EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES: In an extraordinary career that has spanned more than six decades, vocalist, drummer, actor, impressionist, author and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native Robert Louis "Bobby Rydell" Ridarelli (pictured above on the cover of his 1961 Bobby Rydell Salutes The Great Ones album for the legendary Cameo label) has overseen a career that was long blessed with remarkable accolades before personal tragedy nearly derailed his momentum on a permanent basis. Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell spoke at length with Bobby Rydell in July 2016 about these and other highlights of his remarkable legacy.
BORN WITH A SMILE:
BOBBY RYDELL DISCUSSES
JAZZ, ROCK AND ROLL, THE
GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK
AND HIS MIRACULOUS
TRIUMPH OVER TRAGEDY
By Michael McDowell
You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone.
In many respects, that landmark track from the Beach Boys’ 1972 So Tough - Carl And The Passions album defines the vaunted Hawthorne, California band’s storied career overall. For while the Beach Boys have endured, persevered and excelled as a band for more than a half century, their longevity has come with a price, both artistically and personally. With respect to the latter attribute, their circumstances have been chronicled at length elsewhere.
But in terms of aesthetic merit, much of their most revered output was the direct result of the creative autonomy exercised by bassist, co-founder and principal visionary, Brian Douglas Wilson. And while Wilson himself continues to operate at a level of genius far above the norm, he will nonetheless be among the first to acknowledge the inspirations that drove him to such creative heights.
In the music industry at large, two distinctive (and seemingly incongruous) approaches have defined the recording process. One is the creative autonomy process espoused by Wilson. The other is a “team approach”, in which the cream of each component of the process (composer, producer, arranger, session musicians, vocalists, etc.) join forces for the best possible results.
On a long term basis, there are some artists for whom anything but creative autonomy would be anathema to their mission statement, including the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry and the aforementioned Beach Boys. Conversely, a number of superb artists have excelled within their respective niche in the team approach, from Doris Day to Elvis Presley to Dean Martin. Occasionally, there has been the rare artist who has exceeded all expectations by flourishing in both settings, such as the Monkees have done for the past half century.
But to be certain, the key to succeeding and enduring within one’s respective niche as a component of the team approach is to rise far above the herd. To that effect, bassist Carol Kaye of the fabled Wrecking Crew has amassed a most impressive track record on her respective instrument for her role in that capacity in countless landmark sessions. In turn, pioneering entertainment giant Sammy Davis Junior found himself in constant demand in a variety of settings for his rare ability to approach a hugely diverse array of musical (and other) settings with absolute authority, and without compromising the essential components of heart and passion.
It is perhaps that elusive insight that has enabled the subject at hand to persevere at optimum level for more than six decades. Born Robert Louis Ridarelli in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 26 April 1942, the artist long known as Bobby Rydell was blessed with a musically-inclined father who was intent on imparting his wisdom and enthusiasm for the subject onto his son from the onset. Before the end of the 1940s, Rydell and his father had attended a number of key performances by some of the absolute masters of the jazz idiom. Particularly impacting on the younger Rydell was the virtuoso drummer (and veteran of ensembles led by Red McKenzie, Thelma Terry and Benny Goodman), Eugene Bertram “Gene” Krupa, which in turn inspired Rydell to pursue a career as a drummer.
Rydell’s first opportunity of consequence in that respect came with his successful audition in 1952 to become a regular member of the cast of Paul Samuel Whiteman’s TV Teen Club. An immensely respected veteran who had been an active musician since 1907, Whiteman afforded Rydell both a showcase and a reasonable amount of creative autonomy within the defined parameters of the program. In turn, Rydell responded with the assurance of a seasoned veteran in a variety of disciplines.
When Whiteman’s program was canceled months later, Rydell then directed his attention towards the ensemble setting. Having by that time nurtured his skills as a percussionist to a very respectable level, Rydell served in that capacity with a variety of bands throughout the mid-1950s (including the Skylarks and the Emanons); primarily playing dances and various other social functions throughout the greater Philadelphia area.
But by 1958, Rydell’s aspirations began to veer somewhat off course from his professed long term mission statement; albeit ultimately for the better in every respect. After a meeting involving Rydell’s father, Adrio “Al” Ridarelli and his manager Francesco “Frankie Day” Cocchi (himself a veteran of the great Billy Duke and the Dukes of I Know I Was Wrong fame), Rydell was signed to the up and coming Veko label. His premier Veko single, Dream Age / Fatty, Fatty was released in January 1959.
While both sides of that 45 irrefutably demonstrated Rydell’s considerable potential as a vocalist (with the B-side espousing a good natured novelty theme of sorts, not unlike that found in the Kingston Trio’s Coplas or Jim Lowe’s wonderfully screwy The Little Man In Chinatown), the Veko label ultimately proved to not be up to the challenge of providing the prerequisite support to assure the single’s success. Ironically, Dream Age provided labelmates Terri Cerrell and the Backbeats with Veko’s swan song via their rendition in September 1961. Meanwhile, Rydell’s Veko single was subsequently reissued by the Venise label in February 1962.
Undaunted, Rydell and his father, along with manager Day persevered with considerable diligence. Not surprisingly, their persistence was rewarded beyond their wildest expectations just weeks later, and literally right in their own backyard.
Since its inception in December 1956, the Philadelphia-based Cameo Records (and its affiliate Parkway label, which began operations in 1958) had established itself as one of the premier labels in all of music. Founded by former Teen Records head and renowned composer Bernard “Bernie Lowe” Lowenthal with one time comedy writer Kalman “Kal Mann” Cohen (with work for Red Buttons and Danny Thomas to his credit), Cameo (in tandem with the extraordinarily gifted arranger, producer and Applejacks co-founder, David Appell) by the end of 1957 had established a world class artist roster that included Don Gardner, Arlene DeMarco, Billy Scott, the Tommy Ferguson Trio, Ray Vernon, Timmie Rodgers, Billie and Lillie’s Lillie Bryant, the Rays (who were acquired from Robert Stanley “Bob” Crewe and Frank C. Slay’s XYZ label), Dave Appell’s Applejacks and the aptly named Cameos.
But most notable in the early success of Cameo was the signing of one of rock and roll’s absolute masters and visionaries, guitar virtuoso Charles Anthony “Charlie Gracie” Graci. Before the end of 1957, Gracie had firmly put Cameo Records on the map with two of rock and roll’s definitive classics, Butterfly (which the legendary Andy Williams had also recorded most admirably for Archie Bleyer’s Cadence label) and the utterly stupendous, two-sided rockabilly monster classic, Fabulous and Just Lookin’. Gracie’s profile was enhanced even further when actor and Dot Records recording artist, Arthur Andrew “Tab Hunter” Kelm respectfully and successfully covered Butterfly’s flip side, Ninety-Nine Ways.
Throughout 1958, Cameo’s presence increased exponentially, via the signings of such greats as the Storey Sisters (whose larger than life Bad Motorcycle single remains one of rock and roll’s absolute masterpieces), the Playboys (whose gorgeous, late 1957 Over The Weekend single was initially issued on Martinique Records and remains one of rock and roll’s finest examples of balladry) and the legendary Mike Pedicin Quintet. A one time labelmate of Gracie at 20th Century Records, Pedicin brought with him from 20th Century a frantic and astounding cover of Faye Adams’ Shake A Hand that easily ranks among rock and roll’s finest outings of all time.
However, despite those positive developments, Cameo suddenly found itself in a quandary with the departure of its signature artist, Gracie. The details of that saga can be found in Gracie’s essential 2014 autobiography, Rock & Roll’s Hidden Giant for Alfred Music Publishing.
All of which served to make Rydell’s initial meeting with Cameo in those early weeks of 1959 most fortuitous. An agreement was reached, contracts were signed, and Rydell made his debut for Cameo with the ambitious Please Don’t Be Mad / Makin’ Time single in February 1959.
Most tragically, the world of music was concurrently reeling from the horrific and untimely passing of three of its most impacting and enduring giants, Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly, Richard “Ritchie Valens” Valenzuela and Jiles Perry “Big Bopper” Richardson in an Iowa plane crash on the third of that month. And while those sad developments did not necessarily divert attention from Rydell’s Cameo debut, the team of Rydell, Mann, Lowe and Appell nonetheless returned to the studio shortly thereafter to cut an equally promising follow up single, All I Want Is You / For You, For You, which was released in May 1959. Therein, Rydell was irrefutably showcased as a vocalist with considerable acumen.
