Spotlight on ……
Bobby Vee was born Robert Thomas Velline in Fargo, North Dakota on April 30, 1943 into a musical family. His father Sidney played the violin and piano, his uncle played sax, and his two older brothers, Bill and Sidney, Jr. both played guitar. By the age of fifteen Bobby's musical career was already under way. "I played saxophone in the high school band," remembers Bobby, "but I wanted to rock out. We were playing all the standard band pieces and I wanted to do 'Yakety Yak.' My brother Bill went out and bought a guitar and I saved up enough money from my paper route to eventually buy a new (but sun faded) thirty dollar Harmony guitar for myself. We used to go to all the country music shows that came through the area and then would come home after and do our own version of the show in the living room of our small home in Fargo."
Before long Bill had become an excellent guitar player and began jamming with bass player Jim Stillman and drummer Bob Korum. Bobby tried every angle imaginable to join the group sessions but Bill thought he was too young. "I kind of backed into the band. I used to make all kinds of deals with my brother to come along and practice. When he finally let me join him (if I would promise to keep quite) I was aware that they didn't know any of the songs lyrically and I just happened to know them all. I was fifteen years old and my ears were glued to the radio. It didn't take long before I started singing the songs and they started rockin' along." Before long, Dick Dunkirk took Stillman's place on bass guitar and the "Shadows" became one of the top new bands in the area.
At this point, as the result of a tragic twist of fate, Bobby's story begins to take on a bittersweet flavor. The date was February 3, 1959. A light plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper and 20 year old pilot Roger Peterson crashed in a snow covered Iowa field, killing everyone on board. Only minutes earlier they had finished their performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clearlake, Iowa and had rushed to the airport in nearby Mason City to catch the charter plane that was to bring them to their next engagement in Moorhead, Minnesota. News of the tragedy traveled fast. People at the local radio station in Moorhead, like everyone, were in a state of shock. The rest of the tour had arrived by bus from Clearlake after a cold and snowy all night drive. A decision was made to continue on with the show. The promoters asked for local talent to help fill in that sad night and as the curtain came up that evening, a new voice was introduced to the world. A "fifteen year old" voice that knew all the words to all the songs. Bobby Vee. In the following thirty plus years Bobby would go on to place thirty-eight songs in the Billboard top 100 charts, six gold singles, fourteen top forty hits and two gold albums. But that night, instead of a seat in the audience Bobby and his brother Bill along with the "Shadows" took the stage in memory of three of rock 'n' roll's brightest stars.
Their first paying gig was on Valentine's Day 1959. They drove 45 miles in zero degree weather in a heaterless '51 Oldsmobile to play on benches that had been pushed together to form a makeshift stage. In the middle of the show the benches pulled apart and the amps smashed to the floor. Not exactly the kind of impact they were looking for. The band made $60, which any musician can tell you was damn good for a first gig in those days.
June 1st 1959 Bobby and the group went to Minneapolis, Minnesota to record a song for Soma Records that Bobby had written called "Susie Baby." By the end of the summer, "Susie Baby" had reached number one on all the local stations in the upper mid-west and major record companies were calling with interest in signing this new young singer. Bobby Vee and the Shadows signed with Liberty Records in the fall of '59 and the band continued on until 1963, when Bill deciding the road was not to his liking, left to pursue interests closer to home.
Late 1960 after a couple of songs had barely inched their way into the national charts it appeared that Liberty was losing faith when a radio station in Pittsburgh, PA began playing the back side of what might have been Bobby's last single. The song was "Devil or Angel." It had been a R&B it a few years earlier by a group called The Clovers and was a favorite of Snuffy Garrett, the young producer responsible for signing Bobby to Liberty. Following the records success in Pittsburgh, "Devil or Angel" went on to reach the top ten in city after city. By the end of 1960 it peaked at number 6 in the Billboard charts, as well as reaching the top 20 on the R & B charts. Liberty Records exercised its option and signed Bobby to a five-year contract.
If "Susie Baby" served as Bobby Vee's entrance into the world of Billboards hot 100, then 'Devil or Angel' was certainly the foundation for a string of hit records reaching the nations top 20 throughout the entire 60's era. Bobby's hits were not limited to America. By 1963 he had collected seven top ten hits in England as well as a number 2 album called "Bobby Vee Meets the Crickets" and in 1963 shared the charts for forty weeks side-by-side with the Beatles. His tours took him to Japan, Australia and Europe as well as the United Kingdom, where he is still a yearly visitor. His thirty plus year recording career has produced over twenty-five albums including a Gold Album from England for his 1981 "Singles Album" release. Back in the U.S., Billboard Magazine called him, "One of the top ten most consistent chart makers ever."
