July 25, 2016

Bobby Rydell: Why We Can’t ‘Forget Him’ @BobbyRydell

July 25th, 2016

By Pamela Singer, Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent

Friends, it’s a safe bet on a Jersey handshake that most of us are familiar with that iconic last scene in “Grease”, the one in which graduating high school students pledge their everlasting devotion to said school. “As I go traveling down life’s highway, whatever course my fortunes may foretell, I shall not go alone on my way, for thou shalt always be with me, Rydell.” What may come as a surprise to some, as it did to this writer, is just who the namesake of that school is. That would be one Robert Louis Ridarelli. Doesn’t sound familiar? How about Bobby Rydell? Yes, THAT Bobby Rydell, teen idol extraordinaire, singer, musician, movie star, impressionist, and of course, adopted Jersey Boy! Bobby can now add author to his impressive list of talents, having recently co-written his autobiography with Allan Slutsky, entitled “Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol On The Rocks, A Tale of Second Chances.” The book is a rollicking, no- holds- barred tale of his 6- plus decades in show business and life. The prescient words of those Rydell High students could just as easily be describing Bobby’s journey. More than anything else, he is a true survivor, part of our cultural landscape then, now, and always. It was my pleasure to talk with Bobby recently about all things Rydell, and oh yeah, that Jersey connection.

Pamela Singer: Bobby, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Our Jersey Boys family is thrilled to have you join us. Welcome!

Bobby Rydell: Thanks, Pam. It’s my pleasure. Happy to be joining you.

PS: First of all, congratulations on your book. It’s a fantastic read, a great combination of your life story and music history, told with real heart and humor. What was the impetus for writing it now?

BR: Thank you. We’re really proud of how it came out. I’ve been in this business more than 60 years now, and it’s been a great ride. Over the years, and especially on the road, you sit down with people a lot and share stories, recent stories, past stories, good, bad, all kinds of stories. People often said to me, “Bobby, these are great stories. You should write a book.” I always felt it wasn’t the right time. I mean, who wants to hear about a 20 -or 30 -year old’s life?! I’m 74 now, and it just felt like the right time. It took Allan and me almost two years from start to finish. We both wanted to get it right.

PS: It’s interesting that you say that. The book is very brave and honest. In addition to describing the many wonderful facets of your life and career , you also talk openly about some very dark and painful things, things that might surprise even the most avid Bobby Rydell fan.

BR: Allan and I decided early on that if we were going to write the story of my life, we were going to write about everything, the good and the bad. As you can imagine, it was difficult to relive some of those things, but we persevered. We wanted the book to be very truthful, and I think it comes off that way. It starts when I was 3, and goes right up until now.

PS: Let’s go back to the beginning, to where it all started for you, South Philadelphia, 1942. As I was reading the book, it felt as if Philadelphia was a real character, someone that has always been a part of your life story. Can you talk a little about what that city has meant and means to you?

BR: First of all, to be born and raised in South Philadelphia is very special . It was my home for many years, and even though I live in the suburbs now, it’s still close to my heart and represents home and family to me. I live a short distance from where I grew up. My 2 children and 5 grandchildren live close by in New Jersey. So many of my closest friends live here. We still get together regularly to eat, laugh, and just shoot the breeze. It’s just great camaraderie. I’ve been very fortunate to travel all over this country and the world, but Philadelphia has always been home. My good friend Frankie Avalon used to say , “Bobby, why don’t you move out to California?” And I’d say “Frank, by the time I move out there, Montana is gonna be oceanfront property!” Besides, I’m a huge Philadelphia sports fan, and would miss that. You can take the kid out of South Philadelphia, but you can’t take South Philadelphia out of the kid!

PS: {laughs} I’m with you there, Bobby. I’m born and bred in New Jersey, and will always be a Jersey girl at heart! We proudly claim Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Frank Sinatra, Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen as our own , but Philadelphia is home to just as many musical legends. In addition to you, the city has Frankie Avalon, Fabian, James Darren, and Chubby Checker to name a few. What was it like growing up there?

BR: It was wonderful. I was raised in an Italian neighborhood at a great time. Everything was a lot of fun. We played block ball, stick ball and all kinds of other games with the neighborhood kids. On Saturday afternoons, we’d go to the movies and watch cartoons. There was a malt shop and soda shop on the corner, where we’d eat ice cream and listen to the jukebox.

PS: You were only 6 when you mastered the drums and started sitting in with local bands at bars and clubs.

