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Rock and roll is cram-packed
with ironic stories. Read the bio of almost any artist and you'll find the
woulda-coulda-shoulda tale of how he almost became an accountant. And prefacing almost
every Top 10 hit is the tiresome fable of how the song nearly wound up in the garbage
until some DJ in Peoria played it by accident.
Bobby Vee's story, however, is the
mother of all rock and roll ironies and yet it's as original as his rollercoaster-ride
career. Gather around and I'll tell it to you:
On a snowy February evening in 1959,
a plane crashes in Clear Lake, Iowa. Its passengers, namely Buddy
Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, are taken to Rock and Roll Heaven (this fateful
night is immortalized as The Day The Music Died in Don McLean's 1972 hit, "American
Pie.") Because these three future rock gods never make it to the concert hall, which
at the same moment is packed with teenagers ready to jump, jive 'n' wail, replacements are
needed, with bells on. The group hastily chosen to perform that night is called The
Shadows. Their frontman: fifteen-year-old Bobby Velline, later shortened to Bobby Vee when
he became, as Billboard magazine would call him, "one of the Top 10 most consistent
chart makers ever."
"I've told the story so many
times that the Buddy Holly anniversary has sort of adopted me," Vee comments on the
irony in a recent telephone interview. "I wasn't planning on thinking that it was the
start of something big. It was just a bunch of guys getting together to try to get through
this tragic event. And at my age, fifteen, that was a big deal. It was so tragic. Rock and
roll was so new and exciting and to lose three of the main guys in a plane crash took a
big piece out of me because I was such a huge Holly fan."
Forty years later, Vee remembers his
influence and idol, Buddy Holly, in a tribute CD called "Down The Line"
(Rockhouse Records). The CD is chock-full of Holly covers, many of them obscure, clearly
showing how one artist left his mark on a generation and then some, from Vee to the
Beatles and beyond.
On that fateful night, Vee knew that
if he had his chance that he could make those people dance and maybe they'd be happy for a
"Doing the show that
night," he reminisces, "there was no reason why we should have been there
because we were just a garage band. But they didn't ask us for our credentials. They just
said, come on down, and we did a fifteen minute set at the beginning of the evening. What
I remember from the moment of getting on that stage and being introduced is that the noble
part of it was over with. It was time to perform. I was in shock, but it was amazing. I
look at that as one of the milestones of my life, and I have several of them, but that was
an important one for me because I got through it. And I remember enjoying it while I was
Today, Vee makes his living doing
oldies shows and/or performing rockabilly and swing with his sons Jeff, Tom and Robbie,
all of whom are in their 30s. The generation weaned on Aerosmith and Kiss and now raising
babies and working in corporate centers is discovering that everything old is new again --
even the guy who replaced Buddy Holly -- and even Buddy Holly himself.
His sound is distinctive: young and
vulnerable, but direct and insistent, even when he can't make up his mind whether his girl
is a devil or angel. Today, in his fifties, he sounds more like a CEO, but it's only due
to a deepened, controlled authority in his voice. It's a long road from his first regional
record, "Suzy Baby," in 1959. It rocked the heartland and was followed by
"What Do You Want," another big hit that rang his phone and rang the bells of
At that time, Vee remembers,
"the whole business was young. I was sixteen when I signed with Liberty Records. At
seventeen I had my first hit. Snuffy Garrett (later to become a legendary record producer)
was 19 or 20. The president of the record company was 31. It's was a young business and a
young world and I never really thought too much about any of that. It was flat exciting
and we were all over the place. In 1962, I was away from home for eleven months. I was
The Camelot years saw a truckload of
hits that exploded in both the USA and England (in fact, Vee still makes an annual
pilgrimage to Britain, where he is adored). These chart-toppers are still standard oldies
fare today, including "Devil or Angel," "Rubber Ball," "The Night
Has A Thousand Eyes," and Bye Bye Birdie's "One Last Kiss." It was
the pre-Beatle era, and Bobby was able to straddle the fence between teen idol and serious
"The very early stuff that I did
was more rockabilly and rock and roll," he says. "But I love pop music. I loved
Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and stuff like that. I love structure. The Buddy Holly fans
thought I was trying to copy him, but I had my own legion of fans who I introduced to
Buddy Holly. I've been able to walk in the rock and roll camp and the pop camp."
