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Bobby Rydell

One of the biggest teen idols of the 1950s and '60s, Bobby Rydell was a likable pop singer who scored a fistful of hit singles with polished, well-crafted tunes that made the most of his bright, flexible vocal style and engaging personality. Along with Frankie Avalon and Fabian, Rydell was one of the leading Philadelphia-based stars who dominated the pop charts (and the TV show American Bandstand) in the years after Elvis Presley went into the Army and before the British Invasion changed the landscape of rock & roll. Rydell had both talent and charm, and sustained a career as a singer longer than many of his peers; he was in demand as a live performer decades after his days as a hitmaker ended in 1964. While he was a sure hand at pop standards and could perform in Italian, the bulk of his recording career took place during his days as a teen star, and 2005's The Best of Bobby Rydell: Cameo Parkway 1959-1964 is an excellent summary of his hitmaking era. Bobby Rydell was born Robert Louis Ridarelli on April 26, 1942 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his father, Adrio "Al" Ridarelli, was the foreman at a machine shop. Adrio loved big-band jazz and often took his son to see his favorite bands, including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Bobby shared his dad's enthusiasm for the music, and inspired by Goodman's flashy drummer Gene Krupa, he began learning to play the drums. Bobby soon showed he had the skills to be an all-around entertainer, and by the time he was eight, he was singing at local nightspots. At the age of nine, he made his television debut, appearing on a talent showcase, TV Teen Club, hosted by bandleader Paul Whiteman. The show marked his first appearance using the stage name Bobby Rydell; legend had it Whiteman suggested the more streamlined name since he had trouble pronouncing Ridarelli. Whiteman was impressed with Rydell's voice and likable persona, and the young singer became a regular on the show. Several years later, Rydell landed a steady gig playing drums with a local group, Rocco and the Saints, whose trumpet player was a then-unknown Frankie Avalon. Rydell left the band to devote more time to his singing career, and in 1958, he cut a single for the local Veko label, "Dream Age" b/w "Fatty Fatty." The record flopped, but his luck improved the following year when he signed with Cameo Records, a label founded by Bernie Lowe, who got to know Rydell when he was the pianist in the house band on TV Teen Club. His third release for the label, "Kissin' Time," became a hit, rising to number 11 on the singles charts, and the follow-up, "We Got Love," fared even better, topping out at number six. Radio took to Rydell's clean-cut style and friendly personality, and he became a frequent guest on American Bandstand, then television's most popular teen music program, which was conveniently based in Philadelphia at the time. Between 1959 and 1964, Rydell would place 19 songs into the Pop Top 40, including "Wild One," "Swingin' School," "Sway," and "Volare." Rydell was also a popular live attraction, selling out shows across the country and headlining concert tours in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Japan, and the United Kingdom. In 1961, at the age of 19, Rydell headlined New York's legendary nightclub the Copacabana, becoming the youngest artist to grace their stage. Also in 1961, Columbia Pictures signed Rydell to a contract as an actor, certain his charm would transfer to the big screen. He made his movie debut in 1963's Bye Bye Birdie, playing Hugo Peabody, the hapless boyfriend of Kim MacAfee (played by Ann-Margret), who had been chosen to give rock & roll idol Conrad Birdie his last kiss before being inducted into the Army. The film was a major box office success and Rydell's performance was well-received, but he didn't care for life in California or the process of movie making, and it would be 1975 before he took another film role, playing a lounge singer in the Australian picture That Lady from Peking. 1964's "Forget Him" would prove to be Rydell's last Top 40 hit, and 1965's "Diana" would be his final tune to break into the Top 100. He continued to appear regularly on television variety shows and worked steadily in nightclubs at home and abroad (he remained a major draw in Australia), as well as Rock & Roll Revival concerts that became popular in the early 1970s. In 1971, playwrights Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey tipped their hat to Rydell in their hit musical Grease by naming the high school where it took place Rydell High. In 1985, promoter Dick Fox approached Rydell about appearing in a special for PBS in which he would perform alongside fellow Philadelphia teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Rydell agreed, and the show, called "The Golden Boys," clicked with viewers. In response, Fox booked a concert tour for the Golden Boys, with Rydell and his co-stars discovering their old fans were still eager to see them perform. The Golden Boys tours would provide the backbone of Rydell's career well into the 2010s, and when a long struggle with alcoholism led to him receiving kidney and liver transplants in July 2012, he was back at work the following October. March 2013 saw him sidelined again when he had cardiac bypass surgery, but ever the trooper, Rydell bounced back to play an 11-date Australian tour in February 2014. Rydell maintained a steady touring schedule into the final years of his life; he died on April 5, 2022 due to complications of pneumonia. He was 79 years old.
© Mark Deming /TiVo

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