Sunday, December 10

Bobby Rydell, Pop Singer and ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ Actor, Dies at 79

Bobby Rydell, the pop singer and onetime teen idol from Philadelphia who starred opposite Ann-Margaret and Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie, has died. He was 79.

Rydell died Tuesday at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, WPVI-TV in Philadelphia reported. He was still touring and scheduled to perform at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City in June.

After hitting it big with such songs as “Wild One” and his version of “Volare,” Rydell portrayed Hugo Peabody in the George Sidney-directed film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie (1963) in the role that Michael J. Pollard originated on Broadway opposite Van Dyke, Susan Watson and Chita Rivera.

The part in the movie was greatly expanded to feature him, and he and Ann-Margaret (as Kim) played high school steadies.

“Peabody in the Broadway show was absolutely nothing, he never sang, he never danced, he didn’t do anything,” he said in 2013. “When we first got on the set at Columbia, my script got bigger and bigger and bigger every day.”

Robert Louis Ridarelli was born in Philadelphia on April 26, 1942. Encouraged by his father, Adrio, he began performing at age 7 in area nightclubs, then won a TV competition on Paul Whiteman’s Teen Club amateur program. (It was Whiteman who suggested he take the name Rydell.)

He sang and played drums in the dance band Rocco and the Saints with Frankie Avalon (who played trumpet), signed with Cameo/Parkway Records and had his first hit with “Kissin’ Time” in 1959.

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Bobby Rydell and Ann-Margret in 1963’s ‘Bye Bye Birdie’
Courtesy Everett Collection

His found further success that year with “We Got Love,” followed by “Wild One” (which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100), “Sway,” “Little Bitty Girl,” “Swingin’ School,” “Ding-a-Ling” and “Volare,” which peaked at No. 4 in the summer of 1960. That year, he toured Australia with the Everly Brothers.

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In 1961, he became the youngest performer to headline the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York.

Rydell had other top-20 hits with “Wildwood Days” in 1963 — he called that “the national anthem of the Jersey Shore” — and “Forget Him,” which reached No. 4 in January 1964. That year, he signed with Capitol Records, but his popularity waned amid the British invasion. Still, he sold in the neighborhood of 25 million records during his career.

“I was not really a rock-and-roll singer,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016, when he published his memoir, Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol on the Rocks. “That’s what you had to do to make it. I’m an American Songbook guy.”

He soldiered on in nightclubs for decades as a popular performer — he sang with Avalon and Fabian, another Philly legend, in an oldies act called “The Golden Boys” — and Rydell High School in the 1978 box office smash Grease was named for him.

In 2012, he underwent a double organ transplant, receiving 75 percent of a liver and one kidney.

Survivors include his wife, Linda.

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