But it was with his third outing for Cameo that Rydell had at last earned the breakthrough that had been long in coming. Composed by Mann and Lowe and backed most capably by saxophonist Georgie Young and his band, the Rockin’ Bocs, Kissin’ Time was a flat out exuberant rocker of the highest order. Inspired in no small part by Chuck Berry’s Chess label Sweet Little Sixteen single, Kissin’ Time subsequently earned a cover version by Kiss and was the lead track in the first volume of suburban Detroit radio giant WKNR Keener 13’s four highly acclaimed Keenergold compilation albums.
It is with the release of Kissin’ Time that the extraordinary capabilities of both label and artist came into play. As Rydell noted in the ensuing interview, Cameo’s recording facilities at the time (which were housed in a high rise commercial building in Philadelphia) were not exactly state of the art, even by 1959 standards. While labels such as Decca, Capitol, Omega, RCA Victor and Laurie were by that time routinely releasing superbly recorded, mixed and produced stereo albums, Cameo instead relied primarily on the considerable capabilities of its principals to replicate such feats on a sonic and aesthetic level.
To the considerable credit of all concerned, each rose to the occasion most admirably. With Mann, Lowe and Appell attending to the technical aspects of the session, it was incumbent upon Rydell to live up to the challenge by delivering in world class manner. And that is exactly what he did not only on Kissin’ Time, but on such subsequent singles as We Got Love, Sway, Lovin’ Doll, Volare and his signature track, the utterly stupendous rocker, Wild One.
Rydell’s momentum continued unabated throughout his first two albums for the label, We Got Love and Bobby Sings, Bobby Swings. The latter album included the aforementioned Please Don’t Be Mad single, as well as a spirited rendition of Hank Williams’ prototypical rocker, Hey Good Lookin’.
But it was throughout that period that Cameo was forced to take a good, hard look at itself in that respect. While Mann, Lowe and Appell were to indeed be commended for the remarkable results they achieved with such modest equipment, it was obvious to all concerned that a technical upgrade was inevitable in the short term in order for the label to maintain its front runner status.
Interestingly enough, Cameo at that juncture was no stranger to such advances. While Rydell’s first two albums for the label were most disconcertingly issued only in monaural, Cameo concurrently experimented with stereo releases. They included An Adventure In Hi-Fi Music, an engaging collection of standards by NBC’s Today Show host Dave Garroway, which was released in stereo in 1958. And while interim releases by the Dixieland-inspired Infirmary Five and the charismatic actress/television compere Denise Darcel (which was aptly titled Banned In Boston) were likewise monaural only releases that year, Cameo rebounded technically in 1959 with a mood music offering by its own Dave Appell Quintet, as well as an instrumental album by keyboard virtuoso Bernie Leighton, both of which were released in stereo.
As Capitol Records learned the hard way in 1959, a contending label could not continue to release albums by its flagship artists only in the monaural configuration, as Capitol did in 1958-1959 with its first two albums by the Kingston Trio. In turn, Cameo wisely opted to upgrade conditions for Rydell. Subsequent tracks were cut in the far better equipped Reco-Art Studios, where Danny and the Juniors’ Dave White and his future Spokesmen collaborator John Madera would oversee the landmark sessions for the Mercury label debut album for the Pixies Three several years later.
True to form, Rydell rose to the occasion impeccably, with the resultant Bobby Rydell Salutes The Great Ones and Rydell At The Copa albums (both issued in 1961) at last showcasing his proven and formidable talents in the best possible light. The latter two albums were reissued in the CD configuration in 2010 by the now defunct Collector’s Choice label (with the Ace/Big Beat conglomerate overseeing the U.K. release), and were the subject of a rather glowing review in Blitz Magazine at that time.
Curiously, Cameo continued to vacillate in that respect throughout the remainder of Rydell’s tenure with the label. While the interim Bobby’s Biggest Hits, Volume One album was a monaural only release (in keeping with the source material), his summit meeting duet album with Parkway labelmate Ernest “Chubby Checker” Evans (released in late 1961) was again a monaural only release. Nonetheless, both artists delivered at maximum capability therein, with such ambitious fare as Voodoo (You Remind Me Of The Guy), their exuberant cover of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards’ 1927 signature track, Side By Side and the engaging “career exchange” tracks, Your Hits And Mine and Teach Me To Twist all underscoring the wisdom of such a joint venture.
Interestingly enough, Cameo at that juncture apparently took the necessity of such developments closer to heart than outward appearances might suggest. In the liner notes of that landmark Rydell/Checker collaboration, Rydell’s manager, Frankie Day observed that the studio itself featured, “harsh lighting and cold recording equipment”.
Not surprisingly, the label’s J.P. Byrne challenged that assertion in the sleeve notes of the early 1963 release, All The Hits Of 1962 Instrumental by keyboardsman Jack Pleis and His Orchestra. Therein, Byrne contended that the album’s tracks (including Pleis’ genial takes on familiar fare by Sammy Davis Junior, Tony Bennett, Kenny Ball, David Rose and His Orchestra, Mister Acker Bilk, Nat “King” Cole, Valjean, Ray Charles and others) were “(Enriched) and (colored with) the spectacular arrangements of Jack Pleis and (wrapped) in Cameo’s superior recording techniques to present the most exciting package to date”. Interestingly enough, the stereo mix of Pleis’ album sounds disconcertingly close to monaural throughout.
Undaunted by such behind the scenes developments, Rydell pressed ahead throughout 1962 and 1963 by continuing to maintain the integrity and high standards of the team approach. He did so with a series of releases that added considerably to both his legacy and that of Cameo Records, including I’ve Got Bonnie, I’ll Never Dance Again (which Herman’s Hermits covered on their second album, Herman’s Hermits On Tour in 1965), the sublime The Cha-Cha-Cha (with its heart wrenching flip side, The Best Man Cried), Steel Pier, Butterfly Baby, Let’s Make Love Tonight, the curious The Woodpecker Song and the masterful Wildwood Days and Forget Him.
Rydell’s momentum with albums also continued unabated throughout that period, highlighted by Wild (Wood) Days and his contributions to Cameo's All The Hits series. While each of those releases were again issued only in monaural, Rydell nonetheless soars on both; from the title track and spirited interpretations of staples by Eddie Cochran, Nat “King” Cole, the Beach Boys, the Tempos and Frankie Ford on the former to a rollicking reading of Bruce Channel’s Hey! Baby and a curiously non-regendered yet most compelling interpretation of the Shirelles’ Soldier Boy on the latter. Thankfully, Cameo again rose to the occasion at the end of 1963 by at least releasing Rydell’s Forget Him album (parts of which were recorded in the United Kingdom) in electronically rechanneled stereo. During that period, Rydell also guested (along with Cameo labelmate Dee Dee Sharp) on the acclaimed instructional/documentary album, You Be A Disc Jockey.
On top of that whirlwind of recording activity, Rydell continued to maintain a consistent presence in both television and film. In addition to frequent appearances on programs hosted by such beloved greats as Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Joey Bishop and George Burns, Rydell also became part of the all-star cast (which also included Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke, Ann-Margret, Maureen Stapleton, Ed Sullivan, Jesse Pearson and the great Paul Lynde) of the groundbreaking motion picture, Bye Bye Birdie in 1963. In October of the following year, Rydell made his dramatic television debut with a key role on an episode of ABC television’s military drama series, Combat.
In the meantime, Cameo most unnervingly found its momentum beginning to ebb unexpectedly. While both Cameo and Parkway continued to maintain world class rosters throughout 1963 and into 1964 (retaining label mainstays Chubby Checker, the Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp, the Orlons, the Tymes and Maynard Ferguson, who were joined by such proven and aspiring greats as folk rocker Peter Antell, the engaging Little Cheryl, the promising Bearcats, Swans and Dardenelles, actor turned first rate country crooner Clint Eastwood, veteran rocker Mark Dinning, jazz pioneer Clark Terry and television personalities Merv Griffin - who was a veteran of Freddy Martin’s Orchestra - and Candid Camera co-host Allen Funt as a bandleader), it was becoming apparent to both label and artist that Rydell’s interests would better be served by a label that was more in sync with the artistic vision he had developed by 1964.
So after leaving them with a parting gift of his first rate rendition of A World Without Love (which eventually reached its greatest notoriety via the interpretation by Peter Asher and the late Gordon Waller), Rydell signed with the Hollywood, California-based Capitol Records, then (as now) based on Vine Street, north of Hollywood Boulevard. With such notables as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Johnny Mercer, Leadbelly, Stan Kenton, Ray Anthony, the Kingston Trio, the Five Keys, Nelson Riddle, the Four Coquettes, Ron Goodwin, the Four Preps, June Christy and the Pastels, the Beach Boys, Hub Kapp and the Wheels, the Beatles, Sonny James, Tex Ritter, the Legends, Ferlin Husky and Nat “King” Cole having been a part of their vaunted artist roster at various points in time, Capitol was an ideal fit for Rydell as he continued to expand his musical mission statement exponentially.
