Bobby Rydell, the early 1960s teen idol who starred opposite Ann-Margaret in Bye Bye Birdie, died on Monday in Philadelphia. He was 79. Rydell was such a dominating force in pre-British Invasion American pop culture that in the Broadway musical and film Grease, Rydell High School was named in his honor.
Rydell died after a battle with pneumonia. His longtime friend, radio legend Jerry Blavat, confirmed his death to Variety. "Out of all the kids" from his era, Rydell "had the best pipes and was the greatest entertainer," Blavat said. "He told the best stories, did the best impersonations, and was the nicest guy."
Rydell was born in Philadelphia and scored his first hit with the 1959 single "Kissin' Time." His first million-selling single was "We Got Love," which was followed by his signature song, "Wild One." Some of his other big hits include "Swingin' School," "Little Bitty Girl," "Ding-A-Ling," "Volare," "Sway," "I've Got Bonnie," and "The Cha-Cha-Cha." His last big hit was "Forget Him," released in January 1964, just as Beatlemania began to grip the country.
In 1963, Rydell starred in the film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie. He played Hugo Peabody, Kim's (Ann-Margaret) high school sweetheart, who is not happy after Kim wins a contest to kiss teen idol Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) on television. In the original Broadway play, Hugo was not a significant role, but it was expanded for the movie when Rydell was cast.
"I go see the play, and I'm looking at Hugo Peabody, and he doesn't sing, there are no lines, there's no dancing, he just stood there," Rydell told From The Mixed-Up Files in 2020 when asked about his Bye Bye Birdie experience. "But, when I go out to start filming, Mr. (George) Sidney saw some kind of magic between Ann-Margret and myself, and every day that I went back to Columbia Studios, my script got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. More dialogue, more singing, more dancing. And I'm not a movie star by any stretch of the imagination, but if I had to be in one picture, it's a classic, such as Grease. And I'm really happy to be involved with something that was that wonderful."
Since Grease was set in 1959, just as Rydell's popularity began to explode, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey named their fictional high school setting after the singer. In a 2016 interview with The Morning Call, Rydell called it an "honor" to be part of Grease, although he was surprised Casey and Jacobs didn't pick even bigger names. "I said, 'Why me?' It could have been Anka High, Presley High, Everyly High, Fabian High, Avalon High," Rydell said. "And they came up with Rydell High, and once again, total honor."
Born Robert Louis Ridarelli, Rydell continued performing long after his last hit single. In 1985, he joined Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte for the Golden Boys tour. They were planning on another spring and summer tour for 2022.
Rydell was married to his first wife, Camille Quattrone Ridarelli, from 1968 until she died in 2003. He married his second wife, Linda Hoffman, in 2009. He had a liver and kidney transplant in 2012. He also wrote the memoir Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol on the Rocks: A Tale of Second Chances.