Bobby Rydell never was a “Wild One”

Bobby Rydell was as sweet as a star could be, as genuine and comfortable as a scuffed shoe.

His songs often were about love, and so was his life.

One great love was his wife, Camille. Another was his love for his hometown, Philadelphia.

Bobby and me at Ruth”s Chris in the ‘90s, with Maitre ‘d

He never left either, as was reported in an Inquirer obit.  His favorite song was “Wildwood Days,” he told me. My favorite Rydell tune was “Wild One,” although that was never him. “Volare” was his theme song, and as soon as I finish this, I will download his greatest hits on to my iPad.

At the time of his death, Bobby, 79,  lived in Blue Bell, 26.5 miles from where he grew up at 11th & Wolf in South Philly.

When Camille was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, Bobby was rocked, because Camille was his rock. She died in 2003, after 36 years of marriage. 

He began drinking heavily, but secretly, so that not even his closest friends knew. One was trumpet player and barber Lou Cioci, who died last year. They lived next door to each other on 11th Street and were lifelong friends. 

I reported on this in the first major piece I did for the Philadelphia Inquirer in May 2016, when Bobby published his near tell-all book.

Bobby was totally candid about his drinking problem — he was downing four Ketel One doubles at a sitting, which eventually led to a liver and kidney transplant that saved his life.

That was shortly after he married Linda Hoffman, a brainy X-Ray technician.

After that, he was off the booze.

Except for a glass of wine he poured when we sat down for a meal. I gave him a questioning look.

“A glass of wine wouldn’t hurt anything,” he said with a bashful smile.

Despite being a major star in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and riding a career that continued until the time of his death, he never developed a “star” addytude.

He started as a drummer, fashioning himself after Buddy Rich, but he soon switched to crooning, helped by his boyish good looks, a Steinway keyboard smile and a pompadour so big it needed a room of its own. He was also a good mimic and was comfortable with comedy.

In later years he would tease his audience about his beautiful head of hair, and then tug at it to show it was a toupee. 

Not many performers would be that self-deprecating, but Bobby knew who he was, and who his fans were.

Me with two South Philly singers who were friends of Bobby’s — Frankie Avalon (left) and James Darren

When I think of it, he was not all that different from the other Golden Boys of Summer who exploded out of South Philly — Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Chubby Checker — and James Darren, who was a bit older. Also older, and not singers, we’re “good guys” like Joey Bishop and Jack Klugman. All were approachable, unlike some of today’s stars from Philadelphia.

I was privileged to know all of the crooners, and I say privileged because they were just as real as when they were hanging on corners and smoking Luckies loosies. 

The local press never had trouble getting them on the phone, unlike may of today’s stars.

I had the closest relationship with Bobby because he never left Philly and I caught many of his shows. I was a fan because I liked his talent and his open personality. (He was also a major dog lover.)

We had dinner or lunch several times — the first at Zanzibar Blue, after which we saw a rock play at the Forrest, the last time at the Palm, with our ladies.

I also visited him when I was working on the column about his book at his home in Penn Valley and supported him by showing up for his book signing at Popi’s in South Philly.

Bobby did a lot of charity work, meaning no-pay concerts benefiting charities. He did many for South Philly, Italian and Catholic institutions. 

He asked me not to write too much about them.

Partly it was humility, but also he wanted to fend off more requests, because he had a hard time saying no.

Above I said his book was almost tell-all, because while he was completely honest about his psychotic shrew of a mother — a story backed by Lou Cioci — he did hold back on one story,

After he co-starred in “Bye Bye Birdie” with Ann-Margret, other movie offers came in, but those would have required him and Camille to move to the West Coast — something both Frankie Avalon and James Darren did,

But that was not the family-oriented lifestyle Bobby and Camille wanted to create, so he passed on that. He never regretted that, he told me. 

He and Ann-Margret remained life-long friends, and I can share (now) that the studio-manufactured romance between the two stars was not entirely tinsel. 

But their fling didn’t get too far because Ann-Margret knew it was not good for her career, and Bobby had a girlfriend back in Philly.

He returned home and enjoyed an impossibly long and happy career.

He was not a “wild one” and the Golden Boys of Summer will never be the same. 

11 thoughts on “Bobby Rydell never was a “Wild One””

  1. A super insider-special Stu! Or at least a real one. I’m glad to see he was a “real person” to speak of – which speaks volumes.

    Once in a while the stars are aligned and a Bobby Rydell or somebody like him catches a break. Bobby and the few others ( out of many ) did just that and not only never forgot where they came from, but helped others ‘catch that break’.
    Great jog as always.

  3. Thank you Stu for this wonderful tribute to Bobby. I know many of us former Goretti Girls love
    His music and personality. Especially Wildwood Days which has been handed down through our kids, grandkids and continues to be performed
    on many porches throughout the Wildwoods. This year many echo’s will be heard up a down the Shore communities.

    1. Are the Goretti Girls the ones who traditionally leapt into the fountain in Philadelphia?

  4. I was fortunate enough to meet him at the Cherry Hill Library four years ago at a book promotion of his.He was very friendly and down to earth We talked about the old days in South Philly and how much I enjoyed his songs.Volare and Wildwood Days are my favorites.He was by far the most talented and had the best voice of all the Cameo-Parkway singers.The sad passing of a Philly icon who stayed loyal to his roots.

  5. Lovely tribute Stu.
    Interesting that his mother was considered “ a shrew.” She was a customer of the lighting/design shop I worked In while I attended interior design school and she was very kind to us.

  6. A poignant and lovely remembrance. By all accounts Bobby was old school, hard working, respectful and deeply appreciative fo all the good that came his way. Thanks, Stu!

  7. Terrific article,Stu. The outpouring of love and appreciation for Rydell’s career has been overwhelming; incredible how the fans never abandoned him. I can’t think of many entertainers working today who will be filling showrooms 60 years from now. What the Golden Boys have done is remarkable and not written about enough.

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