American Bandstand Star Revived by Faith
Robert Louis Ridarelli found fame at an early age as teen idol Bobby Rydell, but through his successful recording and performing career, he has never forgotten his Catholic faith.
“I’ve always had my faith in my religion and my God,” said Rydell, who is still singing at 75 and will appear at January’s Legatus Summit in Orlando, Fla. Remembered for his role in the 1963 film version of Bye Bye Birdie and known for such Top 40 hits as “Kissin’ Time,” “Wild One” and “Volare,” Rydell sold more than 25 million records during his career.
Philly Catholic Strong
Whenever he goes on stage, however, he remembers his Catholic roots, making the sign of the cross and kissing a crucifix ring on his right pinky finger. He first saw and admired such a ring on fellow Catholic entertainer Perry Como, and when he spied one in a shop in Italy, he bought it, put it on and has never removed it. It reminds him of the faith in which he was formed while growing up in South Philadelphia, where he served Mass as an altar boy and attended Catholic schools.
That same faith later rescued him from a bout with alcohol addiction following the death of his first wife, Camille, in 2003. During it, he said, “vodka became a very dear friend, to the point that it was excessive.” He would never drink before performing, but took refuge in the bottle afterward. “It finally caught up with me,” he said, adding that when he developed cirrhosis of the liver and renal failure, “I think it was God’s plan to put me in a position where I had to really stop, look, listen, look at my face in the mirror and say, ‘what are you doing?’” Rydell believes God gave him another chance. “He helped me to understand what I did, how I almost killed myself with liquor and being an alcoholic. Now I’m fine and I thank God every day.”
On the Brink
In 2012, however, Rydell’s health was such that he would not have survived without a double-organ transplant. He was preparing his second wife, Linda, for his death when he got a call from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia telling him that a kidney and liver were available. Going into the 20-hour surgery, Rydell knew he had only a 50-50 chance, but all went well and six months later, he was performing in Las Vegas.
That a compatible donor was found for him bordered on the miraculous because Rydell’s blood type was O-positive, meaning he could only accept an organ from an O-positive donor. Equally amazing was that 14 people on the list ahead of him had turned down the liver he received because it was to have been split between two recipients. Rydell shared the liver with a 4-year-old girl.
Today, Rydell continues to perform solo and as part of the Golden Boys with fellow teen idols Fabian (Fabiano Anthony Forte) and Frankie Avalon (Francis Thomas Avallone). The three, who grew up together in South Philadelphia, formed the act in 1985, expecting it to last a year or two, but 30-plus years later, it is still going strong. “Frankie has a line,” Rydell said. “He says, ‘Look at the three of us. We were three guys who hung out on a street corner in Philly and now we’re hanging out on stage together.’ We have a ball and people in the audience can see it.”
It was Avalon, Rydell recalled, who helped him get his first big break when he asked him to sit in for an ailing drummer with Rocco and the Saints, a dance band that played at local parishes, the Sons of Italy Hall and school sock hops. The job landed him an offer from manager Frankie Day, who arranged auditions with several recording labels, including Cameo Records. After three records that flopped, Rydell was about to give up on singing when Bernie Lowe, Cameo’s president, penned the song, “Kissin’ Time.” It became his first Top 40 hit and he went on to record 18 more.
Strength of Family
Although, as he relates in his recently published biography, Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances, Rydell’s life has not been trouble-free, he credits growing up in a closeknit Italian family with helping him avoid many of the pitfalls experienced by today’s young entertainers. He said it helped, too, that his progression into show business was such that he didn’t become an overnight sensation. For example, his father started taking him to night clubs to sing and do impersonations when he was 7, giving him time to prepare for bigger venues. He didn’t record his first Top 40 hit until he was 17 and he was 20 when he played opposite Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie.
Amid his success, Rydell said he has always remembered the advice Bernie Lowe gave him when he was 17: “You meet the same people coming up the ladder as you do coming down.”
“That always stuck in my head. To this day, I’m just a normal guy. I love what I do, but I love being home, too.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.