Bobby Rydell obituary | pop and rock

One of the classic teen idols of the late 1950s and early 60s, Bobby Rydell, who has died from complications of pneumonia aged 79, was only seven when he began performing on stage in his home town of Philadelphia. Over the following 70 years, he would sing everything from rock’n’roll and smoochy love songs to disco, Broadway classics and Italian pop tunes.

He notched up 19 singles in the Billboard Top 40, among the most successful of them We Got Love, Wild One and Volare. It was fitting that his name was chosen for Rydell high school in Grease, the Broadway and later film musical that depicted teenage lives in the early rock’n’roll days of the late 50s. If, as a New York Times critic put it, he was “more like a crooner than a rocker”, Rydell’s photogenic looks and endearing personality ensured he would prove far more durable than many flashier, more confrontational artists. Rydell and many of his generation were knocked off their pop pedestals by the dramatic arrival of the Beatles and their British counterparts, but he had the staying power of mainstream performers from a slightly earlier generation.

He was born Robert Ridarelli in Philadelphia, the son of Jennie (nee Sapienza) and Adrio “Al” Ridarelli. His father was the foreman in a machine shop. Bobby grew up on South 11th Street, and in 1995 his career achievements were recognized by his home city when the street was renamed Bobby Rydell Boulevard. There is also a mural of Rydell on the boardwalk of Wildwood, New Jersey, the beach resort that inspired his 1963 hit Wildwood Days.

Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell in Bye Bye Birdie
Bobby Rydell and Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Photograph: Moviestore/Shutterstock

His father kindled his musical interest by taking him to see the jazz bands of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, and he began playing drums and singing in nightclubs in Philadelphia and New Jersey at the age of seven. When he was nine, young Robert won a spot on the television show Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club and became a regular cast member. After three years on the show, he branched out into performing with local bands, including Rocco and the Saints – in which a fellow Philadelphian, Frankie Avalon, played the trumpet – and changed his name to Rydell.

After cutting a few unsuccessful singles, Rydell signed to Cameo Records, and made his first appearance on the charts with the exuberant Kissin’ Time (1959). The follow-up, We Got Love, sold a million copies, igniting a streak of hits including Wild One, Swingin’ School, Ding-A-Ling and Volare. In 1961, aged 19 and now a confirmed teen heart-throb, he became the youngest performer to headline at the fabled Copacabana club in New York.

In 1963 he was cast as Hugo Peabody in the film version of the musical Bye Bye Birdie, alongside Ann-Margret and Dick Van Dyke. Rydell recalled how the film’s director, George Sidney, “saw some kind of magic between Ann-Margret and myself, and every day that I went back to Columbia Studios, my script got bigger, and bigger, and bigger”.

Bobby Rydell in 1965
Bobby Rydell in 1965, a time when his hits were drying up. Photograph: Dezo Hoffman/Shutterstock

He was a regular guest on numerous TV shows, including those hosted by Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Joey Bishop, Perry Como and George Burns. “I had the good fortune to spend my peak years as a recording artist during the golden age of the TV variety show,” he wrote in his autobiography, Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol on the Rocks – A Tale of Second Chances (2016). His international reputation was boosted by tours in Europe and others to Australia – where he would tour 20 times – Japan and the far east. The Beatles scrambled to meet him when he visited Britain in 1963, and Paul McCartney has said that the Lennon and McCartney song She Loves You was based on a Rydell song, though he did not specify which one (Swingin’ School is a likely candidate) .

Nevertheless, by 1964 Rydell’s hits were drying up, though he reached No 4 that year with Forget Him, and his generation of performers was sidelined by the seismic impact of the Beatles and the British Invasion. His last appearance on Billboard’s Hot 100 was in 1965 with Diana, which reached No 98. Even signing a deal with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label in 1968 could not reverse the slide, with Rydell complaining that Reprise gave him no promotion.

Rydell could still command enough audience loyalty to tour regularly and appear in nightclubs and Las Vegas venues through the 1970s and 80s, performing the great American songbook of material by the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers alongside his repertoire of pop and easy – listening material. He enjoyed a further glimmer of chart success with a disco version of his song Sway in 1976.

Bobby Rydell performing in New York in 2016
Bobby Rydell performing in New York in 2016: ‘I continue to do what I really enjoy doing.’ Photograph: Bobby Bank/WireImage

In 1985 he joined Avalon and another former teen pop star, Fabian, to form a touring act, the Golden Boys. In 2020 he recalled: “I said to Frankie … ‘this is great, but how long is this going to last? A year, two years tops, it’s over.’ Well, that was in 1985, and we’re going on 2021, and we’re still doing the show. It’s amazing. »

There had been some rocky moments along the way. The death of his wife, Camille Quattrone, in 2003, after 35 years of marriage, tipped him into life-threatening alcoholism. “Vodka became a very, very dear friend,” he said, “to the point where, a few years later, it led to a double transplant. A new liver and a new kidney, because of all the drinking.”

He married Linda Hoffman in 2009. His alcohol-induced illness forced him to cancel an Australian tour in 2012. After transplant surgery, he returned to the stage the following year with three sold-out shows in Las Vegas. His career had “had its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys”, he said, “but I’ve survived through all of that, and I continue to do what I really enjoy doing”.

He is survived by Linda and by two children, Robert and Jennifer, from his first marriage.

Bobby Rydell (Robert Louis Ridarelli), singer and musician, born 26 April 1942; died 5 April 2022

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