Bobby Rydell Comes Clean in His New Autobiography

The Penn Valley native shares his secrets in ‘Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances.’

Bobby Rydell at home in Penn Valley, April 2016//Photo by Gene Smirnov.

The Penn Valley native shares his secrets in ‘Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances.’

Bobby Rydell reclines on a couch in his sports-themed basement in Penn Valley, a lit Winston purring in his right hand. He’s still on a high from a show two days earlier in a packed ballroom at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City.

“It was great,” he says. “We had a 16-piece orchestra—three trumpets, three ’bones, drums, guitar, bass, full percussion.”

Rydell still loves to perform. He sings his own hits and some standards. He tells a few stories, some jokes. He’s an entertainer in the old-fashioned mold. Now 73 and a survivor of a 2012 operation that left him with a new kidney and liver, Rydell is happy and committed to being on stage “as long as the chops are still working.”

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Rydell made the charts in 1959 with “Kissin’ Time,” earning 11 Top 20 hits over the next five years. He was part of a South Philadelphia music invasion that included Frankie Avalon and Fabian, and Rydell toured the country and the world as part of 1960s showcases that introduced him and his songs to tens of thousands of fans. “I’ll never forget the first time I heard ‘Kissin’ Time’ on the radio,” Rydell says. “I was driving to New York, and we picked it up on WABC-AM. Cousin Brucie was playing it. That was something.”

Rydell’s new autobiography, Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances (Dr. Licks Publishing, 249 pages), recounts his life with unstinting honesty. Cowritten with Allan Slutsky, it addresses his tempestuous relationship with his mother—“She was bipolar,” he says now—and the sad last days of his childhood sweetheart and first wife, Camille, whose 2003 death from cancer sent him into a spiral of alcohol abuse that resulted in transplant surgery. Rydell reveals how life was in the early days of rock ’n’ roll—and how he once needed some help from Philadelphia’s mob boss at the time, Angelo Bruno, to secure a role in a movie.

Being on stage remains Rydell’s true love, but he was particularly excited recently to have a small role in a new Robert De Niro film, The Comedian. “I ended up getting lines with De Niro,” Rydell says, smiling broadly. “We did the scene with no script, and during a break, I turn to De Niro and say, ‘Are we all right? Are we working well together?’ He says, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

Meanwhile, Rydell keeps working. He plays AC, heads to Florida, and was even in Australia two years ago—for the 23rd time. It’s part of the life of a septuagenarian “teen idol” who doesn’t want the ride to end.

“I love it,” he says. 

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bobby rydell

Bobby Rydell

Excerpts from Teen Idol on the Rocks …

In the summer of 1957, the drumming half of my budding career received a huge boost at the expense of one of my dad’s fingers. He lost part of his middle finger in a work-related accident while operating some machinery. He could have done a lot of good things with the $3,000 settlement he received from his employer. He could have paid off some bills, taken a long overdue vacation with my mom, redecorated the house, bought a new car … but no, not my dad. His first move was to buy me a $525, state-of-the-art, black oyster-pearl Ludwig drum set from Eighth Street Music. This set wasn’t relegated to the basement like my red Revere drums. It occupied a place of honor in our living room. (And why not? It probably cost more than the combined value of all the other furniture.)

My new drums couldn’t have arrived at a more perfect time because I was starting to get gigs as a drummer. One of them came from Frankie Avalon, and would prove to be a turning point for me. Cheech—that was my nickname for him—was in a band called Rocco and the Saints. One night, they were booked as the opening act at a very popular club in Somers Point, N.J., called Bayshores. Chippie Peters, the band’s drummer, was ill, so Cheech asked me to fill in, sing a few tunes and do my usual imitations and comedy. The headliner that night was a prominent local act named Billy Duke and the Dukes, whose bass player was known as Frankie Day. (His real name was Francesco Cocchi.) Frankie must have liked what he saw and heard, because he approached me after our set and said he’d like to manage me. I had no idea what that even meant, so I just said, “Talk to my dad.” 

Cameo Records …

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Cameo was started in 1956 by songwriters Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann in the basement of Bernie’s West Oak Lane home. I had met Bernie back in 1952, when he was the keyboardist for Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club. He and Kal had gotten off to a flying start penning “Teddy Bear” for Elvis Presley, and then landing a No. 1 record titled “Butterfly” with Cameo’s first artist, singer-guitarist Charlie Gracie.

Cameo got right down to business, cutting three songs with me in their primitive, monaural studio. My first experience recording for a big label might have overwhelmed me, but the three songs we cut—“Please Don’t Be Mad,” “All I Want Is You,” and a tune penned by Paul Anka—weren’t particularly exciting. “All I Want Is You,” for instance, was basically the same song as “Stairway to the Stars,” with a different melody. 