While his October 1964 debut Capitol single, Two Is The Loneliest Number / I Just Can’t Say Goodbye understandably was lost among the abundance of great new releases from the Exports, the Detergents, Lee Rogers, Marianne Faithful, the Dave Clark Five, Nella Dodds, Travis Wammack and former Parkway labelmates, the Tymes that month, Rydell’s subsequent Somebody Loves You album for Capitol was among the best received LPs in his legacy to date. Produced by David Axelrod (who later went on to work with the Electric Prunes in that capacity) and with orchestra conducted by Jimmy Wisner (who had recorded the formidable instrumental Asia Minor for Felsted Records under the name Kokomo in 1961, based upon Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto In A Minor), Somebody Loves You includes a unique ballad remake of Paul Anka’s 1957 ABC Paramount single, Diana (which curiously took into consideration the inspiration of the Moonglows’ The Ten Commandments Of Love and Roy Hamilton’s Ebb Tide), along with memorable takes on Somethin’ Smith and the Redheads’ It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie and Richard Heyman and His Orchestra’s Dansero. Oddly enough, neither side of Rydell’s debut Capitol single were included in that album.
But by 1965, first generation garage rock, rhythm and blues and country were each contributing significantly to what was ultimately the most richly diverse musical atmosphere in history. In turn, first rate albums and singles were being produced at such high volume, that many of them continue to be discovered and lauded more than a half century after their release.
In the process, although his output for Capitol continued unabated throughout 1965 and 1966 with such memorable singles as The Joker, The Word For Today, Not You and the Milton Berle-penned You Gotta Enjoy Joy, Rydell’s momentum was sidelined for a season via his induction into military service. Upon his discharge, Rydell returned to form by signing with Warner Brothers’ affiliate Reprise label.
In addition to such label front runners as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Reprise in 1967 boasted one of the most diverse and formidable rosters in all of music, including Trini Lopez, the Kinks, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Spike Drivers, the Mojo Men, Dino Desi & Billy, Miriam Makeba, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, the Mitchell Trio, Donna Loren, Buddy Greco, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, Don Ho, Jimmy Bowen, the Electric Prunes, Noel Harrison, Arlo Guthrie, Sammy Davis Junior, the MC2, the First Edition, the Rubber Band, Charles Aznavour, Bing Crosby, the Blossoms and Brook Benton. Rydell celebrated his new label affiliation by returning to the studio in December 1967 and providing Reprise with their first release of 1968, the ambitious folk rocker, The Lovin’ Things in January of that year.
Originally recorded by its co-author, Artie Schroeck in 1967 and covered later in 1968 by both December’s Children and Marmalade, The Lovin’ Things of course later became one of many covers in the Grass Roots’ vast singles repertoire for Dunhill Records. Meanwhile, Rydell followed up The Lovin’ Things with two more singles for Reprise before year’s end, with The River Is Wide (a decidedly uptempo remake of the 1967 high drama original by the Forum, which ultimately again padded the Grass Roots’ covers repertoire) in May and Every Little Bit Hurts just weeks later.
Despite a one-off single with RCA Victor (It Must Be Love) in August 1970, Rydell spent much of the 1970s increasingly turning his attention towards live performance. However, he did resurface briefly in 1973 and 1974 with two new singles for Perception; another label with a richly diverse roster that counts trumpet virtuoso John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, rhythm and blues great J.J. Jackson, veteran garage rockers Golden Earring and future Beach Boys collaborator Ron Altbach’s King Harvest among its alumni.
Yet by 1976, with the burgeoning punk and new wave movement finding many of its most impacting exponents championing the work of such pioneers as Bobby Rydell as key inspirations, Rydell was back in the studio with a vengeance. The resultant Born With A Smile album for Pickwick’s affiliate P.I.P. label is arguably among his finest releases overall. From those sessions also came a most inspired remake of his 1960 signature Cameo single, Wild One, with more than a perfunctory nod to (and profession of solidarity with) the Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself.
With such impressive accolades to his credit at that point, it would stand to reason that Rydell’s tale is a textbook example of unabated blessings. Indeed, he closed out the twentieth century in like manner, recording occasionally and developing an ongoing working relationship with fellow Philadelphia-based rock and roll veterans, Francis Thomas “Frankie Avalon” Avallone and Fabiano Anthony “Fabian” Forte. Rydell, Forte and Avalon continue to perform prolifically as the Golden Boys to the present day, to considerable acclaim.
However, with the onset of the twenty-first century, Rydell’s momentum began to go into a tailspin, due to unforeseen circumstances that were beyond his control. It is at that juncture in the following exchange with Blitz Magazine that the highly unusual step of breaking with journalistic protocol was taken. For while the basic tenets of journalism demand a nearly unwavering adherence to the third person perspective on the part of the interviewer, in this extraordinary situation, both interviewer and interviewee shared a common bond borne of intense personal tragedy. In both cases, each endured what some within the medical profession have deemed the most stressful challenge within the human experience, witnessing the death of a spouse.
For Bobby Rydell, that moment came in 2003, as he watched his beloved wife of more than thirty-five years (the former Camille Quattrone) succumb to cancer. While professionals who work with those undergoing the grief process all concur that the healing process varies widely with each individual, in Rydell’s case, the resultant protracted mourning period prompted him to turn to alcohol for solace. That downward momentum continued unabated throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, despite repeated attempts at intervention, encouragement and counseling by Avalon, Forte and others. Ultimately, those circumstances led to multiple organ failure, which necessitated both transplants and heart surgery.
During his recovery, Rydell maintained a genial correspondence with Blitz Magazine’s Audrey McDowell, who had been an outspoken champion of the organ donor process. When Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell watched in horror as Audrey abruptly succumbed to a major stroke and brain hemorrhage in October 2014, it immediately gave him the common bond with Rydell as most reluctant members of that unique club of individuals who were abruptly plunged into widowhood.
Most encouragingly for Rydell, he has in recent years seen the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. He has been most happily married to Linda Hoffman since 2009. And as the result of no small amount of prayer from Frankie Avalon and many others, he has rebounded to the point where he has resumed a highly demanding live performance schedule with a vengeance, with his formidable musical skills intact.
In the process, he has also authored (in tandem with Allan Slutsky) a comprehensive and most candid autobiography, Teen Idol On The Rocks for the Cherry Hill, New Jersey-based Doctor Licks Publishing. As was the case with recent autobiographies by radio legend (and former fellow Cameo recording artist) Jerry Blavat and the Five Americans’ co-founder, Mike Rabon, Teen Idol On The Rocks is rife with an atmosphere of candor that is certain to confound the expectations of even the most learned of Rydell scholars and aficionados. With endorsements and accolades from such vaunted colleagues as Little Anthony And The Imperials’ Anthony Gourdine, veteran rocker Dion DiMucci, pioneering vocalist Steve Lawrence, radio legend Brucie Morrow, fellow rocker James Darren, Bye Bye Birdie co-star and RCA Victor Records alumnus Ann Margret, plus colleagues Fabian Forte and Frankie Avalon, as well as the aforementioned Jerry Blavat and the late Frank Sinatra Junior, Rydell therein discusses in great detail many of the aforementioned personal and professional highlights of his career, as well as the tragedies that nearly brought that career to a premature conclusion.
As such, in the following exchange with Bobby Rydell (which transpired on Tuesday the twelfth of July 2016, just hours prior to Major League Baseball’s annual All Star game), the first person exchanges therein out of sheer necessity turned from tragedy to common interests, including baseball, his forthcoming appearance in a major motion picture, the possibility of the release of a comprehensive collection of his Cameo-era works by ABKCO (the label which currently oversees the Cameo-Parkway catalog) and his latent interest in committing his formidable skills as a percussionist to record in an ensemble setting. To be certain, it was most encouraging to come to the conclusion that the artist who was seemingly Born With A Smile not only has ongoing reason through the grace of God to maintain such a positive expression, but continues through his work and inspiration to generate and sustain that reaction in others.
BLITZ: Your autobiography is one of the few books of its kind that is compelling enough to entice the reader to go through it in its entirety without putting it down.
RYDELL: Thank you, Mike. You know, I get that a lot. Many of the people that I have talked to so far, even in terms of the reviews of the book, say the same thing.
BLITZ: There is a rare candor in there that only comes to mind as having been a factor in two other such autobiographies. One is the book by radio legend Jerry Blavat. The other is the autobiography by the Five Americans’ Mike Rabon, High Strung. In all three instances, in terms of their respective impact on the reader, no matter what one’s perception was previously, each book confounds expectations.
RYDELL: My co-author Alan Slutsky and myself, wanted it to be that way. I think it came off just the way we wanted it.
