Teen Idol Bobby Rydell Dies at 79: The Unpublished Interview

Frank Mastropolo

Cameo-Parkway Records

Bobby Rydell was rarely off the record charts in the early 1960s. The teen idol had 34 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 that included “Wild One,” “Swingin’ School” and “Forget Him.” Rydell, 79, died April 5. The cause of death was pneumonia.

In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney said he considered writing an “answering song” to “Forget Him.” “John and I wrote ‘She Loves You’ together. There was a Bobby Rydell song out at the time and, as often happens, you think of one song when you write another.”

Rydell recorded for Cameo-Parkway, the Philadelphia label founded by Bernie Lowe. In 2016 the singer authored Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol On The Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances, in which he credits Lowe and Cameo producer Dave Appell for their uncanny ability to choose hits for him to record.

In 1985 Rydell enjoyed a resurgence in his career when he teamed with fellow teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian as The Golden Boys, a tremendously popular revue that he performed in until his death.

We talked with Rydell in January 2020 in this previously unpublished interview.

What was it like to be a teen idol in 1959?

Bobby Rydell: That was the year that I had my first hit record, in the summer of 1959, “Kissin’ Time.” That was my first hit.

That was all because of American Bandstand and Dick Clark. My God, the show went on at 3:30 to 5:00 across the country, from East Coast to West Coast. Just the popularity of that particular show, when you were on it, if Dick was playing a record, then every kid across the country would say “Well, it’s number something on Dick Clark’s Top 10, we gotta go out and buy that record.”

Dick was an integral part not only for me but for a lot of artists back then. Dick went from East Coast to West Coast every day, 3:30 to 5 o’clock. The exposure was unbelievable.

"Kissin' Time" by Bobby Rydell

What was his secret for breaking hits?

Bobby Rydell: Who the hell knows! I guess everybody called him the proverbial teenager. The guy didn’t age at all. But Dick as far as knowing what was and what wasn’t a hit was something that was kind of eerie.

I had three records before “Kissin’ Time” came out. And I remember Bernie Lowe, who was the owner of Cameo-Parkway, he would take acetates, dubs to Dick. And I had two or three acetates before “Kissin’ Time.”

And Bernie would come back and he would say, no, Dick didn’t think… And then when he brought the acetate of “Kissin’ Time,” from what I understand, Dick dropped the needle on the acetate and he turned to Bernie Lowe and he said “That’s a hit.”

And from then on I went on to Dick Clark to mime the recording and it became my first hit. He knew for some ungodly reason what was and what wasn’t a hit.

You wrote that you would often get called at the last minute to appear on Bandstand.

Bobby Rydell: That happened an awful lot with me because I was the only guy who lived in Philadelphia. So if a certain artist couldn’t make it, I would get a phone call from Tony Mammarella, who was the producer of American Bandstand, and as a matter of fact, his father was our family doctor, Dr. Mammarella.

I would get a call, he’d say, “Bobby, can you hurry up on down to the studio because so and so couldn’t make it and we need somebody to fill the spot.”

So I was always available, if I was home at the time, to go over and fill in that particular spot.

Tell me about the Cameo-Parkway recording process.

Bobby Rydell: The studio that’s in Philadelphia now, Sigma, it used to be called Reco-Art. And we did all our recordings there. And Emil Corson, who was the engineer at the time, and Bernie Lowe and Dave Appell were always in the booth.

Emil had a thing where he would put a microphone upstairs in the men’s bathroom and just filter it on down into the studio, which became sort of like the echo chamber. Because everything was tile up there.

He would just feed the sound that came from the studio, bounce it off the men’s bathroom, and down into the studio. And for some ungodly reason, the sound in that studio was absolutely phenomenal. Most of my recordings were done at Reco-Art.

When the needle would drop on a record, say a Motown record, you knew immediately that it was the Motown Sound. And I think the same thing happened with Cameo. You put a needle down on a record and you knew it was a Cameo-Parkway recording. I think it was all because of that particular sound at Reco-Art, that studio had such a great sound.

One time I did the Saturday night show, Beech Nut, Dick Clark’s Saturday night show. And I think it was “We Got Love,” which was my second record. And on the way home, Dave Appell had his guitar and we’re sitting in the back seat of the limo on the Jersey Turnpike, and he always had a pipe in his mouth. And he pulled out his guitar and he started playing. And he said, “Bobby, when we get back home, this is your next recording.”

It became “Wild One,” which was my first million-seller. We got home and within a couple of days I was in Reco-Art and recorded “Wild One.”

"Wild One" by Bobby Rydell

Those female background singers became a trademark of your records.

Bobby Rydell: Oh, absolutely. From what I understand they were three ladies that were gospel singers and who also had the ability to read music. I don’t know where, when, how it happened, Bernie Lowe found them and he put them on most of my records, with the whoa whoas and the yeah yeahs. That’s all I was associated with, whoa whoa yeah yeah.

They sounded like bobbysoxers.

Bobby Rydell: I figured at that time when they were in the studio, I thought they were grandmothers, for crying out loud.

Tell me about the Dick Clark Caravans.

Bobby Rydell: Oh my God. I was 17 years old for crying out loud and there I am on a bus for four to six weeks, a different city every night, and people like the Coasters and the Platters and the Drifters and Dion and the Belmonts and the Skyliners. They were all on the bus.