Knowing the inner workings of the company’s production line was probably a good thing, but it wasn’t going to get me a hit. For the first time, I had some doubts. I didn’t know what to think. For all I knew, Cameo was considering dropping me after I’d struck out three straight times. A few blocks away at “Idolmaker” Bob Marcucci’s Chancellor Records, Frankie Avalon already had a huge smash with “Venus,” and Fabian had scored with “Turn Me Loose.”

“I sang the hell out of that tune, but the record’s success wasn’t all because of me.”

Surprisingly, those first three duds I cut for Cameo didn’t faze Bernie and Kal in the least. It didn’t take them long to come up with the song that would kick-start my career. When “Kissin’ Time” hit the airwaves in June of 1959, it triggered a seismic event that rippled through the company.

I sang the hell out of that tune, but the record’s success wasn’t all because of me. The track had a lot going for it: an irresistible hook in its ba-da boom kick drum figure, the roster of city names in the lyric that personalized the song to a lot of fans in a lot of different markets, and then there was that flamethrower of a solo from future Saturday Night Live saxophonist Georgie Young.

In addition, Cameo had a secret weapon in its corner that became the most important factor in breaking not only “Kissin’ Time,” but my career, as well. Part of the key to Cameo’s success was that it was located in Philadelphia, a few miles away from the No. 1 marketing tool in popular music at the time: Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Like Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club, the show was broadcast weekday afternoons on ABC from local affiliate WFIL’s 46th and Market Street studio.

A mutually beneficial relationship between Bandstand and Cameo soon developed. Bernie and Kal would supply the show with a steady stream of acts and would bail out Dick with someone from their lineup whenever an artist from another label cancelled on him at the last moment. In return, Dick would expose Cameo’s recordings to his national audience. He had a nose like a bloodhound when it came to sniffing out a hit, and luckily for me, he caught a strong scent of “Kissin’ Time” and gave it his blessing. The song was released in mid-June. From the first moment he played the record on his show, the station’s switchboard lit up. Philly was all in. Detroit, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, and other cities followed suit. Within three weeks, it was the No. 11 record in the country. 

Bobby Rydell hanging with Frank Sinatra. 

Sinatra …

Some months after my debut at the Copa, my dad, Frankie Day and I drove up to New York City to see singer-comedian Joe E. Lewis, who was appearing at the club. In 1957, Frank Sinatra had portrayed him in the film The Joker Is Wild, and unbeknownst to me, he was in the house that night to see his old friend perform. Carmine, the maitre d’, came up to me as I was checking my coat and asked if I wanted to sit with Frank. At first, I thought he meant Frankie Day, until I realized he was referring to Sinatra. I was so nervous and intimidated I declined the offer.

At the end of the show, Sinatra gets up and leaves, and I’m thinking to myself, “Idiot! You had your chance and you blew it.” I was morose. I’d wasted the opportunity to meet one of my all-time heroes. With my tail between my legs, I went to the upstairs lounge to say goodbye to Jules Podell. Uncle Julie—as he asked me to call him—was the guy who ran the Copa. Just as we started to talk, who should come walking out of the kitchen door but Sinatra and a group of his friends. His entourage for the night included Joe DiMaggio, songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, and actor Richard Conti. I wasn’t going to blow it a second time. I told Jules about what had happened downstairs before the show and would you believe it? He walks me right over to where Sinatra and his boys were seated. “Frank,” he said, “I want you to meet the kid.”

I would have been more than happy with just a quick hand-shake, but Frank smiled at me and said, “How ya doin’, Robert. Would you like to join us?” Then he asked me what I was drinking. I nursed a Coke for the next hour and took it all in. He really went out of his way to make me feel a part of his entourage, and then posed for a picture with me and signed a copy of my Live at the Copa album. I headlined the club three or four more times before it finally closed its doors in 1973. 

Rydell singing to fans, not long after
the release of “Kissin’ Time”

Penn Valley and Camille …

You’d have never known I was a star. Yeah, when I first hit, I bought myself a few trinkets that were out of reach for the average Joe. But Frankie Day and my mother still picked out my clothes, and I was still living with my parents in my grandparents’ tiny row home. How could I have any kind of serious relationship with Camille under those conditions?

The success of “Forget Him” in 1963 solved those problems. I moved my parents, grandparents, and myself out of South Philly and into a new home in suburban Penn Valley. Instead of the short walk around the corner to see Camille, the new lifeline of our relationship was a 10-mile car ride on the Schuylkill Expressway. 

I started a stint in the National Guard in 1964 that began with two months of basic training at Fort Dix. I’d been transformed from Bobby Rydell, pompadoured teen idol making thousands of dollars a week, to Pvt. Robert L. Ridarelli, a low- ranking soldier with a crew cut making $85 a month. Every time I left—especially when I went outside the U.S.—I missed Camille more and more.