Most people don't realize that, for a
very short time, Vee had a band member named Robert Zimmerman, who later became better
known under an assumed name: Bob Dylan. However, prior to that, Zimmerman had yet another
name change: Elston Gunnn (yes, with three n's).
Vee recalls, "My brother Bill
was in a record shop in Fargo and Bob introduced himself to him as Elston Gunnn. He said
he had just gotten off the road with Conway Twitty as a piano player. Bill's eyes got
wide. He played pretty good in the key of C. We hired him to come out and work that
weekend with us. He was staying with a mutual friend of ours in Fargo. The gig was in a
church basement. When he wasn't playing, he would come up behind me and do handclaps. It
was a Gene Vincent thing. He must have seen Gene Vincent do it. He was a nice guy, and
wiry, with a lot of energy and no money, just like us. I didn't fire him, it was a natural
evolution of lack of finances."
Of course, Dylan went on to whatever
he went on to do and was never heard from again. Vee, on the other hand, had a few more
moments in the sun before the British Invasion almost locked him in "Whatever
Happened To...?" Hell.
Regarding the dry spell, Vee recalls,
"it was not as bad as you might think. I had a lot of record success. I just wanted
to do what I wanted to do. And the most difficult time came around 1965, when the hits
stopped coming, and the record company said, let's do something here. We tried a couple of
things. We were going all over the place. I wasn't enjoying it so much."
Get ready for more rock and roll
ironies: in an era of Iron Butterfly and Steppenwolf, Vee hit it big again. And not only
once but twice! His hippie-light song, "Beautiful People," was accessible to
those afraid to love Haight-Ashbury.
"In an era of dark stuff, it was
a wonderful song," Vee says.
However, it was the bubbly but
serious "Come Back When You Grow Up" which changed everything for him, again.
"It was quite a different
sound," he says, "but the sentiment was familiar in my records. My time had
pretty much come and gone, but there were still radio stations out there who were willing
to give it a spin. I remember taking out an ad in Billboard magazine, plugging the song,
and that time it was number one in Billings, Montana, and top five in Green Bay,
Wisconsin, and number one in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And the guys at the record
company said, 'whoopie, isn't this exciting!' but I was out on the road, touring. People
are just people. It doesn't really matter what town you're in. If they're willing to belly
up to the bar and buy my record, that counts. Over the course of the year, that became the
biggest record of my career."
Things quieted down again until the early seventies, when heads starting turning back to the more
innocent fifties and early sixties. The release of "American Pie" and "American Graffiti" triggered an interest
in Vee-like music, and he found himself on the road doing the shows that would keep him
busy for the next twenty years.
"The music didn't die," Vee
says. "If you're really a music fan, you're going to end up in the mid-fifties. Then
you have the whole story. Everything makes sense."
In England, the very country that
almost shut him down, fans go nuts for Bobby Vee. He is often part of a fifties-phile
tour, with the likes of such old soldiers as Johnny Preston and Little Eva. It's, as he
puts it, "a dream tour where everybody got to be successful. At this time of my life
to be able go out and work with friends who love each other and have known each other for
over 40 years is a great feeling."
"Liberty Records was so hot in
America in the early 60s and they wanted to launch the label in England," he
explains. "By then, I was having hits so I got in on that ride. In the early days,
you could have many versions of the same songs as hits all over the place. A country
version, a swing version, because everything was so localized. It was easy to cover an
American record in England, because chances are the act would never come over there. I
did, and so did Del Shannon and Neil Sedaka and Gene Pitney. Gene Vincent too. I took the
time to go over there and do television, and they never forgot that. I went over a lot in
the 60s, and a little bit in the 70s. And I went over in '85 and it was like I never
At last, Vee comes home with his
tribute to his original influence.
"I remember hearing Elvis and
the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino," he says, "but Buddy Holly
was my primary influence. Nothing has been lost. The stuff that was important to me then
is still important to me. It's not about the head, it's about the heart."
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