by Sean Smith
This week the music industry lost a star with the death of 1960s pop idol Bobby Vee. The singer passed away on Monday, culminating a five year fight with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 73 years old.
Bobby Vee was born Robert Velline in Fargo, North Dakota in 1943. He was born into a musical family with his father playing piano and violin, his uncle the saxophone and his two brothers playing the guitar. Vee got into music himself at a young age. By high school he was playing saxophone in his high school band and trying to join his big brother Bill’s band. He was finally allowed to join his sibling’s band, and because he knew the lyrics to all the current pop songs of the time from constantly listening to the radio, he was made the group’s lead singer. The band called themselves the Shadows, and in 1959 they got their big break in large part due to a tragic event that altered the shape of the music industry.
On February 3, 1959 a small plane carrying rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed killing all on board. The musicians were on their way to play a show in Moorhead, Minnesota. That day is often referred to as “The Day the Music Died,” after the lyric in Don McLean’s 1971 song about the incident “American Pie.” However, the tragic accident did provide a bittersweet opportunity for Bobby Vee to kickstart his musical career.
At the age of 15, Bobby Vee and the rest of his brother’s band the Shadows got the opportunity to perform at that show in Moorhead, Minnesota that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper were originally scheduled to perform at. The performance was viewed largely as a success for the Shadows and in a matter of months the band had a regional hit with the song “Suzie Baby.” This success had many record labels clamoring to sign the group, with Bobby Vee and the Shadows ultimately deciding to sign with Liberty Records.
During the early years of the Shadows, the band welcomed a little known Minnesota native to the band who was calling himself Elston Gunn. That man’s real name was Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known in the years to come as the legendary Bob Dylan. Dylan, or should I say Elston Gunn at the time, did not play with the Shadows for long. However, he did have a lasting impact on the musical career of Bobby Vee. In 1959 Dylan convinced Vee, who was still going by his full last name of Velline, that perhaps Vee would be a bit catchier name for showbiz.
By 1960 Bobby Vee had a string of hits with “Suzie Baby,” “What Do You Want?” and “Rubber Ball.” The first of what would be 38 total songs released by Vee to enter the Billboard Hot 100 over his career. Bobby Vee had his first song top the U.S. charts in 1961 when “Take Good Care of My Baby” sat atop the mainstream Hot 100 chart. Some of his other notable hit’s throughout the 1960s included “Come Back When You Grow Up,” “More Than I Can Say” and “Run to Him.” While Bobby Vee had the lion’s share of his chart success in the 1960s, he continued to put out new music and tour up until 2011 when he received some troublesome health news.
In 2011 Bobby Vee was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Shortly afterward he would announce his retirement from music, and concentrated on spending time with his family. He spent some time with his family in his winter home in Arizona where he recorded his last album, a collection of family favorite songs performed by Vee and members of his family. That album, The Adobe Sessions, was released in 2014 for his fans.
In 2013 Bobby Vee’s longtime friend Bob Dylan invited his former Shadows bandmate to a concert in St. Paul, Minnesota. During the performance Dylan stopped and acknowledged Bobby Vee by saying the following before going into a rendition of Vee’s hit “Suzie Baby”:
“I lived here a while back, and since that time, I’ve played all over the world, with all kinds of people. And everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna. And everybody in there in between. I’ve been on the stage with most of those people. But the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on the stage with, was a man who is here tonight, who used to sing a song called “Suzie Baby”. I want to say that Bobby Vee is actually here tonight. Maybe you can show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So, we’re gonna try to do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice.”
So with the news of the passing of 1960s teen pop idol Bobby Vee, this week we take a moment to remember the many contributions he made to the music industry during his decades long career.
Bobby Vee And The Shadows
“What Do You Want”
“Take Good Care Of My Baby”
“Come Back When You Grow Up”
“More Than I Can Say”