I recently had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Bobby Rydell, pop icon and author of the new memoir, Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances. During the 1960s Rydell scored 34 Top 40 hits, making him one of the top artists of this era. From “Wild One” to “Volare” to the summertime classic “Wildwood Days,” Rydell’s music still lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of music lovers. My interview with him below touches on all of the highs and lows of his career, including his new book. I hope you enjoy it.
At age 19 you were the youngest person to ever headline the Copacabana club in New York City. What was that like?
Scary. (laughs) I had two wonderful people put my act together and we fine-tuned the act before we got to New York City. So, by the time I got to the Copacabana, I was ready. I came out and people were slapping me on the back saying, “Go get him Bobby! Knock’em on their asses.” My Mom and Dad were there and when I started singing I was so nervous. That only last for about four to six bars, then everything was fine. But it was nerve-wracking, the first time at the Copacabana, no doubt about it.
Frank Sinatra once called you his favorite pop singer. What are some of your most fond memories with Frank?
The first time I met him was at the Copa. I was 19 years old. He was sitting with Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen, Richard Conti, and Joe DiMaggio. The owner of the club went up and hit Frank on the shoulder and told him, “Frank, I want you to meet the kid.” Sinatra stood up with those blue eyes, stuck out his hand and said, “How are you doing Robert?” I said, “Fine, Mr. Sinatra. How are you?” He responded with, “Wonderful, would you care to join us?” This was the first time that I met him so I was gaga. I was sitting there, not saying two words because I was just in awe sitting with these people. Sinatra turned to me and said, “What do you drink Robert?” I said, “Coke.” If I said scotch and water I figured I’d get slapped across the face. (laughs) It was a wonderful evening, just sitting there and taking in all of the conversation. I had been in his company several times after this occasion and he was always nice. He was always marvelous to me. Speaking of Frank Sinatra, one time the British press asked him what he thought of Barry Manilow. Frank simply said, “He’s next!” What are your thoughts on Barry Manilow?
I’ve never seen Barry live, but my wife saw him and she thought he was great. His show is very well produced, and I always enjoyed his recordings. I remember watching his television specials and he was electric. He was really, really good.
You were once in a production of West Side Story. What was that like?
I played the part of Riff, and I wasn’t worried about the script or the singing. I was worried about the dancing. My manager told me, “You’re going to do it, and you’re going to be great.” I worked with a choreographer from 8 o’clock at night until 1 in the morning for a week until we opened to get the dance moves down. The cast was great. It was a tremendous experience.
While we’re on the topic of acting, you starred alongside Ann-Margaret in Bye Bye Birdie, a movie that helped launch her career. What was it like working with her?
She’s tremendous. We still speak to this day. As a matter of fact, I was recently in Florida and my phone rang while I was in the shower. I came out and saw that I had a voice mail. It was from Ann. For some reason, I erased the message and I could kick myself in the ass now for doing it because she was so adorable. She said, “That’s not your name. Your name is Ridarelli or Hugo.” Then she said, “Bobby, I just read your book and I never knew all of the stuff that you went through. God bless you. Please give me a call, you have my number.”
While I was at the Orlando airport to come back to Philadelphia I decided to call Ann back. She was absolutely wonderful. We talked for a good 15 or 20 minutes. I was asking her how she’s doing and she did the same with me. Then, at the end of the conversation, I said, “Ann, back in 1963, I was 20 and you were 21. Why the hell didn’t we get married?” (laughs) And she laughed.
She’s a genuinely super dynamite person. She’ll call me out of the blue to see how I’m doing, and I’ll do the same with her. And it’s been that kind of relationship since 1963.
“Kissin’ Time” was your first Top 20 hit. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but the rock band KISS released their own version of this song in 1974. Were you aware of this at the time?
I’m well aware that KISS recorded it. Did it become a hit for them?
No, not at all. It didn’t really fit their image and fans didn’t particularly like it. It was more of a situation where the record label forced them to record it and promote it.
(Laughs) I didn’t think so. When I first heard about it I said to myself, KISS recording “Kissin’ Time”? I guess maybe because of the band’s name and the song’s name they thought it would make sense.
What are your thoughts on KISS’ version of your song?
I thought it was kinda’ cool. They recorded one of my songs. I thought their version was pretty good.
You had 34 Top 40 hits in a relatively short period of time. What was it like achieving such a high level of success at a young age?
My label came up with great material for me and I never questioned it when we went into the recording studio. They’d say, “Bobby, this is going to be your next song. Learn it.” I’d sit down with the musicians and we’d go over the structure, lyrics and melody of the song. Then we’d go into the studio and record it. I was 17 or 18-years-old. I didn’t know what made a hit, so I didn’t question them.
