Bobby Rydell, singer and Philly native known for 'Wildwood Days,' dies at 79

The teen idol got his big break in 1959 on "American Bandstand," which originally was broadcast from Philadelphia.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022
Singer, Philadelphia native Bobby Rydell dies at 79
Bobby Rydell, a pompadoured heartthrob of early rock 'n roll who was a native of Philadelphia, died Tuesday. He was 79.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Bobby Rydell, a pompadoured heartthrob of early rock 'n roll who was a native of Philadelphia, died Tuesday.

Rydell died of complications from pneumonia at Abington Jefferson Hospital, according to a statement posted by his marketing and event coordinator Maria Novey.

Rydell, who credited a 2012 kidney and liver transplant with extending his life, was 79.

Along with James Darren, Fabian and Frankie Avalon, Rydell was among a wave of wholesome teen idols who emerged after Elvis Presley and before the rise of the Beatles.

Singer Bobby Rydell from Philadelphia, Pa., is shown aboard a luxury liner in New York City after arrival from Europe, March 12, 1962.
AP Photo

Between 1959 and 1964, he had nearly three dozen Top 40 singles including "Wild One," "Volare," "Wildwood Days," "The Cha-Cha-Cha" and "Forget Him," a song of consolation for a bereft girl that helped inspire the Beatles' classic "She Loves You."

He had recurring roles on "The Red Skelton Show" and other television programs, and 1963's "Bye Bye Birdie" was rewritten to give Rydell a major part as the boyfriend of Ann-Margret. He didn't want to move to Hollywood, however, and "Birdie" became his only significant movie role - though the high school in the hit '70s musical "Grease" was named for him.

Rydell never strayed far from his Philadelphia roots, living in the area for most of his life. The block of 11th Street where he grew up was christened Bobby Rydell Boulevard by his hometown in 1995.

In this Oct. 28, 2000 file photo, singer Bobby Rydell gather before a dinner given by the National Italian American Federation in Washington.
(AP Photo/Linda Spillers, file)

He was born Robert Ridarelli in a South Philadelphia neighborhood that would also produce teen idols Darren, Fabian and Avalon. They knew each other as children - Rydell played drums with Avalon on trumpet in a group called Rocco and the Saints.

Before he graced the covers of teen magazines and movie screens, Rydell made his bones as a youngster in Philadelphia clubs.

He made his performance debut as a 7-year-old drummer, not a singer. His first drum kit was a gift from his father, Al Ridarelli, who inspired his son's choice of instrument by taking him to see Gene Krupa perform.

At age 9, he debuted on an amateur television show and became its regular drummer for three years.

Rydell got his big break in 1959 on "American Bandstand," which originally was broadcast from Philadelphia. His first hit, "Kissing Time," quickly followed, and the skinny 17-year-old with a pompadour haircut rocketed to stardom. Rydell and his fellow Philadelphia performers were ideal for "Bandstand" host Dick Clark, who sought to make rock n' roll palatable to young and old. He also made live appearances nationwide on a tour organized by Clark.

Changing musical tastes ushered in by the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion defused the hit-making careers of Rydell and his compatriots, and he continued performing and recording music with limited success in the late 1960s and 1970s. But in 1985, he joined his old friends Avalon and Fabian for what they thought would be a few appearances. They dubbed themselves "The Golden Boys of Bandstand," and the shows were so successful that the trio ended up touring for three years and performing 300 shows nationwide.

The 1963 megahit "Wildwood Days" is the anthem for the popular South Jersey town. Wildwood continues to play Rydell's song to this day to welcome visitors to the seaside destination.

"I had the pleasure of meeting Bobby Rydell a number of times. A consummate entertainer and more importantly, a real gentleman. Despite his success, he never forgot his roots. He really loved Wildwood. May every day be a holiday and every night a Saturday night. Rest in peace, Wildwood's favorite son," said Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron on Tuesday night.

Those who knew Rydell personally say he never forgot where he came from and always gave back to his community.

"He was always very generous with his time and volunteered for various charities," said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.

Ann Catania, of Ten Pennies Florist, was a family friend of the Rydells. She even designed flowers for his daughter's wedding.

"You'll never forget his music, love or friendship. I'm sad that we lost someone like him," she said.

Radio personality Jerry Blavat, also known as "The Geator with the Heater," played many of Rydell's hits over the years.

"This was the sound before Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. This was rock and roll music at the height of rock and roll. Bobby was a seasoned performer," said Blavat.

For over 30 years, Rydell performed in hundreds of shows across the country. He was scheduled to sing in June at Atlantic City's Golden Nugget.

Rydell's childhood sweetheart and first wife, Camille, died in 2003.

He is survived by his second wife, Linda Hoffman, whom he married in 2009, along with son Robert Ridarelli, daughter Jennifer Dulin, and five grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.