The 60s pop icon passed away this week at age 79
The opening of “Swingin’ School” – “Chicks! Kicks! Cats! Cool!” – holds out the promise of teen rowdiness and general mayhem, like Jerry Lee Lewis’ “High School Confidential,” but Bobby Rydell was not Jerry Lee Lewis.
He was, more to the point, the anti-Jerry Lee Lewis, in the way that Because They’re Young (the tamest of the teensploitation movies, which opens with “Swingin’ School”) was the anti-High School Confidential. Rydell, who passed away recently, represented non-threatening politeness, cheerful exuberance.
He dug girls, of course (he even had a single called “I Dig Girls”), but it wasn’t very likely that those girls would find themselves in even mild peril. When he and his steady graduate from the Swingin’ School, he promises, they’re gonna settle down (quite near the school), have a house, a car, a swimmin’ pool. It was like nobody told Bobby that rock’n’roll was not about looking forward to settling down.
AUDIO: Bobby Rydell “Wild One”
On “Wild One,” another of his early hits, he tells the titular girl that he’s going to make her settle down (tame her, is how he puts it): again, the opposite of what was on offer from other singers of his era, even from his own neck of the woods (Philadelphia).
Fabian, a less talented performer, to be sure, was a tiger on the prowl. “Turn Me Loose,” he sang. “Gonna get a thousand kicks, kiss a thousand chicks.”
Rydell was a one-girl guy. Listen to “We Got Love”: “I got three thousand hugs I’m savin’ for only you.” (Later, he suggests that as a married couple, they will have seven kids, maybe even eight.) High school was just a fun pit stop on the path to normalcy (hence, Rydell High in Grease).
VIDEO: Grease movie opening
On one Sunday night of television in 1961, you could see the contrast plainly. Over on one channel, Fabian was playing a serial killer in a lurid Robert Altman-directed episode of Bus Stop; on another, Bobby Rydell was joshing with Jack Benny, and singing “Toot Toot Tootsie.”
Which is not to say that Rydell’s records weren’t appealing. “Wildwood Days,” “Steel Pier” and “Third House in From the Right” are credible frat-pop that aren’t miles away from the later Jersey Shore sound (the saxophone of Buddy Savitt points to how Clarence Clemons burst out on his solos in the early E Street Band). He proved himself a capable crooner on “Volare” and “Sway.” On “I Wanna Thank You” he channeled the vibe of Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns.
VIDEO: Bobby Rydell on The Jack Benny Program
Later, after leaving Cameo-Parkway Records for Capitol, he made an album produced by David Axelrod, covered the Kinks (“When I See That Girl of Mine”) and Anthony Newley (“The Joker”), and did a nice Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil song, “Not You.” But by then, his chart-topping days were done. In late 1963, he had a big hit with the catchy “Forget Him” (some people say the song influenced the writing of Lennon and McCartney’s “She Loves You,” but frankly I don’t hear it). A few weeks later, the British Invasion began, and Rydell never cracked the top 40 again.
Rydell rose to prominence at a weird pop juncture. He needed to have hit singles, be profiled in Dig, Teen Scene and 16 magazines (“I want a girl who’s NOT popular!” one 16 cover line quoted him), appear on American Bandstand, play the Brooklyn Paramount, which is where I saw him on the bill at a Murray the K-Clay Cole show in 1961.
VIDEO: Bobby Rydell performs “Volare” on American Bandstand
At the same time, he was preparing for a career beyond teen idoldom, which was thought to have an expiration date. So the same year he was at the Paramount with Dion and Bobby Vee, and did a duet album with Chubby Checker, he headlined at the Copacabana (an album exists of that engagement), showed up on many TV variety shows (Red Skelton’s most frequently), and released LPs like Bobby Rydell Salutes “The Great Ones” (among the tracks: “Mammy,” “April Showers,” and an ultra-peppy take on “That Old Black Magic”), and An Era Reborn, where he and the Bernie Lowe Orchestra “recreate the days of the big bands.” There was a lot of bet-hedging going on, a lot of strange decision-making. Who did Cameo-Parkway think the audience was for Bobby Rydell singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”?
Like his neighbors Frankie Avalon and Fabian, Rydell was lured to Hollywood, but his tenure there was brief. He was offered the role of Hugo Peabody in the film version of Bye Bye Birdie, opposite Ann-Margret, and the best you can say about that is he gave it his best shot. Hugo is the earnest, goofy boy-next-door who wants a steady girl, Kim McFee, and would prefer that the girl he has pinned not kiss rock star Conrad Birdie on national television. Birdie, who has been drafted, is modeled on Elvis Presley, whose own conscription paved the way for the lnvasion of the Bobbys. Conrad is ripe for some action in the small town of Sweet Apple, Ohio.
“There are chicks just ripe for some kissin’,” he observes, “and I mean to kiss me a few.” So in this scenario, Hugo is the safe choice, the boy Kim’s parents might approve of, and that’s the role Rydell played in pop culture. If he can sing Al Jolson songs, pay homage to the big bands, be cordial to Jack Benny and Red Skelton, how dangerous can he possibly be?
He was just your average guy, looking for one (not that popular) girl, to settle down with near the swingin’ school, where they will send their seven or eight kids.