Philadelphia native Bobby Rydell rose to stardom in the sixties, singing chart-topping hits including “Volare” and “Wild One”. He was also featured in the 1963 movie musical version of Bye Bye Birdie. He’s continued to tour, both as a solo artist and with his fellow Philadelphians, Fabian and Frankie Avalaon, a trio whose moniker is “The Golden Boys.”
Now 74, the former teen idol continues to draw sold out crowds and is currently on a book tour to promote his new book, Teen Idol On the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances. In it, Rydell recounts his early days of fame, as well as his darker periods of alcoholism and two organ transplants.
On Wednesday July 6th, Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing will welcome the crooner and his big band to Damrosch Park. Manhattan Digest recently talked with this charming living miracle to discuss the gig, his darker days, changes in the music industry, and why he plans to stay in Philadelphia.
MD: Silly question: did your name inspire the name of the High school in the hit musical, Grease?
BR: I don’t know honestly. It’s great and it is such an honor, but it could very well have been Presley High, Anka High, Everly High, or Fabian High. For some reason, they picked me.
MD: You’ll be playing with the Pennsylvania-based, City Rhythm,led by Pete Spina and Nick Vallerio. Are they long time Philly friends of yours?
BR: As a matter of fact, I met them through Sid Mark, a Philadelphia DJ who only plays Sinatra. I met Spina and City Rhythm at Sid’s 50th radio anniversary. Sid asked me to sing the “saloon medley” (three songs from Sinatra’s Only the Lonely album). I heard the band, thought they were great, and have worked with them for various gigs in Philadelphia. I’m looking forward to New York!
MD: And I’m sure that you’ll be doing your big hits, “Volare” and “Wild One”?
BR: Oh definitely. And we’ll be doing songs from the American songbook. I’ll be staying away from the saloon songs, though. We want to keep things upbeat!
MD: How has your audience demographic changed over the years?
BR: My show-and even when I sing with Fabian and Frankie Avalon as The Golden Boys—seems to be an audience of people who grew up with us, who dated to some of our songs, and who got married to our music. It’s still primarily the baby boomers who come to the shows but we’ll probably have a blended group in New York.
MD: I’m really looking forward to being there. I can’t dance to save my life but I love music and love to sing. I’ll just be tappin’ my foot, but if you see me, please don’t judge my dancing ability.
BR: If I look out and see a guy just tappin his foot, I’ll know who it is. (laughs)
MD: What are your thoughts on the way singers are discovered in today’s music industry compared to when you were starting?
BR: I really credit my dad, who would take me around to clubs when I was a kid. It was like my vaudeville. Today, singers record themselves on youtube, become an overnight sensation, and consequently become totally screwed up.
MD: It sounds as though you really had a strong, supportive network of family and friends, which really helped keep you grounded. It wasn’t until later in life that you became an alcoholic.
BR: Well, that was due to my first wife’s passing of breast cancer. There was such a void in my life and vodka became a very dear friend. It got to the point where it got so bad that I needed a liver transplant.
MD: What is that drives your sense of gratitude today?
BR: The sub-title of the book summarizes it. Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances. That’s where I’m at right now..the second chances. The man upstairs didn’t want me and He wants to stay around for a few more years.
MD: Well, like most stars you probably hate the word “comeback”, but you are definitely at a prominent place in your life now with the book and singing/speaking engagements. What was the point when you said enough is enough in terms of the drinking?
BR: I remember going to a doctor in 2010 who told me if I didn’t quit drinking, I’d be dead in two years. I figured I’d rather have a good time. He was right on the money though, because 2012 was when I received the liver and the kidney. But before they even considered me for a transplant, I had to be sober for 6 months. Prior to the surgery in 2012, I was extremely sick and I told my wife to get the papers ready because I was certain that I wasn’t going to make it. She told me that everything was going to be fine, but she knew deep down that if I didn’t get the transplant, that it would all be over. Then we got the call from Jefferson hospital. It was just a miracle how things worked out.
MD: Did you write the book alone or did you have some help?
BR: I wrote it with a guy named Allan Slutsky. He did a movie called Standing in the Shadows of Motown.When my wife suggested that I write a book based on the stories I’ve had in my lifetime, I knew that Slutsky was the only one I would entrust, so I sat with him for close to two years and poured my heart out.
MD: What’s more exhausting: performing or talking to interviewers?
BR: (Laughs) Excuse me, but I’ll have to say talking to interviewers.
MD: Fair enough. I’m sure by now, you know what songs you’re singing because you’ve been doing it for years. With interviewers, you’re probably wondering, ‘What is this jack ass gonna ask me next!’ Anyway, thanks for your time and enjoy the rest of the day in…Philadelphia, I think?
BR: Yes. Philadelphia. I’m gonna be here for a long time ‘cuz I’m waitin’ for the Eagles to win the super bowl!
Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing presents Bobby Rydell and the City Rhythm Orchestra. Wed. July 6 in Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center. Dance floor opens at 6:00, Dance lesson at 6:30, Live music at 8:00 (one extended live set). For tickets and more info: http://midsummernightswing.org/events/bobby-rydell