The death of singer Bobby Rydell at age 79 will only resonate with people…well you can see how old he was…of a certain age; but in his day he was a huge star—and one of a group of Italo-Americans who started out in rock and then graduated with varying success to the club circuit and Vegas. Rydell (Robert Louis Ridarelli), Frankie Avalon (Francis Avallone) and Fabian (Fabiano Forte) and were all from south Philadelphia, were all good-looking kids and all had some talent. Bobby Rydell was probably the best singer of the three and was a very good drummer. Rydell started performing at 9 and he became a regular on a local Philadelphia Teen dance show, which eventually evolved into American Bandstand with host Dick Clark. He had his first hit on Cameo records with Kissin Time in 1959, and had a string of hits over the next four years until he, along with many other US performers, were wiped off the charts by the Beatles and the rest of the British invasion.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Rydell continued to flourish on grown-up stages like the Copacabana at age 19, and by his 21st birthday had toured Europe three times and made three other tours that took him to Australia and the Far East. In addition, he was a regular on all of the TV variety shows—Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Perry Como, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and the Red Skelton show, where he appeared repeatedly.
One of his hits was a song called Wildwood Days after the Jersey Shore town of Wildwood—a 90-minute drive from Philadelphia. His grandmother owned a boarding house there where he spent many of his summers. Wildwood New Jersey is today, as then, Philadelphia’s Port Dover but much, much more. In addition to Rydell, other Philadelphia-based teen pop idols of the 50’s like the Dovells and Charlie Gracie used to sing about Wildwood which serves as a playground for Philadelphians, with its boardwalk, three amusement parks and miles of beaches.
In 1963 Rydell was cast in the film Bye-Bye Birdie, a satire about teen idols like Rydell. He was paired with Ann-Margret, playing the part of her nerdish boyfriend. Despite the success of the film, he didn’t stay in Hollywood, the New York Times obituary published this week quotes him in a 2013 interview with Ted Yates of Hamilton’s CKOC saying, “I was basically a South Philadelphia kid, and I was an East Coast guy, and I really couldn’t stay out in California.” Rydell never really stopped working, performing in clubs, nostalgia tours and in Australia where he remained a favorite. In 1985 a promoter put Rydell together with Avalon and Fabian, calling the act the Golden Boys . It started out as a PBS special but became an ongoing act.
Rydell married his high school sweetheart when he was 19 and when she died of cancer in 2003, he went into a tailspin and turned to alcohol. His condition became so bad that he required a liver and kidney transplant in 2012. Recovering, he resumed his performing career on cruise ships and in Australia right up to just before his death of pneumonia.
Bobby Rydell and his contemporaries were part of a wave of pop singers who projected a clean-cut image—suits, ties, even tuxes– as opposed to the more in-your-face images of the early Elvis Presley, Jerry Le Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Their heyday lasted from the late 1950 until the arrival of the British groups.