Bobby Rydell likes to describe himself as “the kind of guy who lives next door.” He loves telling stories and talking about Philadelphia sports. But mostly, he loves entertaining audiences with his catalog of hits, including local favorite “Wildwood Days.”
The Penn Valley resident still hits the stage regularly, transporting audiences back to rock ’n’ roll’s early days, when this kid from South Philadelphia was known worldwide. His new autobiography, Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances (Doctor Licks Publishing), covers the whole story, from the hits to the misses to the tragedies.
Rydell recently sat down on a warm spring day to talk about his book and his life.
MLT: Why did you decide to write an autobiography?
BR: Being on the road for so many years, you sit around after a show and start talking to people. That’s when the stories come out. People always say, “You have great stories, Bobby. Why don’t you write a book?” My wife, Linda, said it was time to get serious about it.
MLT: What message did you want to send with the book?
BR: I wanted to be honest. Because I do that, it gets a little hairy and messy. But that’s the way I’ve always been through my life. I’m an honest guy. I didn’t want to sugar coat it; I wanted to tell my story.
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MLT: Was growing up in South Philadelphia when you did almost idyllic?
BR: It seemed like everybody I knew grew up next door. I had two friends who I hung out with all the time, and we called ourselves the Three Musketeers. To this day, we’re still very, very tight. It was a great time. Everything was so simple. It was a great era to grow up. We played halfball, stickball, blockball and buck-buck—all the games nobody plays anymore. On Saturdays, we’d go to an old movie house, The Colonial, and we’d pack a brown-bag lunch and stay there from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Our parents knew we were safe, and they could get stuff done.
MLT: Were you surprised that “Kissin’ Time” became a hit in 1959?
BR: We did it with a group that used to work in Wildwood called Georgie Young and the Rockin’ Bocs. It had a great sound. I’d recorded three songs that had done nothing. [Cameo Records founder] Bernie Lowe had taken them to Dick Clark, but he passed on them. Then he took “Kissin’ Time,” and Dick said, “That’s a hit.” The next thing I knew, there I was on American Bandstand.
MLT: What did it mean to have Frank Sinatra give you his blessing?
BR: The first time I met him, it was unreal. I just sat there and listened. Later, when he was playing at the Spectrum, I was sitting with Mike Douglas, [radio host] Sid Mark and my wife, and Frank says from the stage, “I want to introduce a guy who’s a saloon singer, like me.” Mike thought he was referring to him, but he mentions my name. To be singled out like that was great. He blew me a kiss. I blew him one back. He was always so nice to me.
MLT: How did you get such a big following in Australia?
BR: I just hit it off with the audience. I have a good fan base there. I’ve been to Australia 23 times, and every time, the people welcome me so enthusiastically. They hold up signs. It’s phenomenal.
MLT: How did you meet The Beatles?
BR: I was on tour in 1963 with [English singer] Helen Shapiro, and we were on a bus in London. The door opens, and here come The Beatles. They knew me, they shook my hand, and that was it. Then, they showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and I said, “I met those guys!” I would’ve loved to have taken a picture with them. Paul McCartney said they got “yeah, yeah, yeah” from [my song] “Forget Him.”
MLT: Tell us about “Wildwood Days.”
BR: That wasn’t really meant to be a rock song—it was more swing. When we recorded it, I said it was good. But how many people outside of this area know it? Around here, though, I can’t go anywhere without people talking about it.
MLT: In addition to performing solo, you also do the “Golden Boys” show with Frankie Avalon and Fabian.
BR: When we put the show together in 1985, it was a tremendous success, and I turned to Frank and asked how long he thought it would last. I thought it would go for one year—two, tops. In 2016, we’re still doing it. We’re three guys who used to hang out on the street corner. Now, we’re hanging out on stage.
MLT: Your book has a lot of stories about how tough your mother was on you. Why did you go into such detail about the difficulties you two had?
BR: I wanted to be sincerely honest in the book. A lot of people who met my mom thought she was the nicest person on two feet. She was definitely bipolar. She was born under Gemini, which was the right sign, because she was two different people. I had to talk about her. When my daughter was in the play Oliver! at Merion Mercy, she had a pretty big song to sing, and after the show, she said, “I’m going to be just like my dad.” My mother said, “You’ll never be like your dad. He was making money when he was 10 years old.” That was tough.
MLT: Your drinking led to liver and kidney transplants in 2012. How did things get so bad?
BR: That all started with [my first wife Camille’s] death. In 2003, we thought she had cancer beat, but it came back with a vengeance, and she died that year. I was a social drinker, but when Camille died, it was tough, and I turned to the bottle. Vodka became a dear friend, and I developed cirrhosis. In 2010, a doctor told me that, if I didn’t stop drinking, I would be dead in two years. Almost two years to the day, I had my [transplant] surgery.
MLT: How long are you going to keep performing?
BR: As long as the chops are still working and I can get on stage.