Write what you know is a common suggestion for writers.
It turned out to be sound advice for Cameo Parkway Records of Philadelphia in the early 1960s. The label’s songwriting staff composed such hits as “South Street” by the Orlons and “Bristol Stomp” by the Dovells and found favor with record buyers nationally with the help of a little local flavor.
A third song, “Wildwood Days” by Bobby Rydell, continues to enjoy a wave of popularity that shows no sign of ebbing 50 years after its release.
“It’s like the national anthem of Wildwood,” says Rydell, who will perform Friday through Sunday (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) at the Atlantic Club and Casino. “Wildwood Days,” which reached the Top 20 on Billboard’s singles charts, is a fixture in his set lists whenever he performs at the Jersey shore or the Philadelphia area, he adds.
The song’s driving beat and promise of a vacation utopia — “where every day is a holiday/and every night is a Saturday night” — sold the Wildwoods better than any advertising campaign could.
When filmmaker Carolyn Travis set out to make a documentary about Wildwood, there was no doubt about what to call the movie.
“Wildwood Days was always the title,” she says of the 2008 film. “It was my first thought and nothing seemed right after that. The song came out when I was a little kid going to Wildwood with my parents, so it had good memories attached,” adds Travis.
Rydell’s version of “Wildwood Days” is featured prominently on the movie soundtrack and is used to introduce different segments of the film. He also is shown performing the song at the Italian-American Festival in North Wildwood in 2004.
The success of “Wildwood Days” means that Rydell, 71, will have a permanent link to the Cape May County resort, but his association with Wildwood dates to his childhood in the early 1940s.
“My grandmother had a boarding house at 232 E. Montgomery Avenue,” says Rydell, recalling spending summers with his parents there and his grandmother’s culinary abilities. “She would cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for boarders and charge $100 a week.”
During the 1950s, Rydell was attracted to Wildwood’s vibrant music scene. Too young to go inside the clubs, he would stand outside on the sidewalk and soak in the sounds.
“At the Rainbow, I remember hearing Georgie Young and the Rockin’ Bocs,” says Rydell, who praised Young’s work as a saxophonist. Rydell would use the group as his backing band on “Kissin’ Time,” the 1959 single that went to No. 11 on the Billboard singles charts and launched his career. By the end of 1965, Rydell would place 30 songs in the Top 100 of Billboard’s singles charts, with 19 cracking the Top 40.
Ironically, Rydell was not the first Cameo Parkway artist to record “Wildwood Days.”
The Dovells featured the song on the flip side of “Bristol Stomp,” the group’s hit single released in the spring of 1963.
Kal Mann and Dave Appell, who frequently worked together, teamed up to write the song.
“You write something that people relate to,” Appell said in a 2007 interview in which he talked about his approach to songwriting.
“Sometimes I had a melody and Kal would have a lyric,” Appell recalled. “Kal had his finger on the pulse on what was going on in those days.”
Rydell says his family history led to him getting a shot at “Wildwood Days” in the wake of the Dovells’ effort. “The owners of Cameo Parkway knew I was a Wildwood guy.”
While the Dovells featured group vocals on their version, Rydell’s lead singing with help from his backing singers gave the song a lively party feeling that’s heightened by the interplay of the horn section and organ.
“It’s a great song to dance to and sing along with,” says Rydell, who was just 20 when he made the recording.
By May 1963, Rydell was riding high as “Wildwood Days” was climbing the charts and Bye Bye Birdie, which featured the singer in a supporting role opposite Ann-Margret, was arriving in movie theaters across the country.
Rydell spent much of the spring promoting the song in concerts and sock hops around the country and also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ultimately, the song would climb to No. 17 on the Billboard charts, a strong showing for a song about a South Jersey resort.
Looking back, Rydell says “Wildwood Days” will always have a special place in his career.
“I can be introduced to young people and they won’t know who I am, but they’ll know ‘Wildwood Days.’”