How did you make sure fame and success didn’t go to your head?
Being raised in an Italian family in South Philadelphia, there was a lot of warmth, love and respect. Bernie Lowe once told me, after I had three or four hit records in a row, “Bobby, I want to tell you something. You’ll meet the same people going up the ladder as you do coming down. If you happen to be a son of a bitch while your up there and start slipping, they’ll give you a kick to get you down a little faster.” So, that always stuck with me.
I also worked with some of the best musicians in the world, and all of them were grounded and not full of themselves. So, between what Bernie told me and seeing how all of these great musicians coped with fame, I was able to keep my ego in check.You’ve been in Philadelphia your whole life. What do you love about the city?
I’m an East Coast guy. I’m a fan of sports, and I’ve been an Eagles season ticket holder since 1963. And I’m just waiting for a parade for crying out loud. Before I die I’d like to see them win a Super Bowl. I’ve already seen them lose two. I want to see them win one of them. Who knows, now that they’ve got a new coach. It’s going to be a brand new system. It’s gonna’ be a while before they get things in order, but it looks good.
And most of the people I grew up with are still in the area. They’re either here or over the bridge in Jersey. All of my friends are still here and I just love the East Coast. My dear friend Frankie Avalon, who I’ve known since I was 10, asks me, “Bobby, when are you going to move out to the West Coast.” Frankie has been there since the early 1960s. He said, “We could play golf every day.” I said, “Frank, by the time I move out to the West Coast Montana is going to be ocean-front property. You people are nuts out there.” (laughs) The mud slides, the fires and the earthquakes. Then he said, “Yeah, Bob, but what about back home during the winter time when it’s cold and you’re freezing?” I replied, “Frank, I can always turn up the thermostat.” We really don’t get any of the crazy stuff the West Coast does. I just love it here. It’s a whole different kind of feel than the West Coast.
In your book you talk about how you drank excessively at one point in your life. How did you overcome this?
I was on death’s doorstep. I was married to my first wife, Camille, for 36 years. When she passed in 2003 because of breast cancer, there was a void in my life that I just couldn’t handle. There was nobody to lay in bed with. There was nobody to talk to. There was nobody to cry with. There was nobody to laugh with or smile with. That killed me, and I turned to drinking. Vodka became my very best friend. When I drank, I drank. I didn’t have a couple a day. I’d have 12, 14 or 20 doubles of the vodka I was drinking at the time.
The liver is a wonderful organ. It can take a hell of a beating. It came to the point where my liver went, “Bullshit! I’m through with you.” That’s when everything went really downhill. That started in 2010. My wife Linda, now, god bless her. She was a wonderful caretaker. My wife was a nurse for 36 years. Prior to the surgery I was so sick I felt like, “Let me go.” I was lucky to get the organs when I did. July the 9 of this year, it will be four years since my double-transplant.
I feel wonderful. I righted myself. I don’t do any drinking. I love the way I’m working right now. I’ve got a lot of energy. I’m singing great. As the subtitle of the book says, this is my second chance right now.
How did a Philadelphia mob boss help you get an acting job?
(Laughs) God rest his soul. He was a wonderful man. Mr. Bruno. Angelo Bruno. I had a gig in Florida I was trying to get out of to be in a movie in Australia. I told the promoter that if the picture did well, I could come back and do the concert at a later date and it would help him as well as me because I’d be more famous because of it. He said, “No, no. We have a contract. You have to fulfill your date or I’ll sue.” My Dad spoke with Bruno and then Bruno made a call to the venue in Florida, and I guess he made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. (laughs) So, Bruno got me out of the gig so I could go to Australia to make the film. The film didn’t wind up doing that well, but that’s how it happened.
Paul McCartney said that The Beatles’ song “She Loves You” was inspired by your hit song “Forget Him.” It was written as a response to your song. How did the Fab Four’s emergence as a global phenomenon have a negative impact on your career?
Well, the British Invasion had a negative impact on me as well as every other American artist. When the British Invasion hit, that’s all the radio stations would play – groups from the UK. That went on for years and years. But at that particular time, my recording career was over. I was concerned with doing Vegas, Atlantic City and going to Australia. It’s a part of show business. You have your highs and lows in a career. But if you keep working at your craft, it’s bound to make good things happen.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
With my new book out, I just did a cameo in Robert De Niro’s new movie. It’s called The Comedian. And we recently spoke with a guy who said he was interested acquiring the screen rights to my book, so who knows. Good things are happening. I can’t complain.