Many thanks to music biz vet and Huffington Post blogger Mike Ragogna for his interview with Bobby Rydell July 1, 2016.
Mike Ragogna (MR): Bobby, you wrote an autobiography, Bobby Rydell, Teen Idol On The Rocks, A Tale Of Second Chances. To promote the book, some publication is quoted as saying you were, “The Justin Bieber of the Camelot era.” Not really seeing that.
Bobby Rydell (BR): Yeah, I don’t know who wrote that. I think that was somebody who was writing for The Huffington Post who put that in there.
MR: [laughs] But let’s touch on that. Even though singers aren’t really put in this category, mainly actors, you basically were a child star. There are many issues later in life that come up with that unique group. How did you deal with being a celebrity at such a young age?
BR: First of all, I think it goes back to my upbringing, being Italian, being born and raised in South Philadelphia. I was living with my grandmother and grandfather who came from the old country, and then my mom and dad, so there were a lot of values in the home. Later on in the business, a man by the name of Bernie Lowe, who was my boss and the president of Cameo, which later became Cameo/Parkway, quoted me a line: “Remember Bobby, you’ll meet the same people going up the ladder as you do coming down. If you happen to be a rotten guy when you’re up there and you happen to slip a little bit, they’ll give you a shove to get you down a little bit quicker.” That always stuck with me. I had great management, Frankie Day, who was a bass player in a band called “Billy Duke & The Dukes.” I met him when I was fifteen years old. I had wonderful people around me and I think that’s what kept me level-headed throughout all these years.
MR: When you look at the people around you back then, they all had pretty clear heads. Red Skelton was a mentor of yours and you were on his TV show so often, they gave you a recurring role as Clem Kadiddlehopper’s young cousin Zeke. Even Frank Sinatra was a fan. I find your place in rock ‘n’ roll pretty interesting and unusual with the only comparable person being Bobby Darin.
BR: Well thank you, Mike. That’s a hell of a compliment.
MR: You both had unique musical agendas, evolving simultaneously in both rock ‘n’ roll and more mature material.
BR: Yeah, like songs from the American Songbook. I had the good fortune of knowing Bobby and seeing him perform many times, and vice versa. I don’t know if Bobby did it or someone else did it but there was a charcoal picture—an old eight by ten—of Bobby’s face, autographed to me from Bobby. It says, “To Bobby, I wish for you what I wish for myself. Always your friend, Bobby Darin.” I’ve used that line for a lot of the people that I’ve known in the business, going back to the late Buddy Rich. We were very, very dear friends because I was a drummer when I was like five or six years old and I saw Gene Krupa with the Benny Goodman band. Buddy recorded his album with the famous rendition of “West Side Story” and he has a lot of autographs on the inside cover of the album, and I happen to be one of the people fortunate enough to have an autograph to Buddy in the album. There were people like Judy Garland and Milton Berle and Cary Grant—all of the heavies. I just wrote to Buddy what Bobby wrote to me. “To Buddy, I wish for you what I wish for myself. Always your friend, Bobby Rydell.” Matter of fact, to this day, I do a tribute to Bobby in my show. We do four songs; “Splish Splash,” “Dream Lover,” “Beyond The Sea” and “Mack The Knife.” His son came in to see me a few years back when I was in Vegas. Dodd Darin came in and he thanked me for keeping his father’s memory alive. I told him, “You know what? Your father wasn’t just talented, he was scary talented.” The man did everything, he sang, he danced, he played instruments, he was a very fine actor, so I was fortunate enough to be around him and consider him a friend.
MR: During your Cameo/Parkway years, you were around many great acts. Sadly though, because Cameo/Parkway material wasn’t reissued on CD until sales were a fraction of what they were, your original albums were never refreshed and a lot of good music went into obscurity.
BR: Well, fortunately, now with ABKCO, everything is being re-released. Jay Klein came to see me just about a month ago, I was in Atlantic City at the Golden Nugget with a seventeen-piece orchestra. He wants to do something in conjunction with my new autobiography, possibly coming out with some sort of a new compilation. And over the past seven or eight years, they have released remastered versions of not only me but a lot of people on the Cameo label.
MR: Sure, but it’s a shame that post-Napster, CD sales took such a hit that people stopped valuing recorded music the way they used to, especially during eras when artists were getting reissued and anthologized. On the other hand, vinyl’s revival could be a good for your music
BR: Oh, absolutely. Are you kidding me? There’s nothing better than vinyl!
MR: Okay, back to the book, though I think there should be a movie to do your life justice. Maybe it can star Justin Bieber?
BR: It’s funny that you should mention that, because my wife has an email that she printed out for me. I can’t remember the gentleman’s name but he just did a picture with John Travolta and he said that he would like to have the screen rights for my new autobiography. That’s a nice thing to do, but we’re not going to jump at it because I just had the opportunity to have a cameo role in Robert DeNiro’s new movie called The Comedian. The director was a guy by the name of Taylor Hackford who did The Idolmaker, the Ray Charles movie, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll… He’s a guy who’s interested in that kind of stuff, so we’re thinking of sending the book to Taylor Hackford, Ronnie Howard, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, as off the wall as that may sound. You never know! You send a book out, these people read it. You know the old saying: “You throw enough stuff against the wall, something’s got to stick.”
