Some people come into their lives with music just pouring out of them, and Robert Ridarelli, born on April 26, 1942, was one of them.
“The baby’s always singing,” wrote his mother, Jennie Ridarelli, to her husband, Al, in 1945, when he was in the Army overseas.
The little guy did indeed pass the day smiling and making music. In fact he is still singing, but now we know him as Bobby Rydell.
“I’m singing my ass off,” says the personable native of South Philadelphia, speaking via phone from his home in the Philly suburbs. His voice is strong, rich, and seasoned. “My chops are better now than they were in my 50s.”
He is appearing in solo shows and with the Golden Boys (himself, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian), tours that are taking him across the country. Closer in, Rydell will also perform at the Mercer County Italian American Festival at Mercer County Park in West Windsor on Saturday, September 28, at 9 p.m.
The festival, now in its 20th year, kicks off Friday, September 27, and runs through Sunday, September 29.
Backed by a 10-piece band, Rydell will be doing his own hits such as “Wildwood Days,” “Kissin’ Time,” “Wild One,” and of course “Volare” as well as classics from the Great American Songbook, works by such composers as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, and more.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, he might have been best known as a teen idol, and yes, Rydell is a natural vocalist and engaging entertainer. But he is also a talented song stylist and drummer who befriended such jazz greats as Buddy Rich over the course of his career.
His 2010 album “Bobby Rydell Salutes the Great Ones/Rydell at the Copa” was released to critical praise and genuine appreciation for his skilled, sophisticated interpretations of the standards.
(When Rydell performed at New York’s famed Copacabana in 1961 he was the youngest person ever to headline there.)
Perhaps Rydell will also share a few stories from his recent memoir, “Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances” (Doctor Licks Publishing, 2016), which he co-wrote with his guitarist, Allan Slutsky.
The book has everything you ever wanted to know about the early days of the Philadelphia recording industry but is also filled with terrific tidbits from Rydell’s storied life.
“Teen Idol” touches upon Rydell’s remembrances of the old neighborhood, love for his family (especially his father), tales from touring, as well as hanging out with the likes of Frank Sinatra.
There are passages about being a superstar in Australia, his numerous appearances on American television (an episode of “Combat” stands out), as well as struggling with addiction and the health problems that led to a partial liver and kidney transplant in 2012.
“I was a frequent flyer at Thomas Jefferson Hospital for a while there,” he says.
One of the most interesting periods in Rydell’s life was when he was cast as Hugo Peabody in the movie version of “Bye Bye Birdie,” starring Ann-Margret as his girlfriend, Kim.
He notes that the nerdy Hugo hardly had anything to say or sing in the stage version, but the role was expanded just to showcase Rydell’s talents.
“(Director) George Sidney saw magic between me and Ann, so every day my script would get bigger and bigger, with lots of lines and singing for Hugo,” Rydell says.
One big musical number, “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do,” was choreographed by the renowned Onna White and uses the same kind of minimalist movement you might see in a Bob Fosse creation.
“I look back at that number and think ‘how did I do that,’ because I really wasn’t a dancer,” Rydell says. “We rehearsed that part of the movie for a week, and then it took a week to shoot.”
But back to that 1945 letter about the singing child.
Al Ridarelli wrote back, “Who knows? Maybe we’ll have a star in the family one day.”
Rydell reflects that it was his father, a machine operator at the Electro-Nite Carbon Company in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia, who really recognized his talent and exposed him to Philadelphia’s music and club scene.
“My dad used to bring me to nightclubs when I was just 7 years old,” he says. “He would ask the club owner if I could get up and do some songs and impersonations. I did, people applauded, and it was a wonderful feeling.”
Young Bobby won over the audience with his imitations of such personalities as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Frank Fontaine’s “Crazy Guggenheim.”
Rydell’s father also took him to great jazz and big band concerts, including a life-changing Benny Goodman performance.
“I didn’t know who Benny Goodman was,” Rydell says, “There was one other guy in the band, and I turned to my father and said, ‘Daddy, I don’t know who he is, but I want to be just like him.’”
Drummer Gene Krupa caught Rydell’s attention, and from then on he was drumming on anything he could, especially his grandmother’s cookware.
“She said to my dad, ‘please buy him some drums, he’s ruining my pots and pans,’” Rydell says.
To Nonna’s relief, Rydell had his first set of drums promptly, and lessons with renowned drum teacher Sam D’Amico came soon after.
“I tried to imitate anything I heard on the radio or my dad’s record player, and when we got our first TV set some years later I’d pick up on the mannerisms of the singers, drummers, comedians, and actors I watched on the early variety shows,” he says.