BLITZ: In the book, you mentioned that your father, Al often took you to concerts. It was at one such concert that you saw drummer Gene Krupa live. From your perspective, that was the turning point in which you said that you not only wanted to be a drummer, but an all around entertainer. As such, would it be within reason to cite your father as a major musical inspiration, even peripherally?
RYDELL: Oh absolutely! I was five years old. My father loved big bands. One Saturday afternoon, he took me to see Benny Goodman. At that early age, I didn’t know Benny Goodman from a hole in the wall! It was at a place called the Earle Theatre. When I went in there, there was this guy by the name of Gene Krupa, who I didn’t know, either. All I knew was that he was the drummer in the band.
When I saw him play at five years old, I turned to my father and said, “I don’t know who that guy is, but I want to be him!” So I started playing drums at five or six years old.
BLITZ: Ultimately, that may have had a peripheral impact, too. A few years later, you found yourself as a regular presence on Paul Whiteman’s television show. Not only was that show ahead of its time, but Whiteman was someone who was a seasoned and respected veteran of an entirely different era, and he made the transition well. So that may well have been a factor for you in putting together your own mission statement.
RYDELL: Oh yeah, absolutely. When I did his show, I was ten years old. I won on his show by doing imitations.
There was a record I had heard that Sammy Davis Junior had recorded, the song Because Of You. On one side, he did actors doing singers. On the other side, singers doing actors. So I won on the show by doing actors doing singers, to the tune of Because Of You.
After I won on the show, I became a regular in the production numbers, and so forth. But then the show went off of the air. So at eleven years old, I was out of work!
BLITZ: In the interim, you began to transition into the role of drummer, and played with several bands.
RYDELL: I’ve always loved the instrument. To this day, I still have a set downstairs in my living room that I bought from my old drum teacher, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. But yeah, I played in a lot of bands here in Philadelphia. We did dances, weddings and stuff like that.
There were no big bands around at the time. So we just got a bunch of guys together who were very talented players. You get a saxophone, a guitar, a bass player and sometimes just an accordion. Then you go out and play! We played the tunes that were happening.
My big love was always listening to big bands, and the different drummers who played with those orchestras. As far as drummers are concerned, I have many, many favorites. One of course was the guy who started me off, Gene Krupa. After Krupa, there were quite a few. There was Louis Bellson and Buddy Rich. My favorite big band drummer was Mel Lewis, with Thad Jones at the Village Vanguard in New York. The instrument has always been an integral part of my life.
BLITZ: You mentioned the Village Vanguard, which was also a showcase years later for Elvin Jones as part of the John Coltrane Quartet.
RYDELL: I saw Elvin Jones live! I’m trying to remember. I saw Elvin, but I don’t believe he was yet a part of Coltrane’s band at that time. He had his own trio or quartet at the time.
He really was a different kind of a player. All of those guys were back then. You pick him, you pick Art Blakey, and when you are playing a big band chart and there is a press roll, it would say that you want this press roll to be exactly like Art Blakey’s press roll! He was famous for that, and then he’d hit a crash cymbal!
So I became a jazz freak, as well. A lot of the great players were either in big bands, quartets or trios. I loved that era. I really did.
I remember seeing a guy with whom I became very friendly, Buddy Rich. He was at Birdland in 1961 with a quartet. Sam Most on flute, Mike Manieri on vibes. I forgot who the bass player was (Bill Ruther - Ed.), and Buddy.
BLITZ: Despite all of that impact, influence and opportunity, it nonetheless took you until 1958 before you actually released a record under your own name. That would have been the Dream Age / Fatty, Fatty single on the Veko label.
As near as can be determined, the Veko label only released three records totally, and yours was the first of them.
RYDELL: Correct. They were a couple of guys that were from the Washington / Baltimore area. They convinced my manager and my father to put up some money to record me. Then I recorded those goofy tunes, Dream Age and Fatty, Fatty. But those two guys, whoever they were, absconded with the tapes! And that’s why they are out today.
BLITZ: Even though Veko only had three releases, they nonetheless came along at a time when independent labels were flourishing. There were prominent independent labels such as Candlelight, Herald and Gee. And one such independent, Morris Levy’s Roulette Records eventually became a major label.
Given that atmosphere for potential, what kind of proposal for a mission statement did Veko make to you? Was it along the lines of, “We’re gonna make you a star?”
RYDELL: As a matter of fact, they didn’t even talk to me. They talked to my manager at the time, Frankie Day. They said something to him and my dad in that particular light, to the effect of, “We’re gonna make your client a big recording star!” But of course nothing happened with them.
BLITZ: Thankfully, early in 1959, you joined forces with Cameo Records, which remains widely respected as one of the premier labels in all of music. Cameo already had established a very impressive artist roster by that time, which included Charlie Gracie, the Storey Sisters and the Mike Pedicin Quintet. Although their tenure with the label slightly preceded yours, did you ever have a chance to work with any of them?
RYDELL: I worked with Mike’s son, Mike Pedicin Junior at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City not too long ago. Mike Pedicin Junior was the contractor of the band. We had a seventeen piece orchestra there. It was absolutely marvelous!
Bernie Lowe, who was the president of Cameo, was the piano player for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. And I of course appeared on the Paul Whiteman Teen Club show when I was ten years old. So he went from being their piano player to seven years later being my boss at Cameo!
BLITZ: By that time, the Storey Sisters had already moved on from Cameo. So presumably you did not have a chance to work with them.
RYDELL: I remember them. But I never had a chance to work with them. But Charlie Gracie and I are very dear friends.
BLITZ: In your book, you noted that Cameo’s studios were very basic and rudimentary. It was surprising to read your observation that everything recorded there at the time was done in one or two track monaural.
RYDELL: Absolutely! Cameo’s office was at 1405 Locust Street. It was in a building on the fourteenth floor. It was there that I recorded the single that became my first real hit at Cameo, Kissin’ Time. It was a group on there that always played in Wildwood, New Jersey, Georgie Young and the Rockin’ Bocs.
Georgie Young was a marvelous saxophonist. It got to the point where he could play alto, tenor, soprano and baritone smoothly. He played all of the reed instruments.
The studio was a little two by four studio. We had an Ampex reel to reel tape recorder, and that was it! One or two tracks!!
BLITZ: It is a testament to the genius and foresight of Kal Mann, Bernie Lowe or even Dave Appell that most of the Cameo and Parkway records released at that time had such a full, well arranged and punched up sound, despite being produced under such conditions.
RYDELL: Absolutely! That was all because of Dave Appell. Not only was he a great arranger and guitar player, but he was really good behind the board, as well. Dave was behind the board on Kissin’ Time, and Bernie was the guy who listened to what was coming through the board.
As we moved from there, we went to a studio called Reco-Art, which became Sigma Sound. Joe Tarsia was the engineer there. I recorded with Joe.
Reco-Art, where I recorded a lot of the hit records, had a tremendous sound. A really, really great sound. It was a really big, fat sound.
When Joe Tarsia took over from the original guy who owned the studio, Emil was his name, that studio just developed a phenomenal sound. Joe told me later that to get the reverb, Emil used to put the microphone in the long corridor, which would feed down into the board. The sound he got was absolutely tremendous!
BLITZ: It was, and the interesting thing about it was that in comparison, the saxophone and vocal on Kissin’ Time were punched up in like manner, even under those relatively more challenging conditions. You probably didn’t even have sound on sound to work with in two track monaural.
RYDELL: And Kissin’ Time didn’t have any of the background voices yet. Just Georgie Young and his group, the Rockin’ Bocs.
But for the next record, We Got Love, we recorded it at Bell Sound in New York City. The group that backed me up on that one was the Ray Charles Singers, who used to do The Perry Como Show.
Then we went back to Philadelphia to record Wild One at Reco-Art. That’s when we added the three girls. You know, the ones that made my sound so familiar with the “Whoa, whoas”, the “Yeah, yeahs” and stuff like that.
How they recorded, I don’t know what they did back there. But honestly, it was magic!
BLITZ: What is interesting about Kissin’ Time was the obvious inspiration therein of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. Did he ever offer you any feedback on your own record after it was released?
RYDELL: No, but Bernie Lowe was great with that kind of stuff. He was absolutely marvelous. He would listen to a record that was out at that particular time. He would cop that particular sound, but not exactly. It was pretty close!
I remember a story regarding my dear friend Frankie Avalon, when he recorded Why. That was of course a big hit for Frankie.
BLITZ: On Chancellor Records in 1960.
RYDELL: Right. The publishers and writers of In A Little Spanish Town sued them! Frankie’s record was, (sings) “I’ll never let you go, why because I love you so”. And In A Little Spanish Town was, (sings) “In a little Spanish town”. But Pete DeAngelis, who had arranged the song, said, “I never heard the record, In A Little Spanish Town”.
BLITZ: Peter DeAngelis was an original. He recorded his own hit single for Chancellor, The Happy Mandolin, which was one of the most unique sounding instrumentals released up to that point. He was far too creative to just arbitrarily copy another artist.
RYDELL: Yeah, you’re right! Gosh…..
BLITZ: You’re preaching to the choir! Blitz Magazine loves those types of records. Anyway, in terms of diverse fare, your debut Cameo album, We Got Love includes Because Of You and That’s My Desire. You also cover Ray Charles’ What’d I Say, plus You Were Made For Me and Lovin’ Doll. Was the intention there to establish you as a master of stylistic diversity, rather than being an exponent of just one genre?
RYDELL: You know, Mike, I really don’t know. That was all up to the powers that be, meaning Bernie Lowe, Dave Appell and Kal Mann. They were the ones who picked the material. I guess that when we did that first album, they knew that I had the chops and that I was able to sing a wide variety of material, like That’s My Desire and the Tony Bennett tune, Because Of You.
Going back to my dad, I was always in tune with that kind of music at a very early age. After he introduced me to big band music, I started listening to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Then later on, I started listening to a lot of jazz greats. So I guess they knew at Cameo that I had some kind of chops!
BLITZ: You we also an established drummer at that point. Was there ever any intention to showcase you in that capacity on one of those Cameo albums?
RYDELL: You know, I wish that they would have thought about that. That would have been great, even for a throwaway album. If I could have gone into the studio on Cameo and played drums with big band charts, it would have been a lot of fun!
BLITZ: In the meantime, at least from the standpoint of singles, you were still pursuing rock and roll. In many respects, Wild One was a consummate rock and roll record. All of the elements which make a rock and roll record great were in place on that track. Plus it was executed at one hundred percent. What was the session like for that single?
RYDELL: If you remember the Saturday night Dick Clark show, which emanated out of New York City, I did that show. It was either Kissin’ Time or We Got Love. We were going back to Philadelphia in a limo. Dave Appell always had his guitar with him, and a pipe in his mouth!
In the back of the limo, he took out his guitar. He said, “When we get back home to Philly, this is what your next recording is going to be”. He started strumming the guitar with that pipe in his mouth and went (sings the instrumental intro of Wild One). He showed me the lyric. I read the lyric and melody, went into Reco-Art and recorded it. It became the first million seller! I don’t know if it was really a hard rock and roll record.
BLITZ: Nonetheless, it has the groove. It is in some respects similar to Fabian Forte’s Turn Me Loose, in that the emphasis is on attitude.
RYDELL: Absolutely! As a matter of fact, there is a funny story about Turn Me Loose. You know that Frankie Avalon, Fabian and myself do a show together called The Golden Boys. We were doing a show for President Reagan at Ford’s Theatre. Fabe was coming in from Hawaii, so he couldn’t make the rehearsal. So the producer of the show asked me if I could do Turn Me Loose.
Rosemary Clooney was sitting in the audience. We had a big band behind me. Fabian’s chart, when he does that song live, is a big band chart. It’s almost a feel like Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life. So when the producer asked me to sing it, I did it like Frank! Rosemary Clooney was laughing her “a” off!
BLITZ: There is a tie in along those lines with one of your follow up singles. Swingin’ School pretty much sustained that momentum. But there is a little aside in there that, in light of the context of your autobiography, reveals the inner man versus the stage persona. In particular, the call and response between the background singers and yourself, “When they sing, “Oh Bobby oh, everything’s cool”, you say, “That’s cool”, as if to say, “I’m the cool guy”, or “I’m the one in charge”. Was that intentional?
RYDELL: Ha! You know, I can’t remember if that was written in, or if I just said it off of the top of my wig.
BLITZ: In terms of single releases, you were about to change direction. In your book, you mention that you traveled to Italy and had a summit meeting with Domenico Modugno, who of course was the composer of Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu. What were some of the highlights of that meeting, and what was his reaction to your reinterpretation of his standard as Volare?
RYDELL: He was absolutely wonderful. As a matter of fact, when I went to see him, there was a club somewhere in Brooklyn. I don’t remember the name of the club. I had just recorded Volare, and my version was out. I was in the audience, he called me up and we did Volare together.
Maybe a year later, I was touring throughout Europe. I went over to Italy, the U.K., Sweden and Denmark. We were all over the joint! But I had the good fortune of spending quality time with Modugno at his villa in Rome.
There were a lot of pictures in the teen magazines of him at the piano, with the both of us singing, and him talking to me. He spoke some Italian to me, and we went out to lunch at some Italian restaurant. It was truly marvelous. He was a wonderful guy and a great writer.
I remember doing the San Remo Festival in Italy in 1964. I sang a song called Un Baccio Piccalissimo. It had to be done all in Italian. There was another guy there by the name of Gino Paoli, who sang a song called Leri Ho Incontrato Mia Madre, which was The Day I Saw My Mother. It was a great tune! It was written by Domenico Modugno.
BLITZ: In the early 1960s, you also began to tour frequently throughout Australia. While you were there, did you ever have a chance to meet or work with some of the legendary rock and roll pioneers based there, such as Johnny O’Keefe, Col Joye or Dig Richards?
RYDELL: Oh absolutely, yeah! Johnny O’Keefe and I became very, very good friends. As a matter of fact, I did his TV show.
BLITZ: Six O’Clock Rock.
RYDELL: Yeah! It was not unlike American Bandstand. He was very, very popular and we became very close. With me touring Australia twenty-three times beginning in 1960, Johnny would come to see me.
Col Joye and I are really, really close. Every time I go there, he always comes to see me. We have dinner together. He’s just a wonderful guy.
There was another guy based in Australia who couldn’t get arrested in the United States, Johnny Farnham. He was phenomenal! He was once the lead singer of the Little River Band. He’s got chops that are unbelievable, but he couldn’t get arrested here!
BLITZ: Actually, he was signed to Capitol in the United States as a solo artist in the late 1960s, at which time he released the single, Sadie (The Cleaning Lady).
RYDELL: Really? I didn’t know that! But he’s good. He’s marvelous.
BLITZ: You were also all over the map in terms of genre. To wit, when you recorded the Bobby Sings, Bobby Swings album in 1960, you included a cover of Hank Williams’ Hey Good Lookin’. Was Hank Williams also an inspiration?
RYDELL: You know, Mike, it was like I said earlier. All of the things I did at Cameo came from Bernie Lowe, Kal Mann and Dave Appell. When we went in to do Bobby Sings, Bobby Swings, or Bobby Salutes The Great Ones with the caricatures of Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson and Bing Crosby on the cover, that was all their idea.
When I went in to record that type of material, I just loved being in the studio! It was great for my career. The tunes were from the Great American Songbook, which I absolutely adored.
BLITZ: It was with the Bobby Rydell Salutes The Great Ones and Rydell At The Copa albums that Cameo finally began to issue your albums in stereo. What sort of effect and/or impact did the transition to stereo have on the way that you approached your work in the studio?
RYDELL: You know, I really didn’t know! All I knew was that the musicians were in the studio, they put a microphone in front of me, and I sang. What was going on in the booth? I haven’t got the slightest idea!
I can remember that when we recorded We Got Love at Bell Sound, Bernie Lowe was in the booth. Dave was out in the studio, conducting the session. Bernie kept saying through the microphone, “Dave, I can’t hear the bass!”
For three days in a row, we went to Bell Sound to record We Got Love. But the record that was released was the second take from the first day! What was going on in the studio and on the board, as far as what they were doing electronically, I haven’t a clue. I just went out there with the orchestra and the microphone, and just sang.
BLITZ: There must have been some sort of increase in technological awareness at least on their part as the new decade progressed. You recorded a number of cover versions for Cameo, such as Marcie Blane’s Bobby’s Girl, the Tornadoes’ Telstar, the Exciters’ Tell Him, the Earls’ Remember Then and Johnny Thunder’s Loop De Loop. The arrangements on your renditions are not only remarkably close to those found on the earlier, original versions, but your own vocal delivery was also fairly close to those found on the originals.
RYDELL: I woodshedded all of that stuff. When I did the albums for Cameo like Bobby Sings The Hits Of 1963, whether it be a Dion thing like Ruby Baby, I would listen to those particular artists and see what they did with the record. I was not trying to imitate them, because I wanted it to be the Bobby Rydell sound doing those particular hit records. I think it all came off that way.
BLITZ: There was also an ongoing practice at that time at Cameo, and it’s not clear as to whether or not it was due to artistic license. But for example, you recorded a track called Cherie, which was directly inspired by the Gladiolas / Diamonds classic, Little Darlin’. Conversely, you did a track around the same time called The Fish, which ultimately became the prototype for Claudine Clark when she recorded Party Lights. Did you ever get feedback from any of those artists about those particular tracks?
RYDELL: Nothing whatsoever. I remember when I recorded The Fish. I was on American Bandstand, lip syncing the record. I didn’t know what the dance was about, and I didn’t know how to do it! I just went out there and lip synced that record. Kids across the country were saying, “He’s singing Do The Fish. But how do we do the Fish?” I didn’t know!
BLITZ: Do you think that train of thought might have tied in with the project that you did with Chubby Checker, when you sang Teach Me To Twist? Perhaps it was a playful look at the pecking order of the artists on the label!
RYDELL: Aw, well, you know, possibly! It’s just that Chubby was so hot, and I was so hot, that they put the both of us together. It really is a great album, and it was a big selling album for Cameo.
When my book came out and we did the press party in New York at Patsy’s, Paul Schafer was at the press party. Paul came up to me and he said, “Bob, I love that album you did with Chubby Checker. One of my favorites is that tune, Your Hits And Mine. I love that tune! Let’s try and do something. Let’s get together and re-record it!”
BLITZ: You were nonetheless part of some of the technological advances going on at Cameo at the time, as you were an integral part in the instructional album, You Be A Disc Jockey, where veteran announcer Don Bruce taught the listener how to be a radio announcer. Therein, you and Dee Dee Sharp both weighed in with interviews, break ins and the like.
RYDELL: My God, Mike, I only vaguely remember that! I remember that I sat with my manager, Frankie Day when I was very, very young. He wanted to interview me, because he didn’t want me to respond with the one-syllable answers, or “Yes, I did, thank you”. In other words, elaborate on the questions that were being asked of you. I learned how to do an interview at an early age.
BLITZ: Frankie Day’s strategy must have worked, because not only were you an increasing presence in television, but you also landed a starring role in the motion picture, Bye Bye Birdie. One of the attributes that contributed to that film’s success, besides the fact that it was well written, well produced and well executed, was the all star cast. In particular, it must have been an adventure working on the set with someone like Paul Lynde, who was known for an abstract and outspoken sense of humor. Would you say that contributed in part to keeping the proceedings going?
RYDELL: It was just a great cast! Not only Paul, but also Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke, Maureen Stapleton, Ann Margret and myself. It was a great feeling to go to the set every day. Everybody got along well.
I’m sure there were times, I don’t remember, as this was all back in 1963. But there were times where Paul Lynde did his Paul Lynde stuff, and everybody fell apart, and the directors yelled, “Cut!” If I had the opportunity to do just one motion picture, I’m so proud to be in Bye Bye Birdie, because it’s a classic.
BLITZ: In 1964, you found yourself parting ways with Cameo. Even though Cameo had pretty much put your career on the map, you nonetheless signed with Capitol that year. What was your perspective of Cameo’s circumstances at that time?
RYDELL: I think Bernie knew by that particular time that things were not happening with the label. It was kind of dying. Bernie said to Frankie Day, “Why don’t you make a move with Bobby? Because at this juncture, we’re really not doing anything”. So we made the move to Capitol.
BLITZ: While you were at Capitol, you recorded one particular cut for the Somebody Loves You album that, while it might not have been entirely in sync with what you had been doing at the time, nonetheless would have made a great single, which was your version of Richard Hayman’s 1953 classic, Dansero. Did you approach that session as such?
RYDELL: No, and again, whoever the A&R people were there at that particular time, they are the ones who supplied all of the material that I did on Capitol.
There is one particular tune on Capitol. I was a regular on The Milton Berle Show. And while I was there, Milton wrote a song, You Gotta Enjoy Joy. I recorded that one on Capitol.
All of the big, heavy musicians in Los Angeles were there. Louis Bellson was on the date. It’s a great tune. The chart was written by Bob Florence, who was one of the great big band arrangers and jazz people on the west coast. It was an absolute ball!
There are a couple of things on (the CD reissue), that Bob Florence wrote. One is a really nice ballad called Blue For You. Then we did a big band version of Mohair Sam.
BLITZ: The Charlie Rich single.
RYDELL: Yeah. People really loved a lot of the stuff that I did on Capitol.
BLITZ: Frank Sinatra then signed you to Reprise, which had one of the most diverse artist rosters of any label, including the Kinks, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Dean Martin, the Spike Drivers, Nancy Sinatra, Trini Lopez, and others. They were all over the map!
RYDELL: And they had Sammy Davis and me! I remember the old man saying to me, “Bobby, I’d love to have you on the label”.
So I said, “Well, Mister Sinatra, how much do I owe you and what time do you want me to be there?” Ha!
BLITZ: As the 1960s progressed, there was the rise of garage band rock and psychedelia. You began to turn your attention more towards live performance at that time. You also served in the United States military, signed with Reprise and got married to Camille. Still you managed to work a lot of live dates. That was a tough time for veteran artists. How did you survive that era?
RYDELL: That’s a tough question to answer. Being so very lucky early in my career to be able to work with people like Red Skelton, Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, Perry Como and Danny Thomas, if you are any kind of a student, you could do nothing but learn from those people.
I did. I learned a lot from all of those great people that I worked with, as far as timing and how to deliver a line. I think that’s what kept me going through all of those years, when things were not that great. I continued to nurture my craft. And I think that’s why I’m still around at seventy-four years old today, and still doing what I love doing.
BLITZ: Even so, throughout that period, when veteran artists often found themselves having to fight their way back in, you returned to the studio with a vengeance in 1976, when you did the Born With A Smile album for P.I.P. Even though that was during the height of the disco movement, you still made a strong case for stylistic diversity. For example, the title track is obviously inspired by the Turtles’ She’d Rather Be With Me. And the arrangement on the remake of your Wild One single on that album is straight out of the Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself.
RYDELL: Heh, heh! I don’t know, Mike. Disco was big at the time. So we thought we’d go for it. The other one that I thought was a great record and was starting to happen for me, but it fell apart, was (the remake of) Sway.
BLITZ: The album overall nonetheless carries with it an undercurrent of a cerebral element. Were you perhaps trying to raise the bar for a new potential audience?
RYDELL: No, I just went in there and sang like Bobby Rydell would have sang. I think that’s the way the results came out.
You know, I’m really happy with the way I’m singing now. My chops feel phenomenal! At this particular point in my career, I can sing just about anything I want to sing. But that album was me going in, having a lot of fun, and just enjoying what I was doing.
BLITZ: To that effect, in 2000, you released an album called Now And Then for the R.D.R. label, which combined remakes of ten of your Cameo tracks with your versions of ten standards. Saul Davis was one of the co-producers. What do you recall from that particular project?
RYDELL: The only thing I recall from that project was that I said to my wife Camille at the time, “I think I’m going to open up a restaurant!”
“What do you know about the restaurant business?”, she said.
“Absolutely nothing”, I said.
So she said, “You put money into the things that you do. So why don’t you put money into an album of the things you love to do?”
So I got together with Mike Pedicin Junior, and a trumpet player by the name of Evan Solot, who did all of the arranging on Now And Then. We went for it, and I picked the tunes. We did some things with a quartet, some with a trio, and the other stuff with brass, reeds and strings.
They were tunes that I loved to do, like Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered and Here’s That Rainy Day. We did some other little things.
One of the tunes that came off really well was a tune that Kal Mann wrote for his wife, Esther. That song was You’re The Greatest. I always loved that tune. So we went in with just vibes, bass, drums, and that was it. It’s a good album!
BLITZ: You did mention your wife, Camille. Sadly, there is a personal connection there, and you did discuss this at great length in your book. It was not long after that album was completed that Camille became seriously ill. Tragically, that hit home.
You probably recall that my wife, Audrey was one of your friends, and that you used to communicate with her on Facebook. You exchanged communications frequently because she was an organ donor, and you were an organ recipient. As you are also aware, Audrey passed away from a major stroke and brain hemorrhage a little more than a year and a half ago. So sadly there is that connection between us.
You did discuss your long range reaction to Camille’s passing in the book. But in the immediate aftermath of her passing, how did you manage to pick yourself up off of the floor? In all honesty, some of us find ourselves still trying to do so, long after the fact.
RYDELL: Oh, my God (sighs). You know, when Camille passed away, that was in 2003. We were married for thirty-six years and had two children.
I’m sure you felt the same way, Mike, when your wife passed away. It left a big void. There is nobody there. There was nobody to lay in bed with, nobody to talk to, nobody to laugh with, nobody to cry with, nobody to tell stories to.
But then I turned to the bottle. I became an alcoholic because of that. I drank for a lot of years. That resulted in the point where I needed a liver and a kidney.
