BY RICK SHEFCHIK
We knew Alzheimer’s would take Bobby Vee from us eventually, but it still seems too soon, too much, too unfair.
Wasn’t he just 15?
Didn’t he just step confidently onto that stage in Moorhead and make his first public appearance in place of Buddy Holly?
Didn’t he just reel off a string of Top 10 hits written by Carole King and other Brill Building giants?
Didn’t we just see him a few weeks, a few months, a few years ago, touring with his sons and playing all his familiar favorites?
Isn’t there some way we can freeze time and keep this kind, caring, creative young man eternally with us?
It seems the younger they are when they first burst upon the scene, the quicker they fade out of sight – drugs, booze, sex, scandal, indolence, or an inability to handle all the pressures that fame can thrust upon the famous. But that didn’t happen to Robert Velline of Fargo, North Dakota. He became Bobby Vee, but he never stopped being the nice guy that everybody liked, admired, and thought of as a friend. In some ways, he was always the kid who had to beg his older brother to let him into their basement band, who wrote songs in study hall, who gave young Bob Dylan a chance to play piano in his band, and who somehow beat all the odds and went from, yes, a complete unknown to one of the biggest-selling singers in the U.S.
Bobby Vee seems fixed in our minds as a teenager because that’s exactly what he was when he and The Shadows volunteered to fill in for Buddy Holly at the Winter Dance Party on February 3, 1959, after Holly was killed in a plane crash in Iowa. He was still just 16 when he and the band journeyed to Minneapolis in the spring of 1959 to record his composition “Suzie Baby,” the first rock and roll record recorded at Kay Bank studio and released on Soma records. Just a few months later, he was signed by Liberty Records and moved to Los Angeles, while his classmates were returning to Fargo Central for another year of English composition and algebra.
It was the dawning of the era of the teen idol – Ricky, Frankie, Fabian, and others – and Bobby Vee had the perfect voice to bridge the gap between the hiccuppy rockabilly style of Holly and the smoother pop sounds that began to dominate the radio. The best songwriters of the era – Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach, Jack Keller, Howard Greenfield, Helen Miller – could have placed their songs with anyone, but they frequently turned to young Bobby Vee, knowing he would deliver every nuance and emotion in their material.
Several generations have come and gone since the 18-year-old Vee topped the charts with such great songs as “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Run to Him” – just two years after leaving his midwestern home – but time shouldn’t blunt his remarkable accomplishments. Nor should his ten years on the Top 40 charts be looked at as the defining entry in his curriculum vitae.
Long after his hitmaking days were over, Bobby Vee continued to make huge contributions to his community and to his fraternity of musicians. He had four children with his high-school sweetheart, Karen (they’d been married for 51 years when she passed away last year), and his three sons played in his touring band for decades. He was also a tireless promoter and advisor to his friends in the music business. On his return from a tour of Europe – where he remained a big star into the 1990s and beyond – he informed friend Tony Andreason of the Trashmen that they, too, had a huge following in England, Germany, and France. “You should go over there,” he urged them. They did, to great acclaim and ever-increasing tour schedules. When Bob Lind – singer/songwriter of “Elusive Butterfly” fame – decided he wanted to return to the music business a few years ago, it was Bobby Vee – his first friend in Los Angeles – who spent hours on the phone with him, helping him strategize his comeback.
In a business where being a self-centered hedonist is almost considered part of the definition of success, Bobby Vee was the opposite: humble, loyal, helpful, and decent. No one who worked with him, knew him, or had a chance meeting with him had anything but the kindest words to say about him. To his final days – suffering from an illness that cruelly makes its sufferers forget even the best parts of themselves – Bobby Vee never forgot to treat people with courtesy and respect. He never stopped being that great 15-year-old high school kid who everybody really liked, and who could really sing.