MR: Someone’s got to bite, it seems pretty obvious to do a movie of your life with everything you experienced.
BR: There’s a lot of interest going on with the book so who knows, it could possibly work into a screenplay, or possibly something like The Jersey Boys. You never know, everything is cock-eyed in this business.
MR: After having so much success with classic pop and doo-wop you changed course into material such as “Volare.” Following your success with that 45, things must have changed significantly, no?
BR: It may have changed to a certain degree, but not the way that I really wanted it to change. My father loved big bands, so when I was five, he took me to see Benny Goodman. At a very early age, I started listening to Benny Goodman, Tex Beneke, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Duke Ellington… I was a jazz lover going back to Coltrane and Miles Davis and Philly Joe Jones; you name it, I listened to them. I hardly ever listened to a rock ‘n’ roll record. Maybe when we were just hanging around the street corner with an old 45 record player. Some of the girls in the neighborhood would have [Elvis] Presley or Bo Diddley or Fats Domino. As far as doing songs like “Volare,” “Sway,” and “Old Black Magic,” that was quality material, but they were still kind of like pop. I really wanted to get into doing albums with big bands and doing [material] from the American Songbook, which unfortunately never happened. That’s something I’ve regretted as far as my career is concerned with recordings, but it’s something that I do now within my show. So not only do I do my hits, but I do songs from the American Songbook and stuff that I love to do. I think there are a lot of people in the audience saying, “Jeez, we never knew that Bobby could do this type of material!”
MR: At a certain point, Sinatra comes into the mix. There was a meeting that was going to happen, but you got a little nervous about it, huh?
BR: It was The Copa in New York City, and he was in the room to see Joe E. Lewis. Matter of fact, Frank made a movie about Joe E. Lewis’ life called The Joker Is Wild. Frank was in the club and one of the waiters, Carmine, said, “Would you like to sit with him?” I was nineteen years old and my father and my manager were there, so I said, “No, no, just put me with my dad and my manager.” At the end of the show, Joe E. introduces him and he goes and I said, “Well, that’s it. I blew it.” That was my first chance just to say hello to the man. I go upstairs to say goodnight to Jules Podell—this is all in the book—he was like the boss of The Copa, and Sinatra comes walking through the kitchen doors and I said to Jules, “Uncle Julie, all I want to do is shake his hand.” Sinatra was sitting with Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, two great lyricists, and Richard Conte and Joe DiMaggio. Jules said, “Frank, I want you to meet the kid.” Sinatra stood up and with them blue eyes, he looked at me and he said, “How you doin’, Robert?” I said, “I’m fine Mister Sinatra, how are you?” “I’m wonderful. Would you care to join us?” I said, “It would be my pleasure.” I sat down and that was my first meeting with Blue Eyes. He turned to me after a couple of minutes and said, “What do you drink, Robert?” I said, “C-c-coke.” I figured if I said, “Scotch and water,” he’d smack me in the face. I was fortunate enough to be able to hang with him. He was always wonderful to me. I once thought it was Frank Jr. who said I was one of his favorite singers, so I thanked him and he said, “I never said that, that was my father.” [laughs] I said, “Not to put you down in any way, Frank, but it sounds better coming from your old man.”
MR: Nice. You headlined The Copa at nineteen?
BR: Yeah, I was the youngest who ever worked The Copa.
MR: Can you still remember how you felt that night?
BR: Nervous as hell!
MR: Can you remember any of the songs?
BR: My opening song was “Lots Of Livin’,” and I had two great men, Lou Spencer and Noel Sherman, who put my act and my staging together. We worked together for months, practically a half a year before I went into The Copa, just to make sure that the act was fine tuned before I hit New York City. When they introduced me all of the captains and the waiters are slapping me on the back, “Go get ‘em, Bobby, knock ‘em on their asses. Kill ‘em.” They’re all hitting me and I’m walking out on stage and the band is playing the vamp of “Lots Of Livin’.” My opening line is, “There are chicks just right for some kissin’”; when it came out, I was shaking. I was so nervous! But I think it took me a matter of, oh, four to eight bars before everything settled in and then I was fine. But just walking out there for the very first time, there was a lot of nerves.
MR: By that point, you already were a staple on TV. You performed on American Bandstand how many times?
BR: Oh, God, I don’t know, I did a lot because I never left Philadelphia, and God forbid somebody didn’t show up, I’d always get a call from either Dick himself or a guy by the name of Tony Mammarella, who was the producer of the show, saying, “Bobby, can you get your ass down here? So-and-so didn’t show up and we need somebody to fill the guest spot.”
MR: Bobby, your first dramatic acting role was on Combat!
