Bobby Rydell, one of the first music idols to spur teen fandom in the Fifties and Sixties, has died at age 79. His death was caused by complications from pneumonia, a rep for the artist confirmed in a statement.
“He had the best pipes,” his good friend and radio legend Jerry Blavat told the Inquirer. “He could do Sinatra, he could do anything… He could do comedy. He played the drums. He was a great mimic… He could have been as big as Bobby Darin, but he didn’t want to leave Philadelphia.”
Known for his rendition of “Volare,” and tracks “Wild One” and “Wildwood Days,” Rydell got his start playing drums at the age of 9, performing professionally in Philadelphia. He’d go on to sell more than 25 million records. Some of his other notable tracks include “Kissin’ Time,” “The Cha-Cha-Cha” and “Swingin’ School.”
His track “We Got Love” became his first hit to reach a million sales. “Little Bitty Girl” was his second.
Rydell appeared in Dick Van Dyke’s Bye Bye Birdie, the film adapted from the musical of the same name, starring alongside Ann-Margret in 1963. He also appeared in 1975’s That Lady From Peking.
Rydell High School, the setting for Grease, is named after the singer. Though he toured solo for much of his life, he was also one of the Golden Boys, alongside Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Like his fellow Golden Boys, Rydell reached success thanks to appearances on American Bandstand. (Rolling Stone ranked the trio 5th in a list of teen idols “who have shaped generations.”)
A Philadelphia native, Rydell has several streets named after him in the city. He became the youngest singer to headline New York’s Copacabana nightclub in 1961.
As news of his death circulated online, the frontman of hometown band Low Cut Connie shared a tribute for the late singer on Instagram. “RIP to my pal South Philly legend Bobby Rydell,” Adam Weiner wrote. “He was a fantastic singer and a true gentleman. Thanx Bobby.”
Back in 2012, Rydell underwent a double-organ transplant after needing a new liver and kidney due to alcoholism earlier in his life. In 2016, he released his autobiography Bobby Rydell, Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances.
“[It’s a] second chance of doing what I’ve been doing all my life, ever since the age of maybe 6, 7 years old. And, my God, if I couldn’t do that anymore, I really don’t know what the heck would happen. I never really had a job,” he told The Morning Call in 2016, referring to his 2012 surgery. “[My life has] had its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys… But I’ve survived through all of that, and I’m continuing to do what I really enjoy doing.”