[12 August 2010]
Bobby Rydell (born Robert Louis Ridarelli) was one of the original teen idols, those handsome Italian American Philadelphia singers launched by Dick Clark and “American Bandstand”. Like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, Rydell’s good looks were as important to his persona as his musical aptitude. At the precious age of 9, he appeared on Paul Whiteman’s “Teen Club” television program and was a steady presence for the next three years. Rydell had his first hit record, “Kissing Time”, in 1959 when he was just 17 years old.
Rydell became a movie star in 1963 as Hugo Peabody in Bye Bye Birdie. Audiences saw him as the All-American boy, clean-cut and wholesome, but still dreamy. Rydell made such an impression that when the Broadway musical about the fifties Grease came out during the late seventies, the school the characters attended was appropriately named Rydell High.
The early sixties were a strange time in the history of rock and roll. The Congressional hearings into Payola tainted rock’s reputation. Everyone from Elvis Presley to Bobby Darin tried to clean up his act and sound more adult. Rydell was always much more of a pop star than a rocker, so it wasn’t much a stretch to have him perform the Great American Songbook for his young fans. His 1961 album Salutes the “Great Ones”, recently reissued by Collector’s Choice, has him pay tribute to Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra (whose caricatures appear on the record cover). Rydell does swinging covers of such non-rock tunes as “That Old Black Magic” and “Birth of the Blues” as breezily as if he’s crooning a new pop song, and the effect is—well, odd. He’s waxing nostalgic for an era before he or his fans were born and reduces what was once edgy material info something merely entertaining. In some ways, this is really no different from what Grease did to the music of the fifties. It took what was once dangerous music and turned it into something campy and catchy.
The most bizarre songs on the record are the ones most removed from any sort of context. This is especially true of the Jolson cuts, especially “Mammy”. Rydell recorded this during the height of resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement. He may not have donned blackface, but his audiences would have found the song dated at best.
Collector’s Choice has repacked this disc with Rydell’s other 1961 release, Rydell at the Copa. The high sound quality of this new collection should be noted. Collector’s Choice has not only provided sonically clear pressings of the music, the label has also included the original liner notes and cover art in addition to new notes and research by James Ritz and comments by Bobby Rydell himself about the old albums.
Still, one does have to wonder why. Rydell may have sold lots of records during an era when rock and roll suffered on the pop charts, but he was never a major talent. He did have charisma and charm. One can hear it on the repartee between him and his audience at the Copacabana, as Rydell does comic impressions of Red Skeleton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper and Frank Fontaine’s John L. C. Silvoney. Rydell’s impressions generate a heartier response than his music does, but it’s not for lack of effort.
The centerpiece of the live show is a giant 13-song, fifteen-minute-plus medley bookended by “They Don’t Write Them Like That Anymore” and includes everything from the sugary “The Music Goes ‘Round and ‘Round” and the nonsensical “Mairzy Doats” to the more rhythm and blues oriented “Open the Door Richard” and “Caldonia”, ending with abbreviated versions of Rydell’s own hits “Wild One” and “Volare”. Rydell gives it all he’s got as a showman, but there’s little of lasting value here.
That hurts me to admit. I presume I am older than most of the people reading this. When I was nine in 1963, I was a big fan of Bobby Rydell and repeatedly played my 45 rpm copy of “Forget Him” on my portable record player. That song doesn’t appear on Rydell at the Copa. Instead, we have another version of “Mammy” and “That Old Black Magic”, not to mention “Old Man River” and other forgettable tunes. Rydell raps about the future on his live album, and talks about how dated his music will seem to a new generation. He had no idea…