Bobby Vee's Music Lives On With Help Of Family
February 03, 2015
By John Lamb
Published: Feb 2, 2015
ST. JOSEPH, Minn. – St. Cloud is a long way from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, but an important bit of rock ’n’ roll archeology is underway there.
Jeff Vee and his brothers are sorting through original recordings to digitize the music and interviews of their father Bobby Vee.
“We need to go through this stuff, organize it, archive it. Get it off of analog and onto computer and make sure it’s preserved,” Jeff said from the family-run business, Rockhouse Productions.
The timing is significant. Today is the 56th anniversary of “The day the music died,” when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed when their flight from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Moorhead crashed shortly after take-off.
Promoters decided the Moorhead show scheduled for the next day would go on, and 16-year-old Robert Velline from Fargo and his new band The Shadows were tapped to fill in on the bill. The rest is rock ’n’ roll history as Bobby Vee would release his first hit, “Suzie Baby” later that year and go on to have an influential career that included six top 10 hits.
Vee and his wife, Karen, now live in Tucson, Ariz. He’s stayed out of the spotlight since April 2012, when he announced he had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“He’s doing alright under the circumstances,” Jeff said.
The neurodegenerative disease has affected his ability to speak and sing, but the 71-year-old still plays guitar as a form of mental and physical exercise.
“We just take it one day at a time, because you never know what’s around the corner,” Jeff said.
Always known as a personable man, Bobby “listens more than he talks now,” Jeff added.
Among the sounds Vee is listening to are his old recordings.
“He loves to listen to stuff and it immediately jogs memories,” Jeff said.
‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes’
Vee’s life is packed with the stuff dreams are made of, even if he never bragged about them.
While Vee’s climb to stardom seems like something from a movie, Jeff said his dad always had a casual way of telling the story, how the band had only played together a couple of times and settled on a name, The Shadows, shortly before going onstage.
“Bobby used to get a thousand fan letters a week in 1962. He was one of the biggest stars worldwide,” said Dick Dunkirk, who was in the audience at the Moorhead Armory on Feb. 4, 1959.
Dunkirk said the crowd was filled with “morbid curiosity,” waiting to see how the show would go. Young Bobby Vee didn’t disappoint.
“He was a good singer and a good player, really good for 16 years old,” Dunkirk said. “Bobby was just as talented as anybody else in the business. He just happened to be from Fargo.”
Dunkirk would later join the Shadows and play by Vee’s side with Bob Korum and Bobby’s older brother Bill.
Dunkirk is organizing “The Night the Music Died” concert Saturday at Festival Concert Hall in Fargo. The show is a tribute to the music of Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper, who Dunkirk plays. The show also includes a dramatization of a TV show, “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” Vee played in 1963 where one of the other musical guests was The Beatles.
Jeff Vee said the family never thought much of the show as it was just an appearance and his dad didn’t perform with the Fab Four.
He did, however, become friends with the lads from Liverpool, who covered Bobby’s only No. 1 hit, “Take Good Care of My Baby.”
Paul McCartney would later bring Vee and his family to London a couple of times and to New York in 1999 for a celebration of Buddy Holly’s music. McCartney purchased the rights to the Holly catalog in 1976.
Jeff Vee said McCartney was very generous with his time and wanted to show his appreciation to artists like Vee who inspired him.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Jeff never thought of his father as a rock star, although the family would often go over to music icon Dick Clark’s house for barbecues.
“It didn’t really register all that much because, just like any kid, he was a dad and a great dad,” Jeff said.
Oddly enough, it was spending summers in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where he realized how popular his father was because everywhere they went Vee would be stopped for a visit.
As he grew older, Jeff and his brothers, Tommy and Matt, would play alongside their dad. The family plays together on “The Adobe Sessions,” which was released in February 2014.
Bobby played his final public gig July 3, 2011, six months after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He would wait until April 2012 to announce that he was dealing with the disease.
“Dad didn’t want to go onstage unless he felt like he had all of his tools,” Jeff said. “He didn’t want to read off a teleprompter.”
And while he played sporadically those last few years before retiring, fans came out of the woodwork with support when Bobby announced his illness.
“That was a huge lift for him when he really needed it,” Jeff said.
‘More Than I Can Say’
One shout-out was especially touching for Bobby.
During Bob Dylan’s concert at St. Paul’s Midway Stadium in July 2013, the normally tight-lipped singer opened up with praise for Vee.
“I’ve played all over the world, with all kinds of people. And uh, everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna. And uh, everybody in there in between,” Dylan told the crowd toward the end of the show. “But the most meaningful 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 going to try to do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice.”
Dylan moved to Fargo in summer 1959 and joined the Shadows for a few weeks. While it is often rumored that Vee fired Dylan, the Fargo native later said he couldn’t afford to pay the future Rock & Roll Hall of Famer.
The two would cross paths throughout their careers. When Dylan eventually returned to Fargo in 1990 for his first show on his own, he had Vee paged. Backstage they chatted about the old days and Dylan’s time as a busboy at the Red Apple Café.
Dylan talked glowingly about Vee in his autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume One,” writing, “I’d always thought of him as a brother.”
“We never fully understood how really important that was to Dylan,” Jeff said. “That’s quite an impact for a week or two of hanging out.”
Bobby Vee was on the side of the stage when Dylan played “Suzie Baby” at Midway Stadium in 2013 and felt honored to have his song covered.
“He was just touched beyond belief,” Jeff said. “That, to him, is more important than some plaque hanging in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Just to be revered by friends and ultimately fans like Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.”