It was great, it was like family. And it was a wonderful, wonderful time. I remember, I think back then I weighed something like 90–95 pounds and I used to sleep in the luggage rack. I swear to God, I used to sleep in the luggage rack.

And I remember one time, it was LaVern Baker. She used to have a curtain around her seat and God forbid, nobody went near that curtain because she’d raise all kinds of hell if you opened that curtain. She was probably sleeping in the seat, I don’t know.

But it was great times, it was wonderful times.

I’ve heard others say they were agony.

Bobby Rydell: They weren’t the buses of today, my God, the buses were terrible but what the hell, we had to get from one city to the other and that was the only means of transportation. And I remember one time our road manager was a man by the name of Charlie Carpenter and he would say, “The bus is 8 for 8:30” which meant better be ready by 8 when the bus was leaving.

I was rooming at that time with Freddy Cannon. And I said to Freddy, make sure whoever wakes up first, wakes up the other guy. Lo and behold I wake up, it’s nine o’clock in the morning. The bus went. Thank God Paul Anka was in the lobby. He said, “Bobby, weren’t you supposed to be on the bus?” I said, “Yeah, I guess I missed it.” Anyway he flew me to the next gig, which was kind of cool.

Then I saw Freddy that night at the concert and I said, “Freddy, what the hell’s the matter with you, I told you, whoever wakes up first wake up the other guy.” He looked at me and he said, “Well, you looked so nice sleeping there I didn’t wanna bother you.” I went, “Jesus Christ.”

In 1963 you released the album An Era Reborn, recorded in the style of the big bands.

Bobby Rydell: I was so happy when Bernie Lowe said we’re going to go into a studio and we’re gonna do things with big bands. And I always loved big bands because my dad, when I was five years old, took me to see Benny Goodman. I didn’t know Benny Goodman from a hole in the wall but my father introduced me to big band music.

I remember just one guy in the band and I said I don’t know who he is daddy, but I want to be him. And that was Gene Krupa. He was playing drums for Benny Goodman and since I was five, six years old I’ve been playing drums all my life

But it was nice to go in the studio with all of the top LA cats, all of the great studio players, and we did tunes, big band, but in the style of Dorsey, Tex Beneke, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, so on and so forth, but we did tunes that were happening around that particular time, like “Al Di La.” We did tunes like “Up a Lazy River,” we did “Moon River, “Tonight” from West Side Story.

So that was a thrill for me, to be able to go in and see 16, 17 hunks, just the top players in LA, to record this particular album.

Then the British Invasion arrives in 1964. How did that affect your career?

Bobby Rydell: I was in London and I was doing concerts with a girl by the name of Helen Shapiro. Really, really fine singer from the UK. And we did a couple of week-tours throughout the UK.

And one night we were on the bus and there’s a car in front of us. And Helen Shapiro says, “There’s the Beatles!” Well, this was 1963, before they hit, I started looking around the bus for cockroaches. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.

Anyway, the car stopped, the bus stopped, the bus opens up the door and the four guys come on. They knew me, you know, and I said, “Real nice meeting you, what a pleasure” and I thought they were just four guys who were giggin’, you know, doing the nightclub thing or whatever.

And then I go home and it’s 1964. And I’m watching Ed Sullivan. And Ed Sullivan introduces the Beatles and I went, “Jesus, God, I met those guys!” I could kick myself in the ass for not taking a picture in the middle of the UK, 10, 11 o’clock at night, it would have been a great picture.

Of course, it hurt a lot of American artists. All of the DJs were playing all British recordings. And I think there came a point in time when they said, “Hey, we gotta start going back to playing some of our American artists, some American tunes.” But you know, as far as recording-wise, I think my recording days were really over at the end of ‘64.

"A World Without Love" by Bobby Rydell

Many people don’t know you recorded “A World Without Love” at about the same time as Peter & Gordon.

Bobby Rydell: We went into New York, at Bell Sound Studios, and recorded “World Without Love” with a big arrangement. My particular version of “World Without Love” and Peter & Gordon’s were totally different.

They had it out a couple of weeks before me. And my manager and I, Frankie Day, we were driving to New York and we’re getting into the area where you can hear WABC radio. And we hear Bruce Morrow saying, “Here’s a couple of guys from the UK, they just have a new record” and they start playing “I don’t care what they say…”

And I turned to Frankie because we had it in the can. And just on principle, we released it. It was kind of a moderate hit for me but it was a bigger hit of course for Peter & Gordon. They had the jump on us.

But in this business you keep going on, you’ve got your highs, your peaks, your valleys, your lows, this, that and the other thing. And you just keep trudging along. And thank God, I’ve been in this business now 60 years.

I just kept working, working, whatever dates came up, do them. Because you never knew what was gonna happen from one day to another. Things over the years have been very, very good to me. And I think one of the reasons for the resurgence for me and I think for Frank and Fabe was when we put that show, The Golden Boys, together back in 1985. It started a whole new career for the three of us.

When we started doing the show, I said, “Cheech — I call Frank Cheech — this is fantastic but how long is this gonna last, Frank? A year, two years tops, it’s over.” What is it, 2020? We’re still doing the show and it’s bigger now than it was back in 1985.

The girls used to throw their bras and panties and now they throw Depends.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021; New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock; the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

New York, NY

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