Heartthrob Bobby Rydell has been a rock and roll teen idol ("Wild One," "Volare," "We Got Love," "Kissin' Time"); movie star ("Bye Bye Birdie" co-starring Ann Margaret and Dick Van Dyke); television entertainer, and night club and concert performer -- both as a solo act and with his fellow 1960s teen idol buddies Frankie Avalon and Fabian, touring with "The Golden Boys of Bandstand."
The first 65 years were kind to the 70-year-old Philadelphia native until life threw him a curve ball. His life as he knew it erupted into a downhill slide of unpleasant health issues -- cirrhosis of the liver to be exact -- which continued to plague him until it became obvious several months ago that, without a liver and kidney transplant, his life was over. I caught up with the former teen superstar, at his home in Philadelphia, to talk to him about his life-and-death struggle, why it's so important for people to put themselves on the organ donor list, his rock and roll years as a teen idol and what advice he might have for the current teen idols -- including Justin Bieber.
First order of business, how are you feeling?
I'm feeling fantastic, really great!
I was so surprised to read that you had gone through a liver and kidney transplant this past July.
Yeah, actually I was in the OR July 9th and I was in there for the better part of 20 hours and both organs were transplanted. The liver first and the kidney second.
How frightened were you that day?
You know what? I kind of figured that the liver was really, really bad and the kidney was starting to malfunction and I said, "well let's give it a shot." If it works, it works; if it doesn't, goodbye. That was my only alternative. I had to do it -- win, lose or draw. And when the doctor opened me up and he told my wife if I didn't get the new liver, I had maybe two to three weeks to live. That's how bad the liver was.
I remember July the 8th, my wife and I were lying in bed and we weren't hearing anything, and I just turned to my wife Linda and I said, "Nah, it's not going to happen. I'm going to go." And the next morning we were having breakfast, and we got a call from Jefferson, the hospital here in Philadelphia, and they said, "Get your ass over here." We get there about 12:30, and admissions had everything set up.
When did you first know that you had to have the transplant?
Actually I've known it for quite a few years but the last six months was when it was really getting bad. I've had cirrhosis for the better part of five or six years. I did drink quite a bit but not to the point where I was falling down and being stupid and drunk all over the place. I just drank. My body was able to tolerate the drinking up to a certain point, and that's when five, six years ago the doctor says, "Bobby, you have cirrhosis of the liver. You've got to watch yourself. Take it easy on the drinking." I did, but the more you drink -- even if it's just a couple of drinks a day -- it's going to affect the liver. And me not really thinking about it that much... I'd have a drink at dinner, a drink at lunch, a drink after the show, and it caught up with me.
The last few months, did you think about dying or did you try to keep a positive attitude and what was your routine?
No that never really entered my mind, and my wife -- we're married three years now. This is my second wife. My first wife passed away in 2003 with breast cancer. My new wife, Linda, was a nurse for 36 years. God bless her. She really looked after me. Prior to the transplant [I was] five to six months in and out of the hospital. I had to go to Jefferson and get needles in my stomach to drain the fluid. And then you get this encephelosocy that makes you go cuckoo. You don't remember. You start saying really weird things. Thank God my wife was a nurse. She knew from the get-go what was happening.
I read where you said that organ donorship is the gift of life. What's your message to people who could actually help save a life by donating their organs?
I never met the young girl who saved my life ... not only my life, but she saved eight other lives: a kidney, a liver, a lung, eyes, heart ... and it's so important, on their [driver's license] ID's, to become an organ donor because it saves so many lives. It's just a tremendous thing to give somebody a new gift, a new lease on life. Because I was dead. I was gone. If you look back, and you say: my God, this girl was 21 years old, but look at what she did, how many lives she saved.
What became important to you in your life in the months leading up to the transplant?
I guess the most important thing was that I am still here, and within the next month or so, hopefully I'll be able to get back to do what I really love to do and that is to perform in front of an audience on stage and start singing again.
Will you and Frankie Avalon and Fabian be doing your "Golden Boys of Bandstand" concerts again?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. We started this in 1985. And Frankie and I were talking: "How long is this going to last, a year? Two tops." Here it is 2012 and we're still doing it. And it's better than what it was in 1985.
You guys were the original teen idols. Do you miss the good ol' days, back when you were at the height of your careers?
Noooo.... Not really. (Laughs) It's nice to reflect and go back on those particular days, but it's so nice, right now, when people come up, very politely, and ask for an autograph or ask if they can they take a picture. In 1959, 1960, 12 dozen police had to get you in and out of a building -- which, at that time, was absolutely fantastic. It was great. But that was then and this is now. It's so much easier now.
Now you have screaming grandmothers instead of screaming teenagers. How does that feel?
You know, you just go back to that era and how great it was. It was great music. People come in and have had a bad day or whatever, and they come and see the show, and after the show, they'll say, "Oh, it was so wonderful. You made my day!" When the three of us are on stage, we're having fun. We're not trying to fool anybody. Everybody has known us know for the better part of 50 years. We just go out there and have fun and the audience can see that. The show lasts close to two hours. It's a great show. Frankie does his thing, I do my think, Fabian does his thing, then the three of us come out together. We do a tribute to artists who have passed away, like Ricky Nelson, Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. It's called a tribute and the audience just goes nuts. They go crazy.
What advice would you have for today's teen idols, like Justin Bieber, when it comes to life after teen idol?
You know what ... not that I feel sorry, but I mean all of a sudden, you see these [people] and from nothing to like overnight becoming like a superstar -- that's hard to handle when you're like, what? 15 years old? I was lucky, and I think the majority of the artists from the time I started recording, paid what we call dues. You went around, you did clubs, you sang, you auditioned, you did things in front of people. You'd get: "Thank you very much, we'll get in touch with you." So, it's gotta be hard for the kids -- a guy or a girl -- to handle that overnight success. And the money factor, overnight you become a multimillionaire. That's got to be hard. What can I say? I just wish those kids a lot of luck. Hopefully they can keep their heads together and stay on the right path.