The late '50s marked the beginnings of America's love/hate relationship with a burgeoning teen culture, and few recall the era as vividly as Bobby Vee.
Born Robert Thomas Velline in Fargo, N.D., Vee was still in his teens when his three consecutive singles — "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Run to Him" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" — charted at Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively.
Looking back, Vee says it all started with hearing Elvis Presley on a country radio station back in the summer of '54: "Rock and roll came into my life on the Lem Hawkins show when I heard 'That's All Right, Mama,'" he recalls. "I thought, boy, country music is really getting good."
Five years later, the 15-year-old was playing in a "little garage band" when he stumbled upon his own overnight success. The group was recruited to help fill in for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jape "Big Bopper" Richardson the day after the three headliners died in a plane crash on route to Vee's hometown.
For Vee, 1959 continued to be an incredibly auspicious year. He went on to score a regional hit with his Holly-inspired "Suzie Baby," which got him signed to Liberty Records, for which he would record 10 Top 20 hits in as many years. Rounding out the year was the strangest milestone of all, when Vee and his band ended up hiring a young Bob Dylan to be their piano player.
"My brother Bill was in Sam's Recordland, a record shop in Fargo," recalls Vee, "and this little guy came over and said, 'I hear you're looking for a piano player — I just got off the road with Conway Twitty.'"
Already a master storyteller, Dylan had never played with Conway Twitty, although he may have seen him perform once in Duluth.
Still, there was a radio station right across the street with a piano in its lobby, and Dylan — who was staying with relatives in Fargo and calling himself Elston Gunn — managed to play "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" well enough to join the band. A few days later, the group piled into a car and set out for Gwinner, N.D., (pop. 717) to play a church basement.
So was Elston any good?
"He was good-humored and fun to have around," recalls the diplomatic bandleader, "but we wished he could have played piano better. He pretty much played in the key of C."
In other words, just the white keys. Which raises the obvious question: How was Dylan's A Minor?
"It was not there," says Vee. "It was absent."
The day after the music died
Of course, Vee — who turned 66 today — had already done some hustling himself: When he and his pals stepped onstage before an audience of 1,200 Buddy Holly fans, they'd never played a note in public. But a local radio station had put out a call for opening acts — the surviving Dion & the Belmonts were now the headliners — and Vee's band was on it.
"We did all the stupid stuff, like going out and buying matching sweaters. We even went to Penny's and bought some matching neckties. They were angora — I've never seen one since — and at the end of the night, mine was so tight from sweating that I couldn't get the knot out. My mother had to cut it off my neck when I got back home."
And it wasn't just the angora that got Vee sweating.
"The reality had struck me when we were standing backstage: We're not really a band! I thought I was gonna die."
Vee came up with a name, the Shadows, just moments before they were introduced. They stuck to rockabilly that night — Elvis, Ronnie Hawkins, Gene Vincent — but Buddy Holly remains Vee's hero to this day. He went on to record an album with Holly's backing band (1962's Bobby Vee meets the Crickets) and, decades later, fronted the Crickets on their reunion tour. (Paul McCartney has also flown Vee and his sons to England several times to perform during his "Buddy Holly Week" celebrations.)
In the midst of his prolific recording career, Vee also starred in a few 16 mm Scopitones.
"They were in bars, mainly," says Vee of the pre-MTV jukebox novelties. "Guys would put in quarters instead of nickels and see these half-dressed women dancing around. They were pretty camp, but, you know, it is what it is."
"The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," which found Vee and his biker pals crashing a bikini-laden beach party, is definitely worth seeking out on YouTube. A case study in discomfort, Vee's performance has a Ken doll quality that makes Rick Astley look slouchy and deviant by comparison.
"Yeah, I was uncomfortable," says Vee. "I was a very shy kid — not a candidate at all for this business. I'd studied acting with Jeff Corey, who had been blacklisted, but it wasn't because I wanted to be an actor. It was my dream just to figure out how to stand onstage and look at people and sing. I was in a few movies over the years, but that was never a favorite part of my career."
End of an era
One of the ironies of Vee's career is that, even though he was raised on rockabilly, the music for which he's best known adheres more closely to the clean-cut sound of the Brill Building, a New York publishing house that employed Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka and Carole King (who wrote Vee's "Take Good Care of My Baby"). As the '60s ushered in the British Invasion, psychedelia and the singer-songwriter era, the commercial viability of Vee's pop sensibility began to falter.
"Basically I'm an optimistic person, but it felt like the end for me, for what I love to do," says Vee. "My recording career started with 'Suzie Baby' in '59 and ended basically — well, not basically, it ended — in 1971 with a Carole King song. Which I thought was a synchronistic way to leave Liberty Records."
But he never stopped performing. Accompanied by two of his sons, Vee plays some 60 shows a year. This fall, they'll head to England for a 25-show tour, returning there next spring to do it again. He's had 24 albums reissued on CD.
What's more, Vee's recording career actually didn't come to an end in 1971. Recording in a small studio next to his Minnesota home, he still puts out the occasional record, including a Buddy Holly tribute album and a collection of originals called Last of the Great Rhythm Guitar Players.
"That's all I ever aspired to," says the former pop icon. "I just wanted to be able to play so I could sing."