Talking with Bobby Rydell is like chatting with an old friend. The superstar of the ’60s is more than happy to talk about his life and career, and passionate about the subject of organ donation. Rydell, whose career spans six decades, received a new liver and kidney in July 2012 and, grateful for his new lease on life, has dedicated himself to encouraging everyone to sign up to be an organ donor.
His hits trigger fond memories for Baby Boomers who danced and sang and fell in love to songs such as “Volare,” “Wild One,” “Sway,” “We Got Love” “Kissin’ Time” and “Forget Him.” And 60 years later, fans still flock to hear him sing. He performs Saturday, March 29, in Pottstown with The Duprees, and the First Ladies of Rock and Soul.
HIS EARLY YEARS
Rydell, then known as Roberto Ridarelli, grew up in South Philly, an area known for being the home neighborhood of some of music’s biggest stars — Al Martino, Mario Lanza, Eddie Fisher, Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and James Darrin, to name a few.
“We all came from a 10-block area in South Philly,” he said. “I get asked, ‘How come so many singers (come from there)?’ and I say “I guess there was a water trough at 9th and Dickinson and if you drank from it, you’d become a singer and if you stuck your feet in it, you became a dancer, and if you did both, you became a singer and a dancer.”
Rydell still has an engaging sense of humor. Some fans may not know it, but his love of comedy and impersonations started when he was young.
His passion for music also started at a very young age when is father took him to the Earl Theater for a Benny Goodman concert and he became enamored with the legendary drummer Gene Krupa.
He told his father, “I don’t know what his name is, Daddy, but I want to be him.” And so drum lessons followed. When he was 7 or 8, his father noticed that little Bobby could also sing.
“Whatever talent I had, my dad was the first one to see it — he used to take me around to the local clubs and cabarets, and ask the owners if I could sing and do some impersonations.”
“When I was 11, I was on a show, The Paul Whiteman TV Teen Club, and won and became a regular for about a year and a half.
The show went off the air and at 11, I was basically out of the business.
“The reason I’m in the business today is because of my dad.
“My mother used to say, ‘Ott, — that was my father’s nickname — what are you doing with the kid? You’re taking him to clubs.’
“And my father would say ‘The kid’s got talent’ and my mother would say, well what else would you say — ‘You’re his father.’”
Even after he made a name for himself, he managed to lead a normal life off stage.
“I’m of Italian extraction. There was a lot of love and warmth and respect in my family when I grew up as a kid and that’s how I raised my children. Now, I’m a grandfather with five grandchildren.”
Rydell married his high school sweetheart, Camille. They opted to stay in the Philadelphia area, and when Bobby was touring, she stayed home and took care of the family. They were married for 38 years when she passed away from breast cancer in 2003.
Also keeping him on the straight and narrow were friends and family and his manager, Frankie Day, whom he met while playing at a club outside of Atlantic City. Day remained his manager for 17-20 years. He gave him, lots of advice including, “You are going to meet the same people going up the ladder as going down and if you happen to be no good while you’re up there, there are plenty of people who’ll give you a shove to get you down quicker.”
“And that stayed with me,” Rydell said.
Today he performs all over the world with Frankie Avalon and Fabian on the “Golden Boys” tour, most recently in Bethlehem earlier this month.
The three have known each other for quite some time. Fabian lived a half a block away in South Philadelphia, but Rydell said he never really knew him when they were growing up. Back then, there were “different hangs,” he said, “a different malt shop or ice cream parlor.”
On the other hand, he and Frankie Avalon were childhood buddies. “Frankie and I go back a lot of years — I was 10 and he was 12 or 13. We performed for Vets hospitals, USOs,” he said. Later, “Frankie had a club called The Frat” and they performed together there.
HIS FAVORITE MUSIC
Rydell’s taste in music stems from his childhood — the love of Big Bands courtesy of his father and he’s a “big fan of Mr. Sinatra.” He listens to Sinatra on the radio in his car and has added contemporary crooner Michael Buble to his play list,
The first song that brought him (Buble) to the public was “Sway.”
“I recorded it in 1960, but I wasn’t the first — Dean Martin recorded it first. When I’m on stage, I talk about ‘Sway.’ I mention that Dean Martin and Buble recorded it and I was the one with the biggest hit,” Rydell said.
COMEDY, STAGE AND FILM
Rydell also took up acting and starred in the movie “Bye Bye Birdie” with Ann-Margret and plays such as “West Side Story.” He also appeared on network TV shows like Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, and Perry Como. His flair for comedy landed him a gig as a semi-regular on the “Red Skelton Hour” for many years.
