Imagine being told by your doctor that you needed a double organ transplant and if it didn’t happen within two weeks or possibly a month you wouldn’t live. That was the fate faced by Bobby Rydell, one of the most talented and popular singers to come out of the “teen idol” era of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
If you’re a Baby Boomer who was into music back then — and who wasn’t? — you’ll remember such Rydell hits as “We Got Love,” “Kissin’ Time,” “Wild One,” “Wildwood Days,” “Swingin’ School,” “Forget Him” and his signature song, “Volare.” In all, the Philadelphia native had 34 Top 40 hits, placing him in the top five artists of his era, in addition to starring in the movie, “Bye Bye Birdie,” appearing in the stage production of “West Side Story,” becoming a regular on various TV shows and playing the storied Copa Cabana nightclub at age 19. And in an obvious a tribute to his stature, the high school in the movie “Grease” was named “Rydell High.”
What the 70 year old entertainer needed to survive was a liver and kidney, and with time running out for a donor he told his second wife Linda (his first wife died of breast cancer) he didn’t think it was going to happen, resigning himself to the worst. At this point his weight had dropped to 116 pounds. But the very next morning a call came from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia telling him to rush over.
Donor organs had been located with a portion of a liver going to a pediatric recipient and the rest to Mr. Rydell. With the liver being transplanted first and then the kidney, he spent 20 hours on the operating table during what his longtime personal assistant Linda Hoffman called, “The longest day of my life.” The operation was a success and there have been no subsequent signs of rejection.
Next step was to get his career back on track, which he did after several months of recuperation. His first post-surgery appearance came in January in a three-night engagement in Las Vegas where he received a thunderous reception from packed houses, later greeting well-wishers backstage, including this writer, with the politeness and grace that have marked his career.
He looked and sounded as good as ever, even dancing around to some of his hit songs in what has to be considered an amazing rebound from death’s door. Also included in the performance were musical tributes to Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin and he does their songs justice.
Mr. Rydell’s love of performing is reflected in a busy schedule with nationwide bookings through the end of this year. Some of them include fellow teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian who, when they perform together, bill themselves as “The Golden Boys.”
Needless to say, Mr. Rydell has become an enthusiastic spokesman for organ donorship. He points out that the 21 year old woman who saved his life also touched the lives of eight other people including transplants of a lung, eyes and heart. He urges everyone to become an organ donor on their driver’s licenses because it is literally “the gift of life.” As long as he is performing his calendar of events will include benefits for the cause.
If there is one piece of unfinished business in his life it’s the fact that he has yet to be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, something his millions of fans around the world consider an injustice. For those who agree, a petition urging his inclusion in the Hall is available at his official web site, bobbyrydell.com.
There was a time when he needed police escorts to navigate throngs of teenaged girls trying to rip his clothes off. They’re old and gray now, along with their spouses, and Mr. Rydell’s clothing is no longer in peril. The fans come to his concerts to be transported through music to the simpler days of ducktails, poodle skirts and sock hops, the era of early “American Bandstand.” They are not disappointed.
He turns 71 in late April, one of many singers from that long ago era still out there on the concert circuit keeping their music alive. The fact that he himself is still alive is thanks to a young woman who most likely had never heard of Bobby Rydell or heard so much as a note from his long string of hits.
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