Ex-Teen Idol Bobby Rydell Gets a Second Chance

Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances
By Bobby Rydell with Allan Slutsky
Doctor Licks Publishing,
 249 pp., $16.95

In some oversimplified histories of rock music, the “Fifties” ended when the various titans of the early days got drafted, got religion, got jail time, got married to their teenage cousins or got on the wrong airplane. And the “Sixties” didn’t really start until a certain plane carrying four hirsute Liverpudlians landed in New York in February 1964.

But during those in-between years, there was still a lot of great music on the radio: the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons and Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" girl groups, as well as early Dylan and Motown.

Another subcategory was the Teen Idol. At the forefront were good-looking, non-threatening male singers — often of Italian extraction, and often from Philadelphia — with names like Ricky, Frankie, Fabian and several Bobbys. Like, at least four Bobbys.

The highly pompadoured Bobby Rydell (nee Ridarelli) managed to rack up half a dozen hits during this time, including “We Got Love,” “Forget Him,” “Swingin’ School,” a cover of “Volare” and his signature tune, “Wild One.”

The arrival of the Beatles, and other acts who wrote and performed their own music, spelled the end for the teen idols and their seemingly throwback-showbiz approach. However, Rydell did get a nod from Paul McCartney years later in The Beatles Anthology book, when Macca noted that he and John Lennon based the sound of “She Loves You” on one of his songs.

Here, Rydell writes about those heady few years in his musical career. But he also writes compellingly about the relationship with his parents — an adored father and a Mommie Dearest-type mother — who lived with him all their lives. Bipolar, schizophrenic, angry, violent and obsessive are just some of the terms he uses to describe the woman who showed no love to her only child, but lived to bask in his (and, thus, her reflected) glory.

The book contains some good anecdotes involving pre-’60s names like Frank Sinatra (who was a Rydell fan), actress Ann-Margret (a co-star in the film Bye Bye Birdie) and Sammy Davis Jr.
The last was once a dinner guest, and — much to Rydell’s embarrassment and Davis’s hysterical laughter — was served watermelon for dessert by Rydell’s mother. Because she thought “that’s what those people liked.”

Rydell has maintained a lifelong friendship with fellow teen idol Frankie Avalon, although he relates some funny incidents, such as when they had a drunken fistfight far into middle age, leaving each of them with a swollen face and black eyes for their next show together.

Another time, their friendship hit a rough patch for a few days as they argued about the quality of a pizza they had shared and about who was “more Italian.”

The book's On the Rocks title meant more than just a downsized career, but a 20-year alcohol binge triggered by the deaths of his beloved wife to breast cancer and then his father in the early ’90s.

Eventually, his heavy use of “best friend Ketel One” would force Rydell to have a double organ transplant in 2012 (liver and kidneys), and then double-bypass heart surgery the next year.

Today, at age 73, Bobby Rydell continues to perform on oldies package tours and cruises, casinos and with fellow “Golden Boys” Frankie and Fabian, which have sustained him for decades.

But thanks to another sly tribute, Rydell's name will live forever so long as audiences flock to see the tale of intercontinental '50s lovers Danny and Sandy. The learning institution the couple and all the other T-Birds and Pink Ladies attend in Grease is, after all, Rydell High.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero