We spoke with Bobby Rydell earlier this year on the loss of Glen Campbell. Now we catch up with him on his music career, concert tours which include Frankie Avalon and Fabian, book tours and a Bye Bye Birdie revival.
By Warren Kurtz
BOBBY RYDELL achieved his first Top 40 hit as a teenager with “Kissin’ Time” in 1959, while Elvis Presley was away in the service. In 1964, he released a song written by a Beatle, just a year after his co-starring role in the musical film “Bye Bye Birdie.” Goldmine spoke with one of the original teen idols of rock and roll on his hits, his connection with Petula Clark’s main songwriter Tony Hatch, rare recordings with Glen Campbell, Ann-Margret, Annette Funicello, Darlene Love, Bobby Darin, and his long-time touring friends Frankie Avalon and Fabian.
GOLDMINE: I first heard “Kissin’ Time” on a Saturday night oldies radio show, in my hometown of Cleveland, in the late ‘70s. With the opening line, “We’re kissin’ in Cleveland,” I initially thought this song had to be by a Cleveland native.
BOBBY RYDELL: Oh no. I’m a Philadelphia boy. I grew up just a half block away from Fabian and two blocks away from Frankie Avalon. Frankie played trumpet and I played drums. The local Philadelphia label Cameo signed me in late 1958. After a couple of singles, “Kissin’ Time” hit it big with Georgie Young and the Rockin’ Bocs as the backing group. Georgie played alto sax on the song, which Kal Mann wrote.
GM: You are a key part of the popular music history of Philadelphia, including writing the introduction in the “Bandstand Diaries Book,” about “American Bandstand.” Another show you performed on was Sha Na Na’s television show. My cousin Bill was a member of Sha Na Na, and on his jukebox is a song you performed on the show, “Wild One.”
BR: Ah, Sha Na Na. Since then I have also performed at Bowzer’s Rock & Roll Party shows. “Wild One,” in 1960, was my first million seller. All three guys associated with Cameo wrote it, Dave Appell, Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann. I was with Dave in a car, coming back from a show, and he had his guitar out, creating the notes for the song. It sounded real promising.
GM: I saw a lively early ‘60s television video clip for your next single, “Swingin’ School,” filmed on the west coast. The Blossoms were backing you up vocally, with Darlene Love in the middle. You and Darlene Love were here in Florida, in concert earlier this year. Her 2015 album that Steve Van Zandt produced is so strong.
BR: Yes. She is a sweetheart. We have worked together a couple of times. We even did a Time Life Music commercial on oldies that turned out great.
GM: Also, earlier this year in Florida, I saw Debby Boone perform one of your hits, “Sway.”
BR: We recorded “Sway,” “Volare” and “That Old Black Magic” on the same day and all three did very well in the Top 40.
GM: On Tuesday nights growing up, I watched the Red Skelton Show, and loved the mix of comedy and music. You performed on episodes of his show for a few years, beginning in 1962, when my favorite single of yours, the beautiful “I’ll Never Dance Again” was released.
BR: That record had a great French horn. On Red’s show we generally went with classic songs from the American songbook, versus my hits. David Rose was the musical director. Red took to me when we first met in 1960. His son Richard had passed away from leukemia at the end of the ‘50s. His wife told me that Red had only brought a handful of people over the house over the years and I was fortunate to be one of them. He was a superb, wonderful man.
Flip side: Love, Love Go Away
A side: Forget Him
Top 100 debut: November 9, 1963
Peak position: 4
GM: A favorite flip side of yours for me is “Love, Love Go Away,” written by Jimmy Wisner and Norma Mendoza. It’s A side, “Forget Him,” is certainly a big favorite, entering the Top 40 as 1963 ended.
BR: 1963 was huge for me. I was touring in England with Helen Shapiro. Her biggest hit is “Walkin’ Back to Happiness.” I met Tony Hatch there, and using the pseudonym Mark Anthony he wrote “Forget Him.” Cameo really didn’t want to push the single as they didn’t own the songwriting or publishing rights. Disc Jockey Dave Johnson at CHUM in Toronto started playing it and it made their Top 10. It spread to the Detroit/Windsor market. Cameo would have no choice but to release it and it made the Top 10 in the U.S. as well.
GM: You had another CHUM Top 10 hit in May of the following year with “A World Without Love.”
BR: Cameo was one of the American labels who turned down the Beatles in 1963. We were given a Paul McCartney composition called “A World Without Love.” I recorded a version with Dave Appell’s arrangement and I thought my vocal was strong enough to possibly reach number one. Cameo sat on the recording. They planned to release it sometime in 1964. My manager Frankie Day and I were in a car coming back from New York City, listening to Cousin Brucie on WABC, when we heard a new version of this song by a new duo from England named Peter and Gordon. My manager went nuts. Peter and Gordon had a two week jump on us. Cameo released my version. Some stations played both versions.
GM: There is a pair of back to back singles you recorded on Reprise in 1968 which seemed to have a similar fate when they were released, with the same arrangement, the following year back to back by the Grass Roots.
BR: Yes, “The Lovin’ Things” and “The River is Wide.” Nothing happened with my versions. Mr. Sinatra wanted me on his Reprise label, so, of course I said yes, but there was no promotion. Glen Campbell was a studio guitarist on these songs and my version of “It’s Getting Better.” Glen said, “These will get you back on the charts.” We certainly thought they had hit potential, which they did for the Grass Roots and for Mama Cass Elliot with “It’s Getting Better,” all in 1969.
GM: We lost some big names this year including Glen Campbell, one of my favorites when I was growing up.
BR: Glen was really nice and in addition to his guitar playing, he was a great singer. Speaking of Glen and Sinatra, I have watched online versions of Glen Campbell covering “Soliloquy” from the musical “Carousel,” in London, which Frank Sinatra had recorded. Wow! Glen kills it!
GM: Around our house, the biggest Bobby Rydell performance for our daughter Brianna, when she was growing up, was watching you as Hugo Peabody in “Bye Bye Birdie” and playing the film soundtrack. Now NBC is planning a new live version of the musical starring Jennifer Lopez as Rosie in 2018. When your book “Teen Idol on the Rocks” came out last year, you shared a lot of memories with my fellow Goldmine writer Chris Junior in our July 2016 issue. I love the photo of you, in that book, of you and your film co-star Ann-Margret with Prince Philip.
BR: I used to do a “Bye Bye Birdie” medley in my act and, with this revival, I may start to do it again. Ann-Margret and I were in London for a command performance of that classic film’s debut. Working with Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde from the original Broadway cast was just great.
GM: There is also a photo of you with Annette Funicello from “Disney After Dark.”
BR: Many years after that photo, as Annette’s health was failing with MS, Frankie Avalon, who I have known since I was ten, called me. There was an award to be presented to Annette. He couldn’t be there so he asked me if I would substitute. “Of course,” I said. Annette was adorable. It was the 1993 Helen Hayes Award in New York, for work in theater. Annette was in her wheelchair, and I sang to her from “Bye Bye Birdie” the lines, “One girl, one special girl.” She asked, “Why are they giving me this award?” I said, “Because you’re America’s sweetheart.”
GM: As a drummer, it must have been great becoming friends with your hero, jazz drummer Buddy Rich.
BR: I first met him at a west coast restaurant during the filming of “Bye Bye Birdie.” I nervously asked for his autograph. He shook my hand and told me, “Kid, that’s all the autograph you need.” We grew very close. Later in New York at the Birdland club he introduced me from the stage and had me come up. He asked if I wanted to play something on the drums. I said “New Blue,” but being left-handed, I had to rearrange his drum set and then I played very well and he stood there with his mouth wide open. Not to be upstaged, he then gave me a harder song, which I flubbed up and he laughed. Years later I visited him in the hospital. The nurse asked him if he was allergic to anything. He quickly spouted, “Yes! Country and Western.”
GM: You continue to be on stage as one of the Golden Boys. What will fans hear in the concert?
BR: Promoter Dick Fox first came up with the Golden Boys concept in 1985 with me, Frankie and Fabian. I thought it would last a couple of years. Fabian and I did a guest appearance on the television show “The Facts of Life” in 1987. Now, over 30 years later we continue to do the shows. Being from Philadelphia, we start out with “Bandstand Boogie.” I am on first with my hits and a tribute to Bobby Darin. Fabian follows with “Tiger,” his hits and an Elvis Presley tribute. Frankie is last with “Venus,” his hits and a Ricky Nelson tribute. Then we all get together for a Bill Haley and His Comets tribute as the finale.
Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell, courtesy of Bobby Rydell
GM: Brianna and I are fans of the film “Beyond the Sea” released in 2004 on the 25th anniversary of my wife Donna and my wedding.
BR: “Beyond the Sea” is one of the songs I sing in the four song medley along with “Splish Splash,” Dream Lover” and “Mack the Knife.” I got to know Bobby real well. His son Dodd saw me after a show and thanked me for keeping his father’s music alive and handed me this big collage. On the left is the drum chart for “Mack the Knife” and on the right the drum chart for “Lazy River.” In the middle is a photo of Bobby and Dodd when Dodd was three years old. I was shocked that he wanted me to have this but he insisted. The steadfast fan base has been fantastic, too as I have been going around with the book signings.
GM: You have a lot scheduled already for 2018, beginning with a pair of Golden Boys concerts here in Florida on January 13 at the Seminole Casino in Immokalee and the 17th at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
BR: It is close to 60 years and still so much fun.
For Bobby Rydell’s full schedule for 2018 go to the Tour tab for concerts and then the Special Events and Book Signings on the right, also, for his book signing events:
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, on WVCR radio as part of “Moments to Remember.”