Rydell describes his father as enthusiastic and encouraging, but never a stereotypical “stage parent.”
His mother, Jennie, a sometime housekeeper and avid shopper, as Rydell says, was less supportive, but was star-struck when her son became famous.
“Dad was easy-going, eternally positive, and always made it fun, both for himself and me,” he writes in the book.
He adds that it was his dad who came up with Bobby’s easier-to-pronounce stage name “Rydell.”
Maybe more importantly, in 1957 dad bought Rydell his first really special set of drums, black oyster-pearl Ludwigs, all thanks to an accident at Ridarelli’s job.
The elder Ridarelli had a mishap at Electro-Nite Carbon and lost part of his middle finger. The company settled the matter with a check for $3,000, which paid for this impressive drum kit.
He laughs that the Ludwigs occupied a place of honor in the family’s living room. “Why not? It probably cost more than the combined value of all the other furniture.”
At Bishop Neumann High School in Philadelphia, Rydell was skilled enough to play timpani and snare drum in the school symphony orchestra and was sergeant of the drums in the marching band. He left high school in his junior year to go out on tour, but the school later gave Rydell a diploma in gratitude for a benefit performance.
It was Rydell’s impersonations that landed him his first spot on television — on “The Paul Whiteman TV Teen Club.” From there it was “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” gigs with local bands (one of which included Frankie Avalon), meeting longtime manager Frankie Day, and recording sessions with local Philadelphia label Cameo records.
Through Cameo Rydell had his first hit, “Kissin’ Time,” which went big in the summer of 1959. Dick Clark reached out to Rydell, who became a regular on “American Bandstand.”
As the cliche goes, the rest is history.
Rydell’s time as a teen idol was exhilarating, but it didn’t last forever. It was those darned Beatles and the British Invasion that paused his hit-making career and also changed things for such singers as Paul Anka, Neal Sedaka, and Rydell’s old friends Avalon and Fabian.
It was a shock at first, but thanks to Rydell’s trove of talent, he was able to step back from teen stardom and cultivate a different, more mature career.
He also had time to pursue and marry his childhood sweetheart, the late Camille Quattrone, who died in 2003. The couple had two children, Robert Jr. and Jennifer, and the family now includes numerous grandchildren.
Since 2009 Rydell has been married to Linda Hoffman, who now manages his publicity and more importantly, saved his life by staging an intervention into his alcohol addiction in early 2012. She urged him to stop touring and seek medical attention.
The ever-svelte Rydell was really starting to show the effects of excessive drinking. For one, his body was retaining so much excess fluid he looked like he was pregnant — “with quintuplets,” he writes.
He could barely breathe, and he was also suffering from encephalopathy. Doctors told him his liver and kidneys were failing, and in June, 2012, Rydell was listed for transplants.
In July, 2012, Rydell had a prognosis of just one to two weeks to live when organs became available thanks to the untimely death of a young woman organ donor named Julia.“She’s my angel,” he says.
“Once again, I’d proven to be Houdini, surviving yet another close call that would have been curtains for most people,” Rydell writes. “How many more times could I do that before my luck ran out? And would I recover enough to be able to sing again?”
Happily, Rydell slowly got his voice and stage energy back, and he gives credit to his wife and family, his doctors, and his many musical colleagues and friends, including one of his oldest pals, Frankie “Cheech” Avalon.
“After the years of dumb arguments, I knew Cheech still loved me like a brother,” he says. “We had our issues over the years, but the Golden Boys brought us back together.”
Indeed, one of the highlights of his career has been with the Golden Boys, and it has been almost 35 years since Rydell, Avalon, and Fabian have toured as a trio, playing to devoted fans.
“(Manager) Dick Fox put us together. The first tour was 75 or 80 dates, and it was wonderful,” Rydell says. “Here we were, three Italian kids born and raised in the same neighborhood, hanging out on the same corner. When the opportunity came, we looked at each other and said, ‘Why not?’”
“We had a lot of fun that first tour, but we all said, ‘How long can this last?’” he says. “Here we are, booked into 2020.”
Bobby Rydell, Mercer County Italian American Festival, Mercer County Park Festival Grounds, 334 South Post Road, West Windsor, Saturday, September 28, 9 p.m.
The Festival runs from Friday, September 27, through Sunday, September 29, noon to 11 p.m. $5. 609-631-7544. www.italianamericanfestival.com
“Teen Idol On the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances,” by Bobby Rydell with Allan Slutsky, Dr. Licks Publishing, 2016. $16.95.