“I was very fortunate to work with the giants. My first appearance in Las Vegas was with George Burns. After we did our soft-shoe number, I would stand in the wings and watch the rest of the show — learning as much as I could about his delivery. He would give (young performers) the time to shine. Mr. Burns was almost like a father to me.
He also honed his comedic skills with the likes of Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Danny Thomas.
Life was pretty good for him, until his wife passed away.
“This whole thing (drinking) started, when I lost my first wife via breast cancer in 2003. She was my partner, my whole life,” he said.
“At one point I was a social drinker, but when she passed, booze became my very dear friend, vodka. I would drink 7 or 8 doubles a day. I would put bottles in my golf bag, in the trunk of my car.”
After years of the boozing, alcohol took its toll and he became very ill.
“My liver said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I was very, very sick. I was freezing, stomach blew up like (I was) carrying quadruplets. My new wife, (they were married in 2009) was a nurse for 35 years and she became my caretaker.”
“I was on a waiting list for a new liver. I also needed a kidney because I went into renal failure as well. On July 8 (2012), I’m lying in bed and I told my wife we should get all the papers together. I said forget it, I’m dying.”
The odds were not looking good. The next morning when the phone rang, it would change his life forever.
On the morning of July 9 Rydell received a call from Jefferson Hospital and they said, “Get your ass over here.”
That was about 9:30 a.m. “We were there by noon, had all kinds of tests, and by 3 p.m., I was in the OR for the better part of 20 hours.”
“That was all because of a young lady named Julia from Reading. She had taken a bus trip to Atlantic City with her mother, and after returning, tragedy struck. Her mother had crossed the street and as Julia stepped off the curb, she was hit by a car. She was declared brain-dead at the hospital.”
Julia had chosen to be an organ donor and her choice gave hope and life to many people. Her mother was unaware that Julia had signed up to be a donor, but said, “If that’s what Julia wanted, do it.”
Rydell gets choked up as he talks about Julia, calling her “my angel.”
“She was only 21 years old — a beautiful girl. She saved not only me, but six other people.”
The primary recipient was a little 4-year-old girl from Philadelphia.
“The doctors split Julia’s liver. The little girl got 25 percent and I got 75 percent.”
“Later on, I discovered that there were 14 people ahead of me on the waiting list, but they turned it down because they didn’t want a partial liver. The liver is the only organ that regenerates, so now I have a complete liver and the little girl has a complete liver.”
His doctor said, “Bobby, somebody up there likes you.” Another doctor told Rydell’s wife that if he hadn’t gotten a liver, he would have been dead in two weeks.
“I believe it was a miracle,” Rydell said. “I think my purpose in life now is to let people know the importance of organ donorship. I’m a spokesman for an organization called Gift of Life that promotes organ donor awareness. It’s called different names in other places,” he said.
“If you’re not an organ donor, the next time you get your license, as a favor to me, become an organ donor,” he said.
“God has given me this second shot, and now I have to go out and spread the word.”
“It’s the gift of life, it really is.”
The Gift of Life Donor Program is the region’s nonprofit organ donation program serving Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
For more information on Gift of Life, visit www.donors1.org/?
BACK IN BUSINESS
Rydell was scheduled back on stage in Vegas just six months after his surgery. He wasn’t really sure if he still had the chops, so he set up a practice show at a friend’s club in Philadelphia.”
“I wanted to know what the hell was coming out of my throat,” he said. ”I did my charts and it scared the hell out of me — Thank God, it’s still there. Vocally, I’m singing better than in my whole life.
“Thanks to my doctors and Julia, I’m still doing it.”
Julia comes up often in his conversations, after all she’s a part of him now. His wife at one point suggested dedicating a song to her in his show, but it is not to be.
“I cry at Walt Disney films, “Bambi,” “Pinnochio” Rydell said.” I don’t think I could get through a song, I’d break up ...”
Just mentioning her name, he gets choked up.
March 29 has been declared Bobby Rydell Organ Donor Awareness Day by Pottstown and he will perform in concert with the Duprees and the First Ladies of Rock and Soul that day.
He performs Saturday, March 29, at the Stanley Davenport Performing Arts Center at Pottstown High School, 750 N. Washington St. in Pottstown.
Also performing will be the Duprees and The First Ladies of Rock and Soul, a 1960s girl group revue. The show starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $55 for reserved seats and $45 for general admission.
Tickets may be purchased by phone at 610-853-6776 or 610-306-9361, by mail at PO Box 912, Pottstown PA 19464. Checks should be made payable to Tom Coyle. To pay by credit card, go to www.FirstLadiesofRockandSoul.com
For more information on Bobby Rydell’s career and tour information, visit www.bobbyrydell.com.