Obituary: Bobby Vee, 1960s teen idol who enjoyed a string of chart hits

Bobby Vee has died at the age of 73. Picture: AP Photo/Jeff Baenen
Bobby Vee has died at the age of 73. Picture: AP Photo/Jeff Baenen
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Bobby Vee, pop singer. Born: 30 April, 1943 in Fargo, North Dakota. Died: 24 October, 2016 in Rogers, Minnesota, aged 73

Bobby Vee, who became a teenage idol in the early 1960s with infectious hits like Take Good Care of My Baby and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, died on Monday in Rogers, Minnesota. He was 73

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his son Jeff Velline said.

Vee was one of a crop of dreamboat singers promoted by the music industry in the late 1950s and early 60s, joining Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and others in the charts.

His show-business baptism came when he was 15 and filled in for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper after they died in a plane crash in 1959.

He went on to have 38 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 from 1959 to 1970, notably Take Good Care of My Baby, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, which reached number 1 in 1961. He continued recording until 2014, when his last album, The Adobe Sessions, was released.

Among his other hits were Run to Him, Come Back When You Grow Up, Rubber Ball and Walkin’ With My Angel.

Sweetly sincere, an accomplished guitarist and songwriter as well as a singer, Vee wangled his way into his elder brother’s band as the lead vocalist because he was the only one who remembered the lyrics to their songs.

They had practised together for only a few weeks when they responded to a radio appeal and were recruited to substitute for Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper (JP Richardson), whose death en route from Iowa to a concert in Moorhead, Minnesota, was immortalised in 1971 by Don McLean as “the day the music died” in his hit song American Pie.

On their way to perform at the National Guard Armoury in Moorhead, the band members dropped by JC Penney to buy black peg pants, sleeveless sweaters and Angora ties.

Vee also improvised when the master of ceremonies asked his band’s name. Inspired by silhouettes cast on the stage by the spotlights, he replied “The Shadows”.

“The fear didn’t hit me until the spotlight came on, and then I was just shattered by it,” he said in 1999. “I didn’t think I’d be able to sing. If I opened my mouth, I wasn’t sure anything would come out.”

It did, but the band did not get paid and was left at the Armoury as the surviving members of Holly’s Winter Dance Party Tour decamped for Sioux City.

Four months later, they scraped enough together for their first recording session, which included Vee’s first hit, Suzie Baby. That led to Hollywood, a contract with Liberty Records and a breakthrough song, Devil or Angel. It made the Top 10 in 1960, when Vee was just 17.

“During a period when flash-in-the-pan, one-hit-wonder teen idols often ruled the charts, Bobby Vee was a consistently reliable chart-
topping singer,” Robert Reynolds wrote in his book The Music of Bobby Vee, published this year. “He was a talented musician who was as comfortable crooning a heart-wrenching ballad, or belting out a bass-driven rocker, as he was singing a light and breezy teen ditty.”

Robert Thomas Velline was born on 30 April 1943 in Fargo, North Dakota. His father, Sidney Velline, was a chef who played fiddle and piano. His mother was the former Saima Tampinila.

Vee’s wife, the former Karen Bergan, died in 2015. In addition to his son Jeff, he is survived by two other sons, Robby and Tommy; a daughter, Jennifer Velline-Whittet; and five grandchildren. Vee and his three sons performed together in a band, the Vees.

“It was rural America,” Vee said of Fargo in the 1950s. “It was not a place you would go to get into show business.”

Vee played saxophone in his high school band, but with savings from his newspaper route he bought a $30 Harmony guitar after his brother Bill taught him a few chords.

A few months after their Moorhead performance, the band recruited a fledgling pianist who went by the name Elston Gunn (sometimes spelled with three n’s). It was his first gig with a professional group that had actually released a record. While their collaboration was short-lived – cramped by a decrepit piano, he left to enroll at the University of Minnesota, moved to New York and changed his name (again; he had been born Robert Zimmerman) to Bob Dylan — it was transformative.

Vee abbreviated his surname at the suggestion of Dylan, who was taken by Vee’s graciousness and described him as “the most beautiful person I’ve been on the stage with.”

“I’d always thought of him as a brother,” Dylan was quoted as saying. Vee’s voice, he said, was “as musical as a silver bell”.

Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT 
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