Bobby Rydell a must-see at the Ocean County Library – and here’s why
What separates Bobby Rydell from the rest of the Italian, pompadoured teen idols that filled the American pop landscape as the nation turned the corner from the Eisenhower '50s to the Kennedy '60s? The inscrutable essence that fueled his stardom and keeps him close to fans will be on display May 7 in Toms River.
Bobby Rydell visits the Ocean County Library to discuss, and sign, copies of his autobiography, Teen Idol On The Rocks: A Tale Of Second Chances.
It's from 2 to 4 PM. Rydell has a legion of fans in Ocean County. The wait list at the library web site is already full. Still, be there, or be square, right?
On the surface, they were all alike. But their images were unique. The girls were all awash in the hair, sharkskin suits, and pointy shoes, and absorbing it all in the first flush of teen ecstasy and angst. Rydell was all of that.
For the guys, they were either role models, or adversaries. Except Rydell. We could try to imitate him, but man, it was a stretch. He couldn't be a threat. Too hip. Easier to just be his wingman, and let the rest happen.
They all seemed like they were from Philadelphia, like he is, but that's probably the Dick Clark influence.
Frankie Avalon was Philadelphia, and sounded as though he had a steady, maybe a fiancee, and after all, who would separate him from Annette in all those beach flicks? Fabian was Philly, and he sounded like he was already married.
Bobby Darin was Uptown, and where Fabian sounded married, he actually was, by 1960, to Sandra Dee. Dion was the Bronx, and sounded like trouble - like he was doing a lot more than singing in those lamp-lit back alleys.
Paul Anka, a Canadian, sounded like he couldn't wait until he got his driver's license and figured out why wallets had little ring outlines on them. Freddy Cannon - Massachusetts - sounded like your bud with the lacquer-painted Olds with fuzzy dice on the rear-view.
But Bobby Rydell - sinuous baritone, about a half-octave lower than most of the rest, boppin' the vocals, super-charged songs that rocketed out of the jukebox, pulsating drums, rumbling saxes and a stack of background singers that turned every song into a full-blown party.
In your head, Rydell had a busy little black book, the keys for the convertible, a full tank of gas, and the passenger door open so you could jump in and ride shotgun. Rydell was the guy who could teach you how to handle a drive-in movie, then turn around and talk hunting with your dad and cooking with your mom, all with the same sunny aplomb.
How about a guy who headlined the Copacabana, practically before he could legally get a drink in it? A guy who got Sinatra's imprimatur - Sinatra, who had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to Elvis! A guy who regularly clowned around with Red Skelton on TV while the rest of us were sweating out exams. A guy so white-hot that he was cavorting on Hollywood sound stages with Ann-Margaret in "Bye Bye Birdie," at an age when the rest of us were bagging groceries. Wow.
So, there's no way he stays in Philly, right? He's got a duplex in Malibu, right? No, not Malibu, how about Oahu! Yeah, that's the ticket! Well, surprise. Philadelphia's in his roots and in his veins, and he never strayed too far from home.
At 75, his voice is richer, fuller, warmer than the one that rocked everyone back in the day. His recollections are hilarious and poignant by turns. All of this is coming to the Ocean County Library in Toms River! And, he tells us, he looks forward to questions and answers.
"I really enjoy that part of the book signing. It gets all up and personal," he said, recalling that post-show fan interaction has always been his way.
"A majority of the people would say to me, 'Bobby, you have so many great stories. Why don't you write a book!' And I'm saying, 'I'm 21, 22 years old! Who wants to read a book about me?' Now that I'm 75, lived the majority of my life...I have an awful lot to tell."
Rydell didn't knock it out in a weekend. He and co-author Alan Slutsky spent two years in which "I just poured my heart out," he said. "It's an easy read, and it's brutally honest. I'm very, very proud of it."
Some of that brutal honesty centers around his late struggle with alcohol, which led to the need for a double-organ transplant - and not from the standard rock-star excess syndrome at all. The last thing you might expect from a crowd-pleaser of this magnitude, loneliness, did him in.
It started in 2003, when breast cancer took away his wife of 36 years."That just killed me," Rydell recalled. "Nobody to talk to, nobody to laugh with, cry with, smile with, tell your stories to. And I turned to the bottle. But I would never, never drink prior to going on stage."
Offstage was another issue. "In 2010, my doctor tells me 'Bobby, if you don't stop drinking, you're gonna be dead in two years.' I figured, well, two years, let me have a good time, let me go out swinging. And he was right to the number, because in 2012, July 9 to be exact, that's when I had the double transplant."
The operation took place in Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Testament to the power of clean living - Doctors told Rydell not to expect to go home for at least a month, perhaps more. Ten days after going under the knife, he was home, his second wife tending his physical recovery. Six months later, Rydell was receiving Standing O's in Las Vegas.
"I didn't know if I'd ever be able to do what I enjoyed doing for the majority of my life," Rydell said. "It's just great to do what I've done since, my God, seven years old. If I had any talent in me whatsoever, my dad was the first to see it. Just to be able to get back on stage, be with people, see the smiles, remember the tunes from back then. I consider myself extremely lucky."
So many Ocean Countyans have ties to either Philadelphia or Rydell's rock and roll reign that he's just a permanent fixture in ther psyches. And still, there's more to know when he arrives in Toms River.
"At the book signings, people really get to know the type of individual I am, and what my personality's truly all about," he said, recalling the sage advice of his record label owner about karma - that if you're miserable to people while you're on the rise, they'll be waiting on the way back to kick you down the ladder a little more quickly.
"That always stuck with me. I love talking with fans, I love signing autographs and taking pictures, and I think they can see that."
So, Bobby Rydell isn't chasing after that "Wild One" or soaking up those "wild, wild Wildwood Days" the way we all once did. But if not for him, the high school that nurtured those denim-clad denizens in "Grease" would have no name. And, he's even more of an inspiration than he was when we thought he had the keys to the car.