The improbable Bobby Vee

I found myself standing next to Bobby Vee in the audience watching the Fabulous Flippers — Midwest favorites — perform in the Pavilion at the Minnesota State Fair in 1968. I was at the fair with my close friend Scott Sansby, drummer extraordinaire, who was there performing with one of the many local Twin Cities bands he anchored in high school. I told Bobby that my parents had lived down the street from his family in Fargo after they were married in 1949, before they moved across the river to Moorhead, where my dad managed the Comstock Hotel. Bobby could not have been nicer.

I am sad to note that Bobby died in Rogers, Minnesota, on Monday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. The New York Times obituary by Sam Roberts does a good job of capturing the improbable origin of his career: “His career had a fairy-tale start. 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.” There is a little more to the story:

On their way to perform at the National Guard Armory in Moorhead, the band members dropped by J.C. Penney to buy black peg pants, sleeveless sweaters and Angora ties. Mr. Vee also improvised when the M.C. asked his band’s name. Inspired by silhouettes cast on the stage by the spotlights, he pronounced them “the Shadows.”

“The fear didn’t hit me until the spotlight came on, and then I was just shattered by it,” he told The Associated Press in 1999. “I didn’t think that 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 Armory 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Vee was just 17.

As Roberts also notes, Bobby went on to place 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 No. 1 in 1961. He continued recording until 2014.

And then there is this:

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.

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

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

Bobby was a devoted family man. Bobby was married to his wife, Karen Bergen, for 51 years, until her death in 2015. The Star Tribune’s Jon Bream caught up with them in the touching “Take good care of my baby: Bobby Vee and his wife celebrate 50 years of marriage.”

At Billboard, Xander Zellner compiles videos of “Vee’s top 10 biggest Billboard hits.” At Heavy, Daniel Levine traces the Dylan connection in “Bobby Vee & Bob Dylan, 5 fast facts you need to know” (excellent).

When Bob Dylan played Midway Stadium in St. Paul on July 10, 2013, he reconnected with Vee. He paid tribute to Bobby during his set with a performance of “Suzie Baby.” Introducing the song, Dylan said that of all the people he had ever been on stage with, Vee was “the most meaningful person.” Below is the original 1959 version of “Suzy Baby,” still sounding good after all these years. RIP.


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