Into the nineties, the beat goes on. With the continuing demand for product by classic oriented radio stations and collectors alike, EMI/Cema issued a twenty-five song re-mastered compact disc and cassette as part of the Legendary Masters series. Late in the year, a re-issue of his 1963 Christmas album was made available. To coincide with his sold out 1990 tour of England, Bobby issued a 17 song collectors edition cassette called "U.K. Tour '90," on his own Rockhouse Record label. The tape, an anthology of sorts, included new material recorded with his sons, as well as several previously unreleased songs from past years. In 1994 critics and collectors gave great reviews to his "Last Of The Great 'Rhythm' Guitar
Players" CD. As testimony to Bobby's high energy show and continued popularity the annual readers poll by sixties music magazine The Beat Goes On voted him: 1991 Best American Act; 1992 Best Live Performer; 1993 Favorite Male Singer; and in 1994 he was named Runner Up to Paul McCartney in the category of Most Accomplished Performer.
On June 20, 1999, Bobby was presented The Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award by North Dakota's Governor Ed Schafer. The Rough Rider Award is the highest recognition given by the state to native North Dakotans. Gov. Schafer said, "Throughout his success, Bobby has maintained his North Dakota roots and values. He is praised by many of his peers not only for being a talented performer, but a kind, good and humble person. I am extremely proud to honor him with this award."
Between Europe and America, Bobby and his band perform about a hundred dates a year. When he is not touring or working on his own music, he is involved in the production of various other musical projects at his Rockhouse Recording Studio, located outside of St. Cloud, MN.
From the white socks and ducktail days of "Susie Baby" to the high tech digital present, Bobby has continued to grow as an artist and entertainer and to enjoy a loyal following of fans and friends alike.
The following interview with Bobby offers a more
into the life and career of Bobby Vee.
Much has been written about the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens and their pilot Roger Peterson, after their concert in Clearlake, Iowa on February 3, 1959. What are your memories around filling in that evening?
I was in my sophomore year at Fargo High School and home on my lunch break when my brother Sid told me about a news flash he had just heard on the radio about Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper being killed in a plane crash in Iowa. I was sure he had heard wrong. They were due to play in Moorhead that night along with the Crickets, Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Sardo. I had my ticket. Holly and the Crickets were my favorite band. I had every record of their young career. "Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, scheduled to appear at the Moorhead Armory this evening were found..." went the KFGO radio report over and over again. I was in shock. The promoter, Rod Lucier, and the radio station announced that the remaining acts would appear as scheduled and asked for local acts that could help fill in. Think about that! They really believed "The Show Must Go On" story. Or maybe, they were in shock too and just doing the best they could. Jim Stillman called the station and was told to have the band backstage at 7:00 PM. Backstage was nuts. Original "Crickets," Jerry Allison and Joe B. were nowhere in sight. There were some "new" Crickets. Tommy Allsup on lead gitar and Waylon Jennings on bass. Bill and I both remember Tommy's eyes, glazed and dazed. Shock! Charlie Boone, local "king of the airwaves" was the host that evening and what a job he had. It was a rock 'n' roll wake and Charlie did a masterful job of presenting what would seem like an impossible evening. No one else seemed to know what to say or how to say it. Bob Becker's band, Terry Lee and the Poor Boys, showed up and waited in the wings with us. The curtain opened and after a brief announcement by Charlie, the show began. Someone, I think Waylon, sang "Donna." Eight-year-old Ron Kerber sang, "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands." Bill borrowed a guitar strap from some guy with a guitar...Dion. We climbed on stage, knees knockin'. "What's the name of the band?" Charlie asked. Pause...(we didn't have a name). "The Shadows," I replied. "Ladies and gentlemen...The Shadows," Charlie announced and we were off into a rock 'n' roll twilight zone. I knew all Holly's songs but I didn't sing any that night. After the show we met Charlie's agent, Bing Bengtssen. "Good job, boys," Bing commented. "Call me if you're looking for work." By late the next day, he was our agent.
Bob Dylan played in your band, The Shadows, for a brief time in 1959. What were the circumstances around your paths crossing and is it true that you fired him?
