You could accuse crooner and legendary South Philadelphian Bobby Rydell of resting on his laurels, if it wasn’t for the fact that, at 73, he’s as busy now as he was when he was a sensation in the 1960s with smash hits like “Volare” and “Wild One” and Hollywood musicals such as 1963’s “Bye Bye Birdie.”
If he isn’t touring relentlessly in the U.S. and UK, or appearing in films such as the upcoming Robert DeNiro flick “The Comedian,” the singer makes time to write, penning an autobiography, “Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol on the Rocks” (with Allan Slutsky), that hits stores May 4. All this after surviving a double-organ transplant at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in 2012.
“After you do a show, you wind down, do some talking and that’s when the old stories come out,” says Rydell, heading to Atlantic City’s Golden Nugget Casino. There, he not only performed a full set, but signed early release copies of “Teen Idol on the Rocks” (available for preorder at www.bobbyrydellbook.com, the first Philly book signing is May 6 at Popi’s Italian Restaurant, 3120 S. 20th St.). “Invariably, someone always said ‘Why don’t you write down those good times, bad times, funny times?” he says. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Then my wife said the same thing, and I sat down with Allan and wrote over something like an 18 month stretch.”
What followed was a highly entertaining, deeply personal, sometimes painful (the death of his first wife, troubles with alcoholism) rumination of a life lived in the spotlight since age 7, when he began appearing onstage, singing, joking and drumming. “My father used to drag me to South Philly nightclubs. He’d ask owners if I could get onstage to do impersonations or sing, and I loved it,” says Rydell, recalling now-gone hot spots like the RDA, the 2-4 Club and the Earl Theatre, the latter where 6-year-old Bobby first spotted a drum kit (from Benny Goodman’s big band) and decided music was his calling. “I do this and people applaud? What a wonderful feeling.”
By 19, Rydell was the youngest act to grace the stage of the legendary Copacabana and his career as a teen idol was off and running. Before that, Rydell was a drummer for Rocco and the Saints with childhood pal, trumpeter Frankie Avalon, as well as being in The Emanons whose guitarist, Pat Azzara, eventually became jazz great Pat Martino. “I still keep a kit in my basement,” laughs Rydell.
His stories of awkward times in the biz (like an interaction with Philly mob don Angelo Bruno, who got Rydell out of a scheduling snafu; auditioning for Dustin Hoffman’s role in Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate”), legends he dealt with (“Sinatra and I weren’t close, but he loved my singing.”) and old pals such as Avalon make the book a grand, lively read. One tale involving boozy buds Rydell and Avalon and love taps gone askew is particularly hilarious. “Frank loves his wine — me too — he starts crying, hits me once, we laugh, hits me again a little harder. Next thing I know, I give him a shot — cut him — and he does the same to me,” giggles Rydell. “We had to go onstage early the next day bloody, with fat lips and swollen faces.”
Ask to compare his life as a teen idol — and its magazine cover media attention of the time — to the likes of Justin Bieber and One Direction now, Rydell thinks it’s talent that differentiates him from the currency of young singers. “Talent made me a survivor. That and the fact that I loved all sorts of music, jazz, the Great American Songbook. I’m not saying these cats [can’t] sing, but you had to entertain beyond just rock ‘n’ roll. That’s how I survived for nearly 60 years in this biz. That’s the book – surviving.”