I’m looking at Hugo Peabody, and he doesn’t sing, there are no lines, there’s no dancing, he just stood there. But, when I go out to start filming, Mr. (George) Sidney saw some kind of magic between Ann-Margret and myself, and every day that I went back to Columbia Studios, my script got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. More dialogue, more singing, more dancing. And I’m not a movie star by any stretch of the imagination, but if I had to be in one picture, it’s a classic, such as ‘Grease.’ And I’m really happy to be involved with something that was that wonderful.”
Born Robert Louis Ridarelli on April 26, 1942, Rydell started singing and playing drums at age 6, and by 7, began performing professionally in nightclubs in the Philly/South Jersey area at the urging of his father.
In 1950, Rydell won a talent show during the television series “Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club” and became a regular on the program. After three years as part of Whiteman’s singing on-air crew, the vocalist/drummer changed his name to “Rydell,” and began playing for local bands such as Rocco and the Saints (an ensemble that also featured another South Philly friend, Frankie Avalon, as its trumpeter).
After having tried his luck with a handful of unsuccessful singles for small, independent labels, Rydell signed with Philadelphia’s Cameo Records (eventually Cameo/Parkway) and hit the charts with “Kissin’ Time” in 1959. With that single, and its follow-ups, “We Got Love” (his first million seller), “Wild One,” “Swingin’,” and his take on the classic, “Volare,” Rydell became a bona-fide teen idol.
By 1961, when Rydell performed a show at the Copacabana in New York City in 1961, Rydell became the youngest performer to ever headline at the famed nightclub, therefore cementing his status with Rat Pack fans as well as teen crowds (In 1961, he also appeared at the Festival du Rock, at the Palais des Sports de Paris in Paris, France, which cemented his relationship with European and British audiences for whom he would headline cabaret gigs through to the present).
In 1963, he played the role of Hugo Peabody in the film version of the satirical musical “Bye Bye Birdie” with Ann-Margret and Dick Van Dyke. His part was not that of the titular rock star, but the jealous boyfriend of the girl who wins a chance to meet Birdie before he joins the Army. In 2011, “Bye Bye Birdie” received a digital restoration, and Rydell appeared with Ann-Margret at a special Academy screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater (see video below).
By the next year, Rydell would leave Cameo-Parkway Records for Capitol Records, the same label that his soon-to-be rivals in the Beatles appeared.
In the late ’60s, he moved to Reprise, where he found little success. “Mr. Sinatra wanted me on his Reprise label, so, of course I said yes, but there was no promotion,” Rydell told Goldmine.
Ceding their popularity to all things mop-top, Rydell, Avalon and the rest of the clean-cut teen idol crew became lounge singers in Las Vegas and on the international touring circuit.
After 1965, Rydell never charted again on the Billboard Hot 100, although he continued to release singles through the mid-’70s and one of his final songs, a disco number called “Sway” in 1977, made a modest dent in the adult contemporary chart.
Rydell wrote a memoir, “Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances.” The “on the rocks” subtitle referred to a bout with alcoholism after his wife of 36 years died of breast cancer in 2003.
“There was a tremendous void in my life and nobody to lay down in bed with, nobody to talk to, nobody to smile with, laugh with, relate stories to,” he said in an interview with the Morning Call when the book came out in 2016. “And, you know, I turned to drink. And vodka became a very, very dear friend – to the point where, a few years later, it led to a double transplant. A new liver and a new kidney, because of all of the drinking. … I hope a lot of people who possibly have the same type of problem will possibly learn from the book. There are quite a few people that, when they wrote the review, said, ‘I wish he would have expounded more on his alcoholism.’ Well, maybe that will be another book, if God spares.”
After he married his second wife, Linda, he had the double transplant in 2012.
In early July of that year, he said, “my wife and I were lying bed, and I said to her, ‘Listen, honey, we’d better get everything together because I’m not gonna make it.’ And… she had told me a couple of days prior, she said, ‘If you’re ever going to get a liver, it’s going to happen around this time of year – July the Fourth, you know, hit-and-runs, DUIs, accidents, so on, so forth. And unfortunately, a young girl from Reading, Pennsylvania, Julia – she was only 21 years old, she was hit by a car. And she became my donor. And not only did she save my life, but she saved seven other people, as well. And I’m [blood type] O-positive, which means I can give to anybody, but I can only take O-positive, and Julia was O-positive. It was a miracle the way things happened. It really was.”
Rydell toured as a solo act until the present day, and was part of the Golden Boys stage production since 1985 with Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The three “idols” had been readying a spring and summer tour for 2022.
In a 2020 interview, Rydell talked about the endurance of the trio as a touring act. “Now we do a show, I’m sure you’re aware of it, called ‘The Golden Boys,’ and we started that show in 1985, and it was a tremendous success,” he said. “And I said to Frankie — and I called him Cheech, because in Italian, Frank is Cheech — I said, ‘Cheech, this is great, but how long is this going to last? A year, two years tops, it’s over.’ Well, that was in 1985, and we’re going on 2021, and we’re still doing the show. It’s amazing.”
Rydell was recently included in Variety‘s list of rock and pop figures of the ’50s and ’60s who many fans have complained are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although he and the other teen idols of his era have never been considered likely to be in line for that honor.
In his 2016 interview with the Morning Call, Rydell expressed few regrets about how his career had gone. “It’s going to be six decades since, my God, 1959, when I had my first hit record. And I’m so happy and blessed that I’m able to do, once again, what I truly love. And it’s been my life, once again, since like 7 years old. So, no, I can’t complain at all about my career. You know, it’s had its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, so on, so forth. But I’ve survived through all of that, and I’m continuing to do what I really enjoy doing.
“At 74 years old, I don’t think I’m a teen idol anymore. I mean, the fans are still there, God bless them. I mean, they come out and I guess they remember back in the ’50s how great everything was. It was really like the TV show ‘Happy Days.’ … And I think all of the fans that are still coming out to the performances, they remember that, and they want to reflect back to those specific years where, yeah, Bobby Rydell was a teen-age idol. And that’s a nice thing to have after so many, many years.”
This article was originally published in Variety.