The media has deemed Bobby Rydell the “Justin Bieber of the Camelot Era.”
Baby boomers may balk at the idea of comparing Bobby with the Bieber, but no doubt recall the teen heartthrob for his boyishly All-American good looks with his pompadour hair and his famous hits including “Wild One” and “Volare” with fond memories. They may also remember him for his acting and comedic skills when he appeared on The Perry Como Show, The Red Skelton Hour, The Jack Benny Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Joey Bishop Show, and as a regular on The Milton Berle Show.
And who could forget his role in Bye Bye Birdie with Ann-Margret, Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh – which he revealed to me in an interview was one of his proudest accomplishments.
But what a lot of you may not know is the deeply personal, inspiring, and extraordinary back story behind this fascinating man. Rydell has shared his story in his new autobiography, Teen Idol on the Rocks. He also shares some of those personal and sometimes painful memories with me in the following interview.
His humble honesty knocked my socks off. For example, in the interview Rydell admits his beloved wife handled every aspect of their lives. After she died, he didn’t know how to pay a bill or schedule a doctor’s appointment. Calling himself “a pampered star for years,” Rydell confesses he was terrified. Or when asked what he felt what was his biggest accomplishment, after mentioning Bye Bye Birdie, he stated, “In hindsight, maybe my greatest achievement is still being here at the age of 74 after all the destructive behavior of my earlier years.”
Those brutally honest personal memories is what makes his book so great and what makes you want to give this man a hug! This legendary star was recently interviewed by Rolling Stone’s contributing editor and Grammy-winning essayist, Anthony DeCurtis. So, I feel super honored he took the time out from his hectic schedule to answer my questions via email. Thank you, Bobby!
Without further ado, here’s the interview. Enjoy!
What made you decide to write an autobiography?
For years I’d sit around with musicians and other friends after my concerts telling old war stories and everyone would say, “You gotta be crazy not to write all this stuff down. You should put a book out.” I’ve led a pretty colorful life to say the least, so I finally decided to do it. The first thing I did was contact my friend Allan Slutsky who was a guitarist and an arranger who I’d worked with off and on since 1992. Allan won the Rolling Stone “Ralph J. Gleason Award” for music book of the year in 1989 when he wrote Standing In The Shadows of Motown. A few years later, he won a few Grammys and a dozen film awards when he produced a film version of the book. So it was a pretty logical choice to want to hook up with him on this project.
Did you have any objectives in mind that you wanted to achieve by sharing your story?
That whole Bobby-Soxer, Cameo-Parkway era happened a long time ago. My old fans still remember everything, but I’m hoping the story of guys like me and Chubby Checker, the Dovells, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and other musical stars from that era can get documented and reach a new audience. And then, since my life was saved by double transplant surgery (a new liver and kidney) after drinking myself to within an inch of death, it gives me an opportunity to urge people to consider being organ donors in the event of a premature death. I wouldn’t be here today if someone hadn’t made that same decision. Her name was Julia, and she’ll always be my angel.
How long did it take you to write the book? Tell me a little bit about the process. Any quirky writing habits?
About, eighteen months. Allan would come over my house, turn on the tape recorder (he was actually using old-fashioned cassettes), and he’d start firing questions at me while he took notes. At first we did general topics chronologically and then he’d return at a later date and go into detail about specific things. Then he’d take the material home and return with a chapter and we’d go over it together. I might see something like a story he didn’t quite get right and make a correction, or I might say something like, “That’s not what I was feeling at the time,” or, “I’d never say something like that.” The funniest moments came when we went back and forth trying to get all the Italian slang words and Philly-isms to lay right.
You list many achievements in your book, but what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Starring in Bye Bye Birdie with Ann-Margret, Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh would definitely be one of them. Before that, I was just a good-looking kid with a great pompadour who could sing, tell a joke, and do imitations. But I had to become an actor and a dancer for Birdie. I really grew as an artist in that film. And evolving into someone who can really do justice to songs from the Great American Songbook means a lot to me. When I was a teen idol, I sang simple pop songs, but in my ’60s and ’70s, I really got comfortable being an old-fashioned saloon singer on songs like “All of Me,” “You and the Night and the Music,” and other great standards. In hindsight, maybe my greatest achievement is still being here at the age of 74 after all the destructive behavior of my earlier years.
You share some intimate and personal stories in your book. What were the hardest life stories to write about and why?
Definitely the stuff about my wife’s dying of cancer and my overbearing, stage-mother. The stage-mother thing was a much needed chance to vent and get stuff off my chest after decades of arguments and fights with my Mom. She was bi-polar with a little bit of evil mixed in. It’s hard for people to believe some of the things she did because she always showed a different face to outsiders who knew her. As for my wife-she’d been my childhood sweetheart since I was a young teenager, and we were married for more than three decades. Her loss and my struggles with the bottle that followed couldn’t be anything but agony to talk about. But I was also terrified because she’d handled every aspect of my life from the time we got married. I didn’t know how to pay a bill, write a check, or schedule a doctor’s appointment. She did all that stuff. I’d been a pampered star for years, but now I was on my own and it terrified me.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I’d like people to look at me as not just a singer, or an actor, or comedian, but also as a survivor. I could have packed it in many times but I was always bailed out by the kindness of other people and by the music. I wanted to live to sing another day.
You are 74 years old, yet I see from your website you have many upcoming events planned. What keeps you motivated?
I’m the kind of guy who’ll sing and perform until I die. It’s all I’ve ever known. I still get antsy when I haven’t hit a stage for a while. I still love what I do. When I can’t do it anymore, you might as well start shoveling the dirt on top of me.
If you want to read more about Rydell’s incredible story, TEEN IDOL ON THE ROCKS is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and book stores throughout America. For a list of his ongoing concert performances, both solo and alongside fellow South Philly “Golden Boys” Frankie Avalon and Fabian, check out the dates on Rydell’s website. Also, keep an eye out for his role in movie, The Comedian, with Robert De Niro, to be released February 3, 2017..