Bobby Rydell: Even in Early Rock ’n’ Roll, Sometimes the Center Held

The lazy history of early rock ’n’ roll suggests that Elvis and Chuck and Jerry Lee and Little Richard came along and obliterated the sleepy pop music that ruled the radio before they barged through the door.

There’s a certain romantic appeal to that image. The only problem is that while rock ’n’ roll did shake up the world, it didn’t kill pop in the process, and few artists illustrate that point better than Bobby Rydell, who died Tuesday at the age of 79 from pneumonia.

Bobby Rydell, 1962.

Bobby Rydell, born Robert Ridarelli, placed 29 songs on the charts between 1959 and 1965, which has never prevented many critics and fans from assessing him with a dismissive wave. They see him as one of the faux rockers of the early 1960s, a shallow pretty boy as bland as the crooners of a decade earlier.

They drop him in the disposable box with Fabian and Frankie Avalon, and for confirmation point to the fact that since 1985 Rydell had toured with Fabian and Avalon in the “Golden Boys” package. They had already lined up dates for this summer.

Fabian, it’s true, could not hit a note and was plucked off the street solely for his sultry looks. That does not mean the same is true for Bobby Rydell, though he had some reasonably sultry looks of his own.

No, Bobby Rydell cut a chain of records that may not have been “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” but sounded great on the radio. “Wild One” owes no apologies as a fine rock ’n’ roll record, and “Wildwood Days” remains one of those records you can’t play loud enough.

The thing is, rock ’n’ roll radio of the late 1950s and early 1960s was still as much pop as rock. Behind Elvis, rockers like Little Richard and Eddie Cochran shared the charts with Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Brook Benton, Tommy Edwards, the Fleetwoods, Patti Page, Sinatra, and a lot of less famous names. Fine artists widely honored as rock ’n’ rollers, like the Platters, came directly from the tradition of golden-age popular standards.

That said, it is true that Rydell was promoted to stardom in some measure because he could be marketed as clean-cut and, to be blunt, harmless.

As the 1950s came to an end, rock ’n’ roll had been tarred by a payola scandal. Some of its biggest stars, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, had been busted or condemned for alleged moral violations. And of course many old-school Americans remained horrified at what the likes of Elvis had brought into their living rooms, and the disturbing impact it had on their sons and daughters.

So the music industry was trying to find a way to retain the cool appeal of the music while delivering it through artists those outraged parents wouldn’t mind dating their daughters. Fabian instead of Elvis. Chubby Checker instead of Little Richard.

This effort to tame rock ’n’ roll couldn’t and didn’t work. Hundreds of artists spent the years between 1958 and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964 making terrific music anyway while putting the pieces in place for the explosion of the mid-‘60s.

More than a few of the “safe” artists ended up making some pretty good records, too, and that included Bobby Rydell. Yes, he was backed by chirpy vocal choruses on records like “Swinging School,” but Rydell himself wasn’t faking it.

If you told him you didn’t think he was singing real rock ’n’ roll, he could have argued that it was sure selling as if it were real. But more to the point, he wouldn’t have minded too much, because rock ’n’ roll wasn’t really his music anyway.

“I was never a rock ’n’ roll fan,” he said in a 1993 interview. “When I was 5 years old, my Dad would take me to [the old vaudeville theater] The Earle in Philadelphia to see the big bands. We saw Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Tex Beneke, the Dorsey Brothers.

“I fell in love with Gene Krupa, who had drummed for Goodman. I took drum lessons for five years, and I still love to play today.

“I bought records by Coleman Hawkins, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis. So I was really a big band and jazz fan, and to this day I still am.”

His breakthrough into the music biz came when he won a contest on Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club at the age of 8. He sang “Because of You.”

If life and the business had taken a few different turns, he said, that’s the kind of thing he would have kept singing for the rest of his life.

“I would love to have made it doing music like Steve Lawrence, Sinatra or Jack Jones,” he said. “But it didn’t happen that way.”

He didn’t give up standards entirely, though he said his “one regret” about his early-1960s record company, Cameo, is that “they wouldn’t let me do a big band album.”

He slipped a few pop songs into his releases, including “Volare” and “That Old Black Magic.” Mostly, though, he said, he just sang a lighter version of rock ’n’ roll.

“I don’t think I ever recorded a really heavy rock ’n’ roll record,” he said. “I guess my heaviest was ‘Wild One.’ But I don’t have bad feelings about the songs I recorded. There are a couple of that I would never sing again, like ‘The Fish,’ a dance I never understood. But 99% of them were quality music.”

Over the years he also got to sneak away from the Golden Boys once in a while for a fix of standards. “I did a live show with Peter Nero and the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra,” he said. “Eighty pieces. Three basses, a tuba, a harp. What wonderful music.”

In the late 1980s, he said in 1993, “I went into the studio with a big band and recorded an album of songs like ‘Bewitched,’ ‘A Fine Romance’ and ‘Cry Me a River.’ I paid for the whole session myself, but I couldn’t get a record company interested in putting it out. I’m 51. I’m a dinosaur.”

But he’s glad he did it, he said, because it meant he could meet his own standard of musicianship.

“To me, that’s what matters,” he said. “The music has to be right. It’s like when you’re on stage and if the band is cooking, you’re cooking, too.

“I took voice lessons all my life. I still do vocalizing exercises every day. I’m hoping to sing as long as my voice holds out.”

Rydell also wasn’t reluctant to assess the musicianship of others, including those he admired.

“There are times when I’ve heard Sinatra and I think to myself, why is he still doing it. But then there are other nights when he’s completely on.

“I don’t care for Linda Ronstadt’s sessions with Nelson Riddle. I’m just not sure I believe the lyrics the way she sings them. That’s the thing with Sinatra. He does ‘One For My Baby’ and no matter when or where he is, you absolutely believe every word.

“Bobby Darin left us much too young. We were good friends. He wasn’t the greatest singer, but as an entertainer he would have been Jimmy Cagney or James Stewart. He absolutely commanded respect on a stage.”

And himself?

“I was never the big sparkling star,” he said. “But I always considered myself a musician. I’m grateful how things worked out. I wouldn’t have changed them.”

Oh, those Wildwood days.

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”