Bobby Rydell talks new biography, dark days, and music

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The autobiography opens in darkness, with the onetime teen idol being wheeled into the operating room for lifesaving, possibly life-ending, liver- and kidney-transplant surgery.

The autobiography concludes in the sunshine that has been Bobby Rydell's life, darkened by only two clouds.

One was his mother. The second was alcohol.

Many in his circle knew his mother, Jennie, was controlling and obsessive, likely the result of undiagnosed mental problems.

Very few - not friends, not fans, certainly not the media - knew Rydell was a major-league drunk for nearly two decades.

The heavy drinking was a surprise to Lou Cioci, his friend "from the time we could walk" in South Philadelphia. "They hid it pretty good."

Some of this I knew from covering Rydell off and on over four decades. More I gleaned from his autobiography, Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol on the Rocks, a $16.95 soft cover from Dr. Licks Publishing that came out Wednesday.

Rocks is both metaphor and double entendre. His career wound up on the rocks because of his drinking - Ketel One on the rocks. He was knocking back four at a time. And they were doubles.

The book is written "with" Allan Slutsky, an award-winning guitarist and arranger, who arranged the book in chronological order and let Bobby be Bobby.

The Ciocis lived at 2421 S. 11th St., next door to the Ridarellis, in a house the Ciocis bought from the family of James Darren, another South Philly teen idol. Each an only child, they became inseparable - going to the Boys Club, playing records, seeing movies at the Colonial, smoking Lucky Strike loosies.

When Bobby Ridarelli took to the drums (which he mastered) at 7, Cioci picked up the trumpet (and is today co-leader of the 16-piece Clef Club Big Band). It was through the musicians' grapevine that Cioci first heard whispers his friend had a drinking problem.

Rydell began drinking in 1992 when he was 50, after his wife, Camille, told him she had breast cancer. He was terrified of losing his first and only love, of whom he dreams to this very day, he tells me. "[Our marriage] was 36 years, for God's sake."

At first, the drinking was a crutch. Before long, it was a cage. He continued drinking even when Camille was in remission.

After one rocky Golden Boys show with Frankie Avalon and Fabian, Avalon asked what was wrong with him.

"I was cool," Rydell insisted.

"No, you were drunk," Avalon hissed.

"He was ruining his life, his reputation, his relation with his wife, friends, family," Avalon tells me in a phone interview from the West Coast, where he now lives. "He got into some kind of a rut that brought him down to the gutter."

In the 1940s and '50s, Philly was a cauldron of talent, most of it bubbling in South Philly. Eddie Fisher, Joey Bishop, Jack Klugman, Al Martino, James Darren, Frankie Avalon, Fabian Forte, David Brenner, Chubby Checker - all became stars.

Bobby Ridarelli's father, Adrio, took his son to clubs - the RDA, 24, the Erie Social Club - asking whether the 7-year-old could sit in with the band, sing, and do impressions (he's a gifted mimic). By the time he was 10, Bobby had his own music charts, and, later, the Rydell stage name his father created.

I am talking with Rydell in his four-bedroom home on a one-acre hilltop in Penn Valley. He used the money from his first big hit to move his parents and grandparents from their 11th Street rowhouse into the 4,000-square-foot home.

One fact tells you a ton about the star: He lived in the same house with his grandparents and parents until they died. Family, friends, and home are his core, which helps explain why he never left Philly to further his career.

As a teen idol, he was painfully skinny, with a blinding Steinway smile and sharp cheekbones that looked like check marks. His pompadour was so big it needed a room of its own.

At 74, he's a grandfather, no longer skinny, and on this night, Rydell - a major fan of local teams - is wearing a Villanova championship cap above his moon-shaped face.

The hair?

"My hair is in a box upstairs. It travels with me," he laughs. "If I had my druthers, I'd perform without it, but I'm scared," he says seriously. It's one thing to joke about illusion, it's another thing to shatter it.

The glory days lasted only five years - 1959 to 1964 - but he's always worked, with 36 dates last year. His staying power is explained by his vocal talent and his ingratiating, boy-next-door stage presence.

To this day, Avalon, another teen idol who's always worked, says he "can't believe the vocal ability [Rydell] has. As an actor, as a comedian, as an impressionist, rapport with the audience, he is without doubt one of the most talented human beings of my entire generation."

"I was not really a rock-and-roll singer," Rydell says. "That's what you had to do to make it. I'm an American Songbook guy," which is what he sings now in his shows, plus Sinatra-related tunes. "But you've still got to do the hits."

I ask him which hit best encapsulates his life.

" 'Wildwood Days,' " he replies instantly.

That soap bubble of a tune?

"It's the national anthem of the Shore," he says, where his grandmother owned a boardinghouse and where, each summer, he lived those lyrics.

The song most closely associated with him? That's "Volare," he says, his face lighting up. "It's my walk-in music and my walk-off music."

When Camille died in 2003, his fear mushroomed and he crawled deeper into the bottle. Friends and family tried to help, but his despair was too dense.

Four long years of loneliness and misery ended in 2007, when he met Linda Hoffman, a chatty, brainy nurse and X-ray technician. He and Linda hit it off, and Rydell - who says he had become "a master of deception" - hid his drinking from her. They married in 2009, the same year his gastroenterologist gave him two years to live.

By 2012, he was in the hospital weekly. In addition to cirrhosis of the liver and kidney problems, he had encephalopathy, a brain disorder. "I'd actually defied the laws of physics and hit below rock bottom," he tells me.

At death's door, with his health and career almost gone, finally, the bottle was banished.

"I had no right to feel sorry for myself," he writes in Teen Idol. "I knew damn well how I had gotten where I was. Decades of drinking had ravaged my body and wrecked my liver and kidneys. I had no one to blame but yours truly."

In July 2012, he underwent a 20-hour liver and kidney transplant, followed by a March 2013 heart double-bypass encore, a "paper cut" compared to the transplant, he says with a grin.

By all rights, his suicidal behavior should have killed him, but he survived. He was alive but weak. An awful question gnawed at him.

Could he still sing? Because if Bobby Rydell could not sing . . .

He asked his oldest friend, Cioci, if he would quietly assemble the Clef Club Big Band for a tryout.

Cioci did. Rydell started low and fearful, like a man testing the ice on a pond.

Then he felt the power of the big band lift him. "All of a sudden it came out - Pow!" he says. "I scared myself. My chops were there."

Clean and sober, Bobby Rydell was back.

stubyko@phillynews.com

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