BR: That’s right. My Dad, Al, was my biggest supporter, musically and otherwise. He played big band and rock and roll around the house from the time I was born. I remember seeing Johnnie Ray at the Earle Theatre with him at an early age, which was really special. If I had any talent to begin with, he was the first one to recognize and pursue it. I used to play pretend drums on my grandmother’s pots and pans. Dad then bought me the real ones! I started playing at home, and then he’d bring me around to local venues. I would play drums and do some impressions. That was really my vaudeville, my stepping stone. In 1957, Dad lost a finger in a work related accident, and used part the { settlement} money to buy me a top of the line set of Ludwig drums, $525. They were beautiful, and were put in the living room, instead of being relegated to the basement, as my other ones were!

PS: At what point did you start singing publicly?

BR: Here’s what happened. After the war, Dad was overseas with other fathers. I was home with my mother, and they wrote letters back and forth. No cell phones or email then. Mom would write him, “The baby’s always singing. The baby’s always singing.” My father wrote back, and I still have that letter in my possession, “Well who knows, Jennie. Maybe one day we’ll have a star in the family.” Then, when I was 11, he brought me to an audition for “Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club,” a local TV show, which I got on. It was a great training ground for the next few years. Paul was a larger than life figure, both in stature and demeanor, not to mention a celebrated big band and orchestra leader. During my stint there, my Dad came up with the stage name Bobby Rydell, and that was the end, professionally, of Robert Ridarelli.

PS: As Mary Delgado told Frankie Valli about his given name, Castelluccio, “that’s a little long for a marquee!”

BR: Exactly!

PS: How did you get your first recording contract?

BR: My friend Frankie Avalon, whom I nicknamed Cheech, played in a band called Rocco and The Saints. In 1957,they were the opening act at a club in Somers Point, NJ. One night, they needed a drummer to fill in, as the regular drummer was sick. I sat in, played, sang and did some impressions and comedy . The opening act was Billy Duke, and his bass player was a guy named Frankie Day. After our set, Frankie approached me and said he’d like to manage me. I had no idea what that meant and said, “Talk to my Dad.” I started the evening as a young kid going nowhere. An hour later after a handshake sealed the deal, I was an artist with a new direction and a manager. We were a perfect match. Frankie had no managerial experience, I had no recording experience!

PS: {laughs} So what happened?

BR: Frankie was great, always thinking ahead and coming up with new ideas. He got me auditions at every major label in New York, but there were no takers. That didn’t deter him in the least. Frankie found a small record label out of the DC area, Veko, and we recorded 3 songs, none of which went anywhere. Finally, we got lucky with Cameo Records, a new label in the Philadelphia area that was on the verge of becoming a major player in the teenage music market. I signed a recording contract straight away. The first 3 cuts songwriters Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann came up with turned out to be duds. Then in 1959 they gave me “Kissing Time,” and that was the real start of my career.

PS: How old were you?

BR: I was 16! Over the next few years we had a great run with “Wild One,” “Volare,” “Wildwood Days” and “Forget Him,” all of which were top 40 hits.

PS: Do you remember the first time you heard yourself sing on the radio?

BR: Yes! My Dad, manager and I were driving into New York on the NJ Turnpike listening to Cousin Brucie on WABC, as everyone did in those days. All of a sudden we hear Brucie say, “And now, a song from a new singer who’s going to go far,” and then “Kissing Time” came on. It was very cool.

PS: And suddenly you were a teen idol, America’s boy next door! We’ve got some great footage from that time here!

You were on the cover of every teen and music magazine. Adoring girls were everywhere. What was that like?

BR: It was niiiiccee {exaggerates the word}! I was a teenage boy with raging hormones! At the time though, I had started to date a local girl, Camille Quattrone, who later became my wife. We dated for 10 years, but couldn’t go public with our relationship, as I was told it would ruin my teen idol image . We told people she was my cousin, so she could come to my shows!

PS: You had a fan club, whose president was a local girl named Linda Ferrino. One of the many things I found touching in the book was that 50 years later, she’s still your fan club president! That says a lot about both you and her.

BR: Linda is amazing. Over the years she’s become a friend and part of the family. Her married name is Hoffman, and my second wife’s maiden name is Linda Hoffman.

PS: {laughs} In Jersey Boys speak we say “It’s a SIGN!” I have to ask you about your teenage hair. That was one serious pompadour. How did you get it to stay in place like that?

BR: Aquanet.