In the hospital here in Philadelphia in 2010, there was one doctor who told me, “Bobby, if you don’t stop drinking, you’re going to be dead in two years!”
So I figured, “If I’m gonna be dead in two years, I’m gonna go out swingin’!”
But he was right on the money. I came close to dying. In 2012, on the ninth of July, was when I had the double transplant. And that’s why the book is titled, Teen Idol On The Rocks: A Tale Of Second Chances. I got the new liver. I got the new kidney. And I got a second chance at life to do what I really enjoy doing.
BLITZ: In the book, you credited Frankie Avalon, Fabian and maybe to a lesser extent Ann Margret as being your encouragers to get you through that whole challenging era with a bit of tough love.
RYDELL: Actually, Ann didn’t really know until she read the book! She called me and she said, “Bobby, I didn’t know all of the problems that you had. God bless you for realizing it and getting yourself together!”
Frankie and Fabe both knew that I had a problem. They kind of put up with me because, as much as I drank, when the downbeat came and I hit the stage, I was always there.
Even though they knew I had a problem, it wasn’t until later on while doing the Golden Boys that it became apparent. The drinking was starting to affect me to the point where people knew. Bookings were not coming in, because they knew I had a problem.
I got on stage, and if I did twenty minutes, I figured, “That’s enough, because I’ve gotta have a drink!”
But they were always there for me. And even though Ann didn’t know, when she called me, she said, “You have my number, please call me. I’d love talk to you”.
So I called her back. And she’s had her problems, as well. So she kind of related to what had happened to me.
I appreciated her phone call. The last thing I left her with was, “Back in 1963, I was twenty. You were twenty-one. Why didn’t we get married?” And she started laughing! But they’re all close friends. They really are.
I remember the day that I went to Jefferson Hospital to get the liver and the kidney. I called Frankie and told him that I was getting a double transplant. He was thrilled!
He said later, “Bobby, after you called, I went straight to church and prayed”.
BLITZ: It is obvious from the outcome, and from what you are saying that Frankie Avalon did, that God’s hand was in it. Otherwise, we would not be having this conversation now. You had a miraculous recovery!
BLITZ: And now you are once again pursing your career full time, with a vengeance. Interestingly enough, it seems like the one area that you never pursued throughout the years was songwriting. Did you ever have any aspirations in that respect?
RYDELL: No. When I was in London a few years back, Camille was still alive at the time. I was working at the Talk Of The Town, which is now The Hippodrome. It’s a disco!
I used to write poetry. My wife used to say, “Why don’t you do something with that?” But to me, it was just killing time. I never thought about writing tunes at all.
BLITZ: The team approach has worked well for you. That is, utilizing the best people for every facet of the process, and bringing them together for the best results. In other words, great composers, great musicians, great producers, all in one package.
RYDELL: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was fortunate with the stuff that Lowe, Mann and Appell wrote for me, which were marvelous pieces of material. And then to be able to go into the studio and work with the top musicians, whether they be in New York or Los Angeles.
Plus I got to record tunes that I’ve always loved. In my act, I do my hit records. But I also do a lot of songs from the Great American Songbook.
Many of the tunes are Frank Sinatra tunes. I adored the man when I was thirteen years old! So everything is really good right now.
BLITZ: To that effect, do you have any plans for new studio recordings? Or perhaps working with Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the studio?
RYDELL: There is nothing right now off the top of my head. But you know, I would love to.
But you know what I would really love to do? I would love to just go into a studio with a trio or a quartet and do some tunes from the American Songbook. Not necessarily with a big band, although that would be a lot of fun.
Not to toot my own horn, but I would like to do it as a musician, not just as a singer. I understand phrasing and time.
Working with a trio or quartet gives you a lot of liberties. You can lay behind. You can be on top. You don’t have to stick primarily to a written chart, with brass, reeds, strings and so on. Just working with a trio would give you a lot of freedom as far as singing is concerned.
BLITZ: Working in that capacity may indeed give you liberty in that respect. But conversely, it would be incumbent upon you as a performer, since you have less to work with, each individual participant would have to shine more, as each would be in the spotlight to a greater degree.
RYDELL: But with good players, you don’t have to worry about that! They take care of business, and you do what you have to do.
BLITZ: If you were to pursue such a venture, would you do so as a drummer, as a vocalist, or both?
RYDELL: That would be fun! If I could play on a couple of tracks, that would be wonderful!
BLITZ: It sounds as if there may also be a box set of your work for Cameo in progress with ABKCO.
RYDELL: Yes. Jody Klein is talking to Sony as far as rights for the video in Blu-Ray for Bye Bye Birdie. When I was with Cameo, I did my own album of Bye Bye Birdie, with all of the tunes in the musical by myself, not the soundtrack. But yeah, there is a strong possibility of coming out with a box set.
BLITZ: Were there any production numbers recorded or filmed for Bye Bye Birdie that did not make the final cut?
RYDELL: Boy, I don’t know, Mike. I really don’t know. You probably know a lot more than I do as far as that is concerned!
BLITZ: There is a significant demographic out there which is a peripheral part of your audience. Frankly, this particular segment has been content to let the mainstream media dictate their musical taste for them. In other words, their assessment of you is based either on what television performances they may have seen, or whatever records happened to make the cut on radio. Somehow, they cannot quite grasp that you, or any other artist in your capacity, would be capable of or be interested in the sort of things that are actually a part of your overall mission statement. How would you address someone like that?
RYDELL: That’s a great question. I really don’t know how to answer that, other than to say that when I first started recording and had my first hit record, I was seventeen years old. I did the material that was put in front of me. Now there may have been times when I thought to myself that I would like to go in there and do some tunes or sing some lyrics that I really loved. Yet then again, at that early age, from seventeen until twenty-one or twenty-two, it really isn’t believable.
But now I’ve lived my life, and I’ve been through a lot. I’m seventy-four years old. If I want to sing songs that I truly adore, like Willow Weep For Me, or Angel Eyes - as a matter of fact, I do three songs from Frank Sinatra’s Only The Lonely album - What’s New? or One For The Road, now it’s believable. I’ve been through the mill. I’ve had the ups and downs. So I’m able to sing those types of lyrics now.
BLITZ: It’s interesting that you mentioned Frank Sinatra, because it seems like your relationship with him has come full circle. A few months before he passed away, Frank Sinatra Junior gave you an endorsement for your book that pretty much articulates in like manner what you had to say.
RYDELL: You mean the blurb? Oh my God, Frank Junior! To have a normal conversation with Frank Junior was like trying to pull teeth! This man would sit down and tell you what an F-17 does, the hydraulic system, how the flaps work and such. It would drive me crazy!
I knew his father very, very well, and his father was very, very nice to me. Frank Junior and I struck up a great relationship over the past ten years or so.
When he passed away, it broke my heart. I followed him at the place where he passed away, the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach, Florida. We were supposed to do something for a disc jockey here in Philadelphia, Sid Mark, who played nothing but the old man. But unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.
In one conversation way before the book, I told Frank Junior, “Thank you for what you said, that I’m one of your favorite singers.”
Frank Junior said, “I never said that!”
I said, “Yes, you did”.
And he said, “No, no, I never said that. My father did!”
So I said, “I love you, Junior. But it’s nicer coming from your dad!”
BLITZ: Frank Sinatra was one of those with a lot of foresight and vision. And in that respect, his endorsement was vindication for you.
RYDELL: I certainly hope so, Mike. It will put me in a whole new perspective. Maybe not me so much, but the public in general will come to see what Bobby Rydell is all about. Hopefully the book will in turn entail a lot of great things in the future.
BLITZ: Are there any plans for a hardcover edition, or just a paperback for now?
RYDELL: That’s a possibility. The book is doing extremely well right now. There is a strong possibility that a hardcover will come out, yes.
And I just had a small, cameo part in Robert DeNiro’s new movie, The Comedian. It’s something that he has wanted to do for some time. It’s one of his pet projects.
The director of the movie was Taylor Hackford. I met him in the make up room. He was a fan of mine. He did The Idol Maker and the Ray Charles movie.
So I thought, “Hey, let’s send him the book. Maybe he has an idea. Or he can get it to the Scorseses, the DeNiros, or Ron Howard”. If you throw enough stuff up against the wall, something might stick! Maybe it will become a screen play.
BLITZ: It might be putting the cart before the horse. But if indeed it does come to that point, is there anyone that you would envision or would like to see play yourself?
RYDELL: My co-writer, Alan Slutsky said, “Bobby, if in fact this does become a screenplay, who would you like to see play you? Justin Bieber?”
I said, “No! No!” Ha! I really don’t know who would play me. Maybe some up and coming actor, who is trying to find himself in Hollywood. Maybe it’s somebody who’s on stage on Broadway. Who knows?