While The Shadows were on the road the summer of '59, we talked about how cool it would be to have a piano in the band like Little Richard or Scotty What's-His-Name, with Gene Vincent. Not any old piano player but someone who could put it down like Jerry Lee. But hey...the '50s was about Fender guitars...not pianos! We couldn't find a rock 'n' roll piano player anywhere. Then one day my brother Bill came home and said he was talking with a guy at Sam's Recordland who claimed he played piano and had just come off of a tour with Conway Twitty. Bill made arrangements to audition him at the KFGO studio and said he was a funny little wiry kind of guy and he rocked pretty good. Wow!!! This must be the guy! He told Bill his name was "Elston Gunnn" (with 3 n's). Kind of weird but let's try him out. By now, we were making enough money to buy him a matching shirt and with that...he was in The Shadows. His first dance with us was in Gwinner, ND. All I remember is an old crusty piano that hadn't been tuned...ever! In the middle of "Lotta Lovin'" I heard the piano from hell go silent. The next thing I heard was the Gene Vincent handclaps, bap bap...bap...BAP BAP...BAP and heavy breathing next to my ear and I looked over to find Elston Gunnn dancing next to me as he broke into a background vocal part. Obviously, he had also come to the conclusion that the piano wasn't working out. The next night was more of the same. He was good spirited about the fact that none of us had the money to secure a piano for him and there were no hard feelings on the part of anyone as he made his exit for the University of Minnesota. Bill was right. He sure had the spirit and he rocked out in the key of C. We felt bad that it didn't work out. Hey, he would have been great on the Floyd Cramer tunes. That's basically the Bob Zimmerman story as it relates to The Shadows. Bob aka Elston aka Bob Dylan. It's been easy to chuckle and to minimize the story in view of Elston's amazing success. It was even suggested at one point that he had been fired. Not true. The truth is simple...it just didn't work out. What I remember most is his energy and spirit. Confident, direct and playful. A rock 'n' roll contender even then.
What is the largest audience that you ever played to?
110,000 at Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. The show was in the early '60s and included Roy Orbison and The Everly Brothers among others. A couple of nights before we played to 50,000 at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. Jerry Lee Lewis was also on the show and complained to the audience that they had eaten all the free hotdogs leaving none for him. Within seconds, hundreds of hot dogs were sailing like missiles towards the stage.
What was the funniest moment in your career so far?
A few years ago, I did a show at a cattle auction. One of the stables had been dressed up (they swept it out) for the big show. The joint was jumpin' when one of the cows got loose, burst into the room, knocking over tables and chairs and cowboy "what-not" and fell into line with about fifty fun lovers who were doing the bunny hop to "Walking With My Angel." The cow never quite got the Hop Hop Hop part!
After all these years do you still enjoy traveling and performing as much as when you were starting out?
My sons Jeff, Tom and Robb have been working with me for the past couple of years and it has been fan...tastic!!! They are excellent musicians and we all get along great. When I'm not working they perform in their own rockabilly band, The Vee's and enjoy a loyal following in the upper mid-west. Since I'm talking about family, I want to add that my daughter Jennifer is a graphic designer in Minneapolis. She gets the "first call" when we need art work for the studio. Back to performing...in addition to our shows here in the US, we've had an international year performing in Australia and England. September, 1995 we were invited to London to celebrate Paul McCartney's "Buddy Holly Week," sharing the bill with Carl Perkins and The Crickets and it was one "rockin' evening." At the end of the night McCartney climbed on stage for a rousing finale' of Holly's "Rave On." In contrast to that, June, 1996 we were invited to perform at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival and also for a post show celebration of the opening of his latest musical, "By Jeeve's." It was another spirit-filled mini-tour to remember. The party ended with Andrew joining us on stage for a version of the Everly's "Cathy's Clown." The joint was jumpin'!!! No, every night is not that eventful but I can honestly say that I am having more fun performing now than ever and I feel grateful for the many loyal friends and fans that I have come to know over the years. England has always been a special place to me, performing or just relaxing. I spent a lot of time there in my early years and it feels like a second home to me. Last year in a poll taken by UK magazine, "The Beat Goes On," I was thrilled to be voted number 1 "Best International Act."
What career would you have followed it you hadn't become a musician?
I enjoy painting. Maybe I'd be in Cornwall painting pictures of old England. Or possibly I'd still be standing on the corner selling the "Fargo Forum."
Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
In the big picture, my wife Karen. In my early years it was my family, everybody sang and played something. My older brother Bill taught me how to play the guitar. Around that time it was Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Elvis and Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
Do you any new recordings?
Yes...new old ones! I always have a project or two in the works. "I Wouldn't Change A Thing" is the latest CD on Rockhouse. Cuts include: Whatever Happened To Peggy Sue, written by Tim Rice. Nanci Griffith and Brian Hyland help out on some of the vocals on the new CD. Two new releases have come out in England: "THE ESSENTIAL AND COLLECTABLE BOBBY VEE," a double CD containing 50 tracks including twelve un-issued tracks from the sixties; "Merry Christmas From Bobby Vee/ The Wonderful World Of Bobby Vee," two early albums on one CD.
EMI gold have recently issued a new double cd set full of rare or previously unreleased recordings called 'Rarities'