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A Second Chance (or Two)

Teen idol Bobby Rydell reveals secrets from his famed past.

Bobby Rydell

Bobby Rydell – a name synonymous with the early days and craze of Rock & Roll as it was exploding onto the scene. He epitomized the American Bandstand teen idol, complete with google-eyed girls swooning over his sparkling blue eyes and great combed back hair that even Elvis would have envied. For over six decades, Rydell has performed live from his hometown in Philly to Las Vegas to California and beyond. He also played Hugo to Ann Margret’s Kim in the classic 1963 movie Bye Bye Birdie.  Among his many other accomplishments, Rydell was the youngest person ever to headline the Copacabana in New York at the ripe old age of 19. His hit singles, including “Volare” and “Wild One,” add up to of over 25 million records sold.

In addition to performing and staying very much involved in the entertainment world, Rydell recently published an autobiography; Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances. Devoted fans back from his South Philadelphia days to more recent generations will not be surprised by Rydell’s stories about his music and career. However, the subtitle referring to second chances candidly opens up chapters about the darker and more personal times in Rydell’s life. 

“Ludwig Snare Drums – Oyster Pearl …”

Rydell looks back at his childhood when he was first bitten by the performing bug, “My interest was sparked when my Dad took me to see Benny Goodman. Dad loved the greats – the Duke, the Count, and Artie Shaw. When I looked up and saw Gene Krupa , Goodman’s drummer, I said, ‘That’s what I wanna be when I grow up.’”

Much to his grandmother Lena’s irritation, little Bobby would practice drumming on her gravy and pasta pots. Rydell liked to perform for the family – drums, sing, impersonations. As fate would have it, Bobby’s father lost a finger from an accident at work. Out of lemons came lemonade - Adrio Riderelli, Rydell’s father, used bonus money that he received as compensation from his accident to buy his son a set of real drums.

Rydell lovingly retells the story about his father’s kindness, “My father selflessly used the money to buy me a set of snare drums. Ludwigs - oyster pearl. Bet you Ringo didn’t have a set like that! And, my grandmother stopped complaining about her pots!”

Entertaining the family was one thing, but Rydell was getting noticed by the public from the get go. By the time he was 8, Rydell had won a talent show on a local Philly television series and played in several bands in the area including one with Frankie Avalon. At the age of 17, his hit single "Kissin' Time" reached the charts. A year later, Rydell was touring in Australia with The Everly Brothers.

“Rock & Roll was never my favorite music … give me Sinatra anytime …”

If Rydell could do a duet with anyone, alive or gone, it would be Sinatra, his favorite.  No hesitation or discussion. “I adored him. That man didn’t just sing. He told a story; it meant something – he could phrase a lyric - every word meant something. When I was a kid I’d listen to him, but what did I know from songs like “One for My Baby.” When you get a little older, you experience life allowing you to live those lyrics and tell them sincerely, honestly, and personally.”

Rydell also strives to keep his work alive and current. So how does he sing “Volare” for over 47 years and still keep it fresh? Because he is a musician himself, Rydell respects and is respected by fellow musicians and performers. He plays with many different bands and venues that leave a unique mark on his songs. In addition, he learned from his mentor, Old Blue Eyes, to never sing it the same way twice. “It’s all in the phrasing  –  I add a little something whether I’m singing “Wild One,” “Swingin School,” or others.”

Even today, Rydell still appreciates the “real stuff” (a.k.a. Sinatra).  It seems a bit out of sync that a pop idol – starting his career when Rock & Roll was just cutting its teeth – does not especially enjoy the music genre that made him an idol. Rydell will be the first to tell you that his radio station is set to satellite Siruis Sinatra – and don’t anyone think of changing the channel! He prefers to listen to the greatest singers of all times, including Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole.

Second Chances – An Apropos Subtitle

In a review of Rydell’s book, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes, "No B.S. ... an autobiography laden with darkness and tragedy that would give even Keith Richards pause." His tales range from funny to heart wrenching – losing his virginity to a hooker as a surprise gift from a record company in Hollywood, his unbearable pain after losing his beloved Camille to cancer after 35 years of marriage, and suffering from alcoholism running so rampant that he needed a double organ transplant to survive. Tough subjects to put to paper. However, Rydell explains, “I wanted my fans to know how my life really was, not how a PR machine portrayed it.”

Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances is brutally honest – about Rydell’s family, career, and himself – and not all the good and glittery parts. For example, he openly talks about his mother and how she was not very nice to his wife and children - something that most people never saw. He shares stories about his career and the show business “giants” that he encountered  -- Frank Sinatra, Ann-Margret, The Beatles, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Dick Clark, and many more.

Perhaps one of the more powerful aspects of the book is Rydell’s openness about his alcoholism and the miracle of organ transplants – thus, a second chance. After Camille died in 2003, Rydell was “lost beyond words” without his high school sweetheart. Drinking increased from “fun loving” to excess – all to numb the excruciating pain of losing her. 

As usual, madness took its toll, and in 2012 Rydell became so ill that he required a 20 hour operation receiving a new liver and kidney. He literally got a second chance to live because of an organ donor (a 21-year-old girl killed in a crash that was an organ donor). Lucky? Miracle? Rydell’s doctor said to him, “To get two organs that match, somebody up there likes you…” You can’t convince him that the “somebody” was no other than his Dad, Camille, or both pulling strings for him.

In addition to a second chance to live and perform again (only six months after surgery), Rydell also talks about a second chance for love. In 2009, he met Linda Hoffman through mutual friends who thought, “You should call this girl. You’ll like her.” And he did. After dating a few years, they married in 2009 – sealing friendship, partnership, and love – again.

Because the organ donor program touched his life so personally and miraculously, Rydell never misses an opportunity to talk about the importance of the donor registry on stage, interviews, his book, or anywhere. He fervently supports organ donor organizations like Gift of Life – and fervently spreads the word about how he was given a second chance to perform, love, and live. Yes, somebody up there really loves you, Bobby Rydell – and so do many down here!