PS: Ha! Let’s get back to your meteoric rise to stardom. At age 19, you were the youngest person in history to play the storied Copacabana in New York City.

BR: Yes, it was pretty heady stuff for me!

PS: I love the story you tell in the book about meeting Frank Sinatra there.

BR: The club’s owner, Jules Podell, or “Uncle Julie” as he liked to be called, introduced us. Mr. Sinatra was sitting with Joe DiMaggio, songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and actor Richard Conti that night. Pretty impressive company! “Frank, I want you to meet the kid.” I would have been happy with a quick handshake, but Frank smiled at me and said, “How ya doin’, Robert. Would you like to join us?” Then he asked what I was drinking. I nursed a Coke for the next hour and took it all in!

PS: A year later you were sought out to play Hugo Peabody in the movie “Bye Bye Birdie” opposite Ann- Margaret, Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh , among other big names. What was that like?

BR: It was a wonderful experience, my first feature film. I really have to thank George Sidney, the film’s director for that. He sought me out, saw some magic between Ann and me, and expanded the role of Hugo from the Broadway stage, to incorporate more lines, singing and dancing.

PS: The dance sequence in “Got A Lot of Living To Do” is amazing, and is right up there with the best from any film ever.

BR: Thank you. What’s more amazing is that the film’s choreographer, Onna White, had a broken foot during the shoot, and taught us those steps on crutches!

PS: Wow. That says a lot about all of your talents.

BR: And Ann and I have remained friends for more than 50 years. We talk often and sometimes still call each other Hugo and Kim {McAfee, her character in “Bye Bye Birdie”}!

PS: Speaking of icons, you have a great story in the book about meeting a certain foursome while touring with Helen Shapiro in London.

BR: This was the summer of 1963. Our tour bus was about to take off when a car pulled up. A guy stepped out, knocked on the bus door and asked if I would meet with an upcoming band, a quartet he had with him. They seemed nice enough, although we talked for a very short time, and I have no recollection what we talked about. Eight months later, I stared at the television with disbelief as The Beatles sang “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on “The Ed Sullivan Show!” Of course, the young man that knocked on our door was Brian Epstein.

PS: Who knew?! Let’s shift gears now and talk a little about some of the darker parts of your life you write so poignantly about in the latter parts of the book: your mother’s mental illness, your drinking, and of course the death of your beloved wife of 36 years, Camille.

BR: Camille was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. I’ll never forget the day she came home and told me. Just awful. She had surgery, chemo and radiation. Miraculously, she went into remission, and we had 9 more years together. When she died, I was a wreck. I started drinking more heavily, and stayed home for the better part of a year. That wasn’t the start of my drinking, though. I had been a “social drinker” for years, in denial about being an alcoholic. When Camille got sick, I anesthetized myself with vodka. It was a terrible time in my life.

PS: I’m so sorry, Bobby.

BR: Thank you. It took around four years to get me back to some semblance of myself. That was in large part due to meeting Linda, the wonderful woman who would become my second wife in 2009. But even that relationship wasn’t enough for me to stop drinking. The alcohol already had seeped into almost every area of my personal and professional life. It was only a matter of time until it affected my health in a major way. My doctor told me in 2010 that if I didn’t stop drinking, I’d be dead in 2 years. Even that didn’t deter me. I just thought, “Well, if I only have 2 years to live, I might as well have a great time.” Finally, in 2012, my kidneys and liver shut down completely, and I was told that I needed new ones to survive. On July 9th, 2012, I was given the gift of life from a beautiful 21- year old young lady who had just passed away, and had a double organ transplant. Her generosity saved 7 lives, not just mine. Truly a miracle.

PS: That’s incredible. You also had double bypass surgery 8 months after that. How have you been feeling since then?

BR: I feel great, and just so blessed to have a second chance at life.

PS: I’ll bet. Okay, as this is the Jersey Boys Blog, we need to chat a bit about all things Jersey. You spent a lot of time there as a child, as well as professionally, right?

BR: Absolutely. My grandmother had a boarding house in Wildwood, where the family went every summer. I love the Jersey Shore. Of all my hits, “Wildwood Days” encompasses my life more than any other song. It’s now the official anthem of that town, according to the Mayor!

PS: As it should be! What about Frankie Valli? Did you two ever perform together?

BR: I haven’t had the good fortune to perform with Frankie, but know him well. He’s a great guy, and very funny. He used to regale us all with impressions of certain members of his family!

PS: Too funny! What about Jersey Boys? Have you seen it?