One of the tougher periods occurred in February 1966, when I toured South Vietnam for three weeks. Accompanied by Philly DJ Georgie Woods (“the guy with the goods”), a few dancing girls, and a trio that featured Carl Mottola on drums, Frankie Day on bass, and jazz keyboardist Jimmy Wisner playing accordion, we flew out on a military transport on January 30th and arrived 9,000 miles later at Tan Son Nhut air base.

At outposts surrounded by sandbags and soldiers with M60s, I slept on cots with loaded guns and hand grenades less than an arm’s-length away. In Kon Tum, I sang ”What Kind of Fool Am I?” to a large crowd of Marines while howitzers were laying down a barrage a few miles away. “Don’t worry, that’s outgoing, not incoming,” one Marine told me.

On one of my National Guard weekends in 1967, I was dismissed early from my duties, so I decided to surprise Camille. It was her birthday and she was celebrating at a restaurant on the Delaware River with her sister and some friends. I barged in wearing my fatigues and combat boots. It wasn’t a down-on-my-knees moment, but I proposed and gave her an engagement ring. Since my teen idol days were now in the rearview mirror, Frankie Day was OK with it and happy for both of us. Still, realizing that being Mrs. Bobby Rydell would thrust Camille into the public eye, he sent her to a finishing school for six months. I didn’t see the need for it.

We finally got married on October 5, 1968, at Stella Maris Church in South Philly. I woke the next morning to see a front-page picture in the Philadelphia Inquirer of Camille and me walking down the steps of the church with close to one thousand of my fans in the street throwing rice at us as we entered a Rolls-Royce Silver Phantom limo. We did it up right with a beautiful reception at the Warwick Hotel, and then left the next morning for a honeymoon in Hawaii.  

Bobby Rydell performing in Wildwood at age 10

The Mob …

A lot of Italian singers from my era—and probably a decade or two before—were rumored to have mob affiliations or mob backing. The stories of Frank Sinatra’s alleged connections to guys like Sam Giancana and Vito Genovese dogged him throughout his career. But if any of us Italian crooners wanted to distance ourselves from the image of a mob-backed Italian singer, it became almost impossible after my fellow South Philadelphian, Al Martino, played Johnny Fontane in The Godfather. From then on, everybody just took it for granted: “Oh, you’re a big Italian singing star; you must have the Mafia behind you.”

Often, when I was performing at nightclubs and casinos, the guys would be around, just digging the music and socializing with their wives or goombahs. If I played Palumbo’s in South Philly, Nicky Scarfo, Philip Testa, or several of the other local Philly boys might be hanging at the bar. We might have a drink together, tell a few jokes or talk sports, but that’s as far as it ever went. The same type of thing happened to me at lots of other venues around the country. But one mid-’60s appearance at the Latin Quarter in New York did give me a more personal look into the social culture of what many, rightly or wrongly, perceive to be organized crime.

The maitre d’ at the club told me that someone by the name of “Louie D” wanted to meet me, and that he was someone I should definitely want to get to know. Up walks this very dapper-looking gentleman oozing power and charisma. I was impressed at first sight. Louie looked me right in the eyes, firmly shook my hand and said, “I don’t know what it is about you kid, but I love you.” 

Jesus, who could ask for a better start to a relationship than that? I asked around and was told Louie owned a restaurant called Separate Tables and supposedly was connected with the Gambino family. I surmised that he had some serious pull in certain unspecified circles.

In New York, I had dinner with Louie and two of his “associates” in Little Italy. I’m pretty sure they were his bodyguards. We were having a great time talking about the usual stuff—food, music, women—and he also asked me a few questions about my career. After a short pause, he got all serious on me and said, “Bobby, you know Sinatra loves you.” 

Louie looked me right in the eyes, firmly shook my hand and said, “I don’t know what it is about you kid, but I love you.”

“I love him, too,” I replied, not really knowing where he was going with this line of conversation. 

Then Louie delivered an unexpected and unwanted critique: “You should be much bigger than you are. I think your father f–ked up your career.”

My spine instantly tightened up and I saw red. Looking him right in the eye, I said, “Louie, you’re a f–kin’ liar.” 

As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I was in trouble. Louie pounded his fist on the table and walked away, leaving me with his two associates. Their friendly demeanor of 10 seconds earlier turned menacing and they said, “Are you f–kin’ crazy? That man you just called a liar—do you know who that is?”

After an agonizingly uncomfortable minute of silence, Louie returned to the table, smiled, gave me a hug and kissed me on the cheek. I think it was an Italian thing. I guess he had respected me for being a man by standing up for my pop. 

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