BLITZ: You mentioned Justin Bieber. But there is a disadvantage that he and others like him would have in comparison to what you went through.
When Blitz Magazine asked Johnny Tillotson some years ago about working with label president Archie Bleyer at adence Records, Tillotson replied that Bleyer was a mentor, a father-like figure and was great to work with, as well. It sounds as though you had a similar experience during your tenure with Cameo.
Conversely, someone like Justin Bieber is in an environment where the perspective afforded those who are in positions similar to his is often to milk them for all they’re worth for one or two years, chew them up, spit them out and then leave them to their own devices.
RYDELL: I don’t know. Evidently, he is a very talented individual. But the things that happen to them at such an early age, his mother throwing him on You Tube, and then overnight becoming a multi-millionaire. Things just happened too quickly, and you can’t handle it. I can understand that. I’ve been through the ups, the downs, the lows and the highs.
I was very lucky in that my dad used to take me around to small nightclubs in Philadelphia when I was seven or eight years old. For me, that became my Vaudeville. That’s where I woodshedded. It got me through to where I am today.
You just learn to roll with the punches. Thank God that things are great for me right now. Hopefully the talent that I’ve been given will hold. It’s been keeping me going for close to six decades now.
BLITZ: You mentioned a connection to Vaudeville. In his own collection, did your dad have any of the records made by the prominent and impacting pioneer artists, such as Billy Murray, Henry Burr, the Heidelberg Quintet or any of the others that inspired that movement?
RYDELL: To tell you the truth, I don’t think we even had a record player in our house in South Philly! We would listen to what was on the radio.
But when I won on the Paul Whiteman show and became a regular, the sponsor at the time was Tootsie Rolls. I was ten years old, so that would have been 1952. So I got a lot of Tootsie Rolls. And I got an RCA Victor 45 record player, and RCA Victor television set, and I don’t know how many records! They were all like (Enrico) Caruso, Benny Goodman, Tex Beneke, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. It was absolutely wonderful!
When we moved out of South Philadelphia, I had all of those records. But I don’t know what happened to them! I had 78s, I had EPs. But when we moved from South Philadelphia into the suburbs, they got lost in the transition.
BLITZ: Speaking of transitions, Paul Whiteman was also a bit ahead of his time. He made the transition from being one of the leaders of that movement to being one of the forerunners of bringing rock and roll into the spotlight. Presumably you learned a lot about diversity from him.
RYDELL: One of the beautiful things about him that I remember and treasure, because it is just a marvelous, marvelous piece of material, was his Rhapsody In Blue. That has always been one of my favorites.
BLITZ: Were you aware that your future Cameo labelmates, the New Colony Six appropriated Rhapsody In Blue for their second single, I Like Awake? Their Sentar label became a Cameo affiliate in 1967, shortly before Cameo folded.
RYDELL: Really? I didn’t know that. That would have been at the time of Allen Klein. Of course it is now through his son, Jody Klein. We had that great meeting with him, and we are looking forward to doing a venture with him.
BLITZ: From the perspective of musicologists, journalists and record collectors, Cameo/Parkway continues to be regarded as being in the upper echelons among the greatest labels of all time. It was more than a little disconcerting that for decades, in the wake of the label’s demise in early 1968, that the only way that you could get that material was at record collector’s conventions, thrift stores or estate sales. It was not available on CD except in the form of bootlegs. It’s nice to have it available again. But it is a bit disconcerting that they waited so long to make it happen.
RYDELL: Oh, absolutely. I totally agree with you, Mike.
BLITZ: You are presently on tour in support of your book.
RYDELL: We’re doing a lot of book signings through Barnes And Noble. I’ve been to three or four Barnes And Noble outlets so far, and there are many more in the very near future. There are a lot of Q&A sessions at the bookstores.
We’re also doing a big autograph thing, Chiller in Parsippany in October. Plus I’m also on the road, doing what I do, which is singing!
BLITZ: You are a living testimony to miracles, given what you have been through. And in some respects, you are at the peak of your creative powers. That’s quite a testimony.
RYDELL: Thank you ever so much, Mike. I’m one lucky guy right now. Given what happened to me with the transplants, and then a year later undergoing a double bypass heart surgery. I didn’t even know that I had two blockages. One was eighty-nine percent, the other one was ninety-nine percent. That was the widow maker!
But I was feeling fine. I said to the doctor, my cardiologist, on a Wednesday, “I’ve got to leave for Biloxi tomorrow”.
He said, “You ain’t goin’ to Biloxi! You’re checking in right now.”
Four days later, I was in the O.R. again, getting a zipper in the chest! But at least I was getting everything fixed.
BLITZ: Presumably, that would have made an impact in your health regimen, and with respect to diet. In other words, many of the things what you had taken for granted in the past were now things that you simply could not do anymore.
RYDELL: Well, you know what? I’m still an idiot. I’m still smoking.
BLITZ: Blitz Magazine’s original art director, Dennis Loren is a couple of years younger than you are, and he is in the same predicament. Dennis is very health conscious. But he picked up the tobacco habit decades ago, and he can’t seem to shake it.
RYDELL: The drinking was one thing. To give that up really wasn’t a major problem. But to stop smoking is really tough.
BLITZ: The remarkable thing is that you, even at age seventy-four, have managed to retain your vocal range. That is indeed miraculous.
RYDELL: And you’re right! My very dear friend, Frankie Avalon said to me, “Bobby, when are you gonna stop smoking?”
Then there was a pregnant pause. And he said, “Aw, you’d better not, because it will screw up your voice!”
BLITZ: Legend has it that Bob Dylan gave up smoking and the result was his Nashville Skyline album, which was remarkably different vocally than that which came before it. It was also reported decades ago that Petula Clark’s doctor told her that smoking was good for her digestion!
RYDELL: Heh, heh! I don’t know. Who knows? It is what it is, I guess.
BLITZ: Everyone has their own respective vices, such as not wanting to give up pizza!
RYDELL: Ha! Well how could you give up pizza?
BLITZ: Pizza would go well with the MLB All Star game, which is on television tonight!
RYDELL: The All Star Game? Well, I guess it’s a little better than pro football when they play the Pro Bowl.
BLITZ: The problem with the All Star game is that everyone plays on such a high level, that they cancel one another out, and it’s difficult to score!
RYDELL: Absolutely! Look at many years ago, when Bobby Abreu was the home run champ! Bobby Abreu? Give me a break!
BLITZ: Indeed. And the Los Angeles Dodgers’ all time home run king is Eric Karros, who was never an All Star.
RYDELL: Yeah, yeah. If you want to get into talking about baseball, we could be here for hours!
BLITZ: The subject may have come up because in your book, you expressed allegiance for the Phillies, and said that if you had relocated to the West Coast, you would be in a position of having to root for the Dodgers!
RYDELL: Well, the Dodgers had Tommy Lasorda, who is from here. He’s a local guy. And he still bleeds Dodger blue!
BLITZ: Tommy Lasorda and Vin Scully are just about the best ambassadors that Major League Baseball has.
RYDELL: Oh God, and Vin is retiring. What a great guy. You know, Vin Scully reminds me of what we had here in Philly when we had Harry Callas and Richie Ashburn. God rest their souls. You didn’t even have to watch it on TV. They gave you the ball game. It’s just the way that those two guys, Ashburn and Callas broadcast the game, you could see the game right in front of you, whether you were actually looking at it or not. They did that on the radio. And that’s what Vin Scully always did, as well.
BLITZ: Since you have long expressed a fondness for one-liners and imitations, there is one particular line that Vin Scully delivered in the 1990s that may interest you. When the Dodgers’ home run leader, Eric Karros was in a protracted slump, he had struck out, grounded out or flied out in more than thirty consecutive at bats, although career wise he racked up 323 home runs for the Dodgers.
During one particular game against Chicago in the middle of that slump, Karros was the third out in one inning. When Karros flied out and the broadcast was about to go into commercial break, Vin Scully just deadpanned, “And once again, Karros proves to be a hallmark of consistency”.
RYDELL: Heh, heh! That’s great! Marvelous!! Absolutely marvelous.
BLITZ: In some respects, that same approach has worked for you. When you tell a story from the stage, it is as much what you don’t say as what you do say that paints the picture for the audience. You have done a great job, and keep up the great work!
RYDELL: Thank you very much, Mike. I’ll try, my friend.
BLITZ: Is there anything that we may not have covered that you would like to add to the story line?
RYDELL: My God, you’re fantastic! Much appreciated. You’re just a plethora of information! You’ve covered a lot of great ground that hasn’t been covered before. Let’s just say that I am very, very grateful for the second chance.