BR: Of course! My wife and I saw the First National Tour when they were in Philadelphia. It was fantastic, the story, the music, the performances. We didn’t want the show to end!

PS: You’re preaching to the choir with this crowd, Bobby!

BR: {laughs} I’m sure!

PS: Even after everything you’ve been through, you’re still out there performing, right?

BR: Absolutely. I do a lot of solo performances, many with full orchestras, which is fantastic. We just played in NYC at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing earlier this month.

PS: I was sorry to miss that one. My friend Charles Alexander, Jersey Boys aficionado and historian, was lucky enough to be there. Here’s what he had to say about it. “Bobby Rydell still sounds as great as he ever did. The show took me right back to 1963, when Bobby’s ‘Forget Him’ became one of my all-time favorite songs. I was especially thrilled that he sang that one. While his legion of fans crowded the area in front of the stage, the Lincoln Center regulars, including millennials not necessarily well versed in Bobby’s many hits, had a wonderful time dancing to such classics as ‘Wild One’ and ‘Volare.’ It was a terrific night for music lovers young and old.”

BR: Thank you, Charles. So glad you enjoyed it. I also still perform with Frankie (Cheech) Avalon and Fabian as The Golden Boys, which we’ve been doing since 1985. Frankie always says this during the show, “Look at us three guys. When we were kids, we used to hang out on street corners in South Philly. Here we are now, still hanging out, but on stage.”

PS: {laughs} As Frankie Valli says at the end of Jersey Boys, “You’re like that bunny on TV. You just keep going and going and going.”

BR: The Energizer Bunny! It’s true!

PS: I want to tell our friends in the NYC area about your appearance this week at the 92nd Street Y, talking with Anthony DeCurtis. This is going to be a fantastic event! Rydell moves into the interviewer’s chair at the 92Y for a special “In Conversation” session with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis on Wednesday, July 27 at 8 p.m. For details, click HERE.

BR: Yes, we’re really looking forward to it.

PS: Me too! Bobby, what would you like your legacy to be?

BR: I’d like to be remembered as a guy who lived his life and found out about a lot of things early enough to be able to fix them. A guy who’s been lucky to be able to do what he’s always loved doing, singing and performing. And as someone who’s a nice guy.”

PS: Bobby Rydell, you are that and so much more. It’s been a delight talking with you. Thank you so much. See you at the malt shop!

BR: You got it, Pam! Thank you.

Friends, let’s let those erstwhile Rydell High students have the final word here. “ Through all the years, Rydell, and tears, Rydell, we give the cheers, Rydell, for thee. Through everything, Rydell, we cling, Rydell, and sing, Rydell, to thee!”


  1. Thank you for a great interview with Bobby Rydell. Glad to hear he’s doing a lot better considering the loss of his first wife and his health issues. Bobby many more years of happiness and success.

    Comment by George perez — July 26, 2016 @ 9:54 am

  2. Super interview! This Bobby Darin fan not only loves the Jersey Boys ( play, movie, Frankie in person) but Rydell is a pro in all ways that count! Lived seeing him with the Golden Boys, LOVED is recent Florida concert, and was consumed by his autobiography! His life it home in a couple of ways! Our daughter also shared a liver with a baby, and my parents were personal friends with Frank Day! I’d already left home during that friendship so I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Day! Dad and Mom just happened to be invited to his wedding where Bobby sang to the bride.
    My car CD fights over Darin, Rydell, and all versions of the Jersey Boys……

    Comment by Susan Schooley — July 26, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

  3. Your best yet, Pam! Congratulations on a terrific job.

    Comment by Charles Alexander — July 27, 2016 @ 4:14 pm

  4. Wow, another great article from Pam…thoroughly researched and well-executed. She certainly knows how to caress a word and has a unique ability to put her subjects at ease to get the best out of them. What a gift and Bobby sounds like a gem. Thanks!

    Comment by Gary — July 28, 2016 @ 11:07 am

  5. What a nice article, Pam. I knew a bit about Bobby’s history from having worked with his son, Robert Ridarelli, over a decade ago, after he had lost his mom, Camille. I learned a lot more from this article. If Bobby is anything like his son, he’s a fine man. Hope to meet him one day.

    Comment by Howard — July 29, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

  6. Thanks so much everyone! Bobby is a real sweetheart and a pleasure to interview! And he still sounds fantastic!

    Comment by Pamela — August 6, 2016 @ 7:11 pm

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