BR: Yeah. I loved that. The episode was called “The Duel” and it was me, Vic Morrow and two German soldiers and a German tank. That was it. Working with Vic was wonderful, he was really great to work with. I remembered him from the movieRock Around The Clock and then all of a sudden I’m working with this guy that I admired from when I was a kid growing up.
MR: You also were on Danny Thomas’ TV show.
BR: Yeah, yeah, Make Room For Daddy, where I was a wise guy. Danny Thomas tried to take me under his wing and I thought all he wanted to do was try and make money from me. I played a smart ass and he straightened me out, and there I was at the end of the show singing at what was supposed to be The Copa. When I first met mister Thomas, I was fairly young, of course, and he was a big guy with ALSAC—Aiding Leukemia-Stricken American Children—The Saint Jude Hospital. He asked me if I would be the teenage chairman for ALSAC, and I was. I was the teenage chairman for like two years, and after my two years were over Bobby Vinton took my place. I’ve had the good fortune to work with all kinds of people, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, George Burns, Perry Como, I’ve had a wonderful career, I really have, and I’ve worked with some of the best.
MR: I love that you were close to Red Skelton.
BR: Red Skelton became like a second father to me, for crying out loud. He lost his son via Leukemia at a very early age—Richard was like fifteen years old when he passed away, so Red took me under his wing. We became very, very close, very dear friends over the years.
MR: We’ve talked about the early years, let’s get to the later years. You performed as The Golden Boys with Frankie Avalon and Fabian, but then there was a certain point where you got sick. In 2012, you had to replace your liver and kidneys.
BR: Correct. That’s basically because I was an alcoholic. When my first wife passed away in 2003 via breast cancer, what a void there was in my life. There was nobody to lay in bed with, nobody to talk to, nobody to laugh with, nobody to cry with, and all of a sudden vodka became a very dear friend, to the point where it almost killed me. I was lucky enough back in 2012 to get a new liver, and also I had gone into renal failure as well, so I got a new kidney. That’s what the book is saying, Bobby Rydell, Teen Idol On The Rocks, A Tale Of Second Chances. I’ve got my second chance. I guess the guy upstairs said, “Nah, I don’t want you yet. I’ll give you a few more years.”
MR: Good for you, I’m glad.
BR: Thank you, me too.
MR: My first exposure to you as an actor was when you co-starred with Ann-Margaret and Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie. Considering how big a star you were at the time, “Conrad Birdie” might have been the most obvious role for you. Instead, you played the pretty miIquetoast character, “Hugo Peterson,” but made him equally memorable.
BR: I think that was all because of George Sidney, who was our director. I think he saw some kind of magic between Ann-Margret and myself. The part of Hugo Peabody in the legitimate show did no singing, no dancing—he didn’t have a line, matter of fact—he was just kind of nerdy and hung around, but Mister Sidney saw some kind of magic and each day that I’d go back on set my script got bigger and bigger and bigger, there were more lines, there was more singing, there was more dancing. I don’t consider myself a movie star by any stretch of the imagination but f I had to be associated with one movie in my life, Bye Bye Birdie is a classic like Grease—and even in Grease I’ve got the high school named after me, Rydell High for crying out loud.
MR: And apparently The Beatles were inspired by you for “She Loves You,” right?
BR: I don’t know if it was from “Swinging School” or “We’ve Got Love,” but the thing that Paul McCartney mentions in his documentary is, “We got ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ from Bobby Rydell.”
MR: Did you ever meet them? Got any Beatles stories?
BR: I had the opportunity to meet them before they became what they became. I met them in 1963 on a bus in London. I didn’t know who they were. Helen Shapiro was a girl singer there and I was touring with her and she introduced The Beatles to me. “Okay, so they’re four guys who gig around the UK, they do night clubs, they do dances and so on.” We met, we shook hands, they knew me but I didn’t know who the hell they were, just four guys in a band. I come back home, 1964, I’m watching The Ed Sullivan Show, there they are. I said, “My God, I met those guys!” Who knew? I could kick myself in the ass because that would’ve been a great picture. In the middle of the UK, ten o’clock at night, we’re going from town to town, what a great picture that would’ve been with those four guys on a touring bus. That would’ve been a wonderful picture to have.
MR: Bobby, what advice do you have for new artists?
BR: Oh boy, that is so hard. It’s really hard when your parents put you on YouTube at fourteen years old and overnight, you become a sensation and millions of dollars are thrown at you. That can ruin you. That can really blow your mind. Unfortunately, that has happened to people like Justin Bieber. Myself and a lot of the guys around my age, we didn’t have any kind of Vaudeville, but my dad used to take me around to clubs when I was seven, eight years old. At least I got an inkling of what the business could be like. All I would say to a lot of these young artists is try to keep your head on straight. Hey look, I was an alcoholic, I straightened myself out. Stay away from alcohol, stay away from drugs, try to lead a good life and nurture your craft. Just work and work and work at your craft.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
If you are interested in reading about and listening to a song by Bobby Rydell, please click here for “Wildwood Days.”