BOBBY VEE

The career of Bobby Vee basically started where rock trailblazer Buddy Holly left off. It happened under the most trying of circumstances: Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed when the small plane they had chartered crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, February 3, 1959, en route to Moorhead, Minnesota (just a mile from Fargo, North Dakota on the state line), the site of their next scheduled appearance on the "Winter Dance Party" tour. This tragic event has been written and talked about for decades, and Vee is a part of it. His story takes place mostly in the aftermath.

Bill Velline was a devoted fan of rock and roll, a guitar player in his own right, looking for his place in the late-'50s scene. The younger Bobby looked up to him and followed wherever big brother went. Their lives revolved around music. Velline started a band while in high school, as so many teenagers around the globe were doing. Pals Bob Korum (a drummer) and Jim Stillman (a bass player) joined, but Stillman was replaced early on by "Moby Dick" Dunkirk. By the time Bobby was 15 he was doing vocals with the group. Immediately after the history-changing plane crash, KFGO, the top 40 station in Fargo, put out the word over the air that local bands were needed to fill out the show. Bill, Bobby and the guys didn't even have a name yet, coming up with The Shadows on the spur of the moment (they thought it sounded cool and a bit menacing) before a quick audition got them a spot in the lineup. Though huge fans of Holly and The Crickets, they didn't do any of the group's songs (opting for The Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" and Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally"). The performance, however unpolished, went over well with the crowd in attendance.

Bing Bingstrom, a promoter in the area, caught the group's act and offered to manage them. A number of minor engagements followed, enough to make them about five hundred dollars. Swept up in the "instant success," the Shadows headed for Minneapolis, booking time at the Kay Bank Studio, affiliated with Amos Heilicher's Soma Records (Amos spelled backwards), where they could make their own record for a set price with no strings attached. They managed to lay down four tracks (two with Bobby's vocals) in the short time alotted and decided on "Suzie Baby" (written by Bobby) for the A side and the instrumental "Flyin' High" (written by Bill) for the flip, giving credit on the label to Bobby Vee and the Shadows. Heilicher heard the song and liked it, offering to release the single through a local distributor.

The guys were committed to making the song a hit, going so far as to travel through Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa to personally promote the single at as many regional radio stations as possible. Bobby quit school; he was just 16. "Suzie Baby," in all fairness, was a worthy effort, with some fine, understated guitar work by Bill. Though Bobby hadn't specifically planned to imitate the dearly departed Holly, it turned out the timbre of his voice and knack for phrasing was similar, the result no doubt of many hours spent listening intently to Crickets discs. The Soma single began picking up airplay, becoming a fair sized hit in the upper midwest during the summer of '59; it made enough noise that several major labels became interested. Liberty Records of Los Angeles wound up releasing it nationally.

As the star was rising for Bobby and the Shadows, they had to adjust to the realities of long hours on the road and doing shows in venues with less than ideal facilities. They wanted to hire a pianist for the live shows, but it was difficult to find a good one who would work for the minimal pay they were pulling in. Bill met a guy at a Fargo record shop who called himself Elston Gunn (and insisted on spelling the last name Gunnn, with an extra "n"). This Gunnn cat, about 18 at the time, had come over from Hibbings, Minnesota (a couple hundred miles to the east) and was busing tables at the Red Apple Cafe, yet claimed he had just finished a tour as pianist for Conway Twitty (he hadn't). If they had known the guy better, they would have realized he was wont to make up big stories (it was all just part of his hustle), though they figured right off that his name was too weird to be real (it was actually Bob Zimmerman, but he didn't share that information at the time). But no one cared; he was personable, albeit a bit strange, and they hired him to play piano, which he did marginally well as long as he could stay in the key of C. Within a couple of weeks, the enigmatic Gunn moved on, eventually making his way to New York and hitting it big as Bob Dylan; Vee didn't realize it was the same guy until a couple of years later.

"Suzie Baby" was a minor national hit in September 1959 and Liberty followed it with "What Do You Want," written by Les Vandyke, which had been a number one seller in England in December '59 for Adam Faith, imitating Buddy Holly's sound to a "T". The label was certainly playing the Holly angle as far as Bobby was concerned, going so far as to use a song written by Cricket Sonny Curtis, "My Love Loves Me," as the flip side. That second single appeared near the bottom of the charts in April 1960. Vee and the Shadows were on a probation of sorts; Liberty needed an encouraging sign (in other words, a big hit) before they would commit to a long-term contract. "One Last Kiss," from the hot Broadway teen musical Bye Bye Birdie, was next, generally ignored by radio.

Working in Los Angeles by this time under the guidance of producer "Snuff" Garrett (who'd helped Johnny Burnette get his first hit that summer with "Dreamin'"), Bobby was being molded more as a teen idol than Holly-style rocker. Two 1956 R&B standards were reconfigured as teen ballads for the next single and each did justice to the original; "Devil or Angel" (a hit for The Clovers), the A side, became Bobby's first top ten hit in October '60 (the B side was the Ivory Joe Hunter gem "Since I Met You Baby").

Garrett's productions relied heavily on string sections, which had come into vogue over the last year or so after The Platters, Brook Benton, The Drifters and others had utilized strings successfully on teen-targeted recordings. Bobby didn't care for the idea at first, but once "Devil or Angel" became a hit, he changed his tune. It didn't hurt matters that Liberty had picked up his option for a five year contract. New York's Brill Building stable of songwriters took notice and began to pitch songs to Garrett with Vee in mind; "Rubber Ball," written by Ann Orlowski (rumored to be an alias for Gene Pitney) and Aaron Schroeder, came out dripping with gimmicky teen sense and returned Bobby to the top ten just three months after "D.O.A." had breathed life into his career. The flip, Buddy Holly's "Everyday," helped keep him close to his roots. With sizeable amounts of money finally coming in, Bobby financed a single release for his brother Bill; "What'll I Do" by Bill Velline with the Shadows came out regionally on their own Fargo-based label, Vee Records.

Next up was John D. Loudermilk's "Stayin' In," which met with resistance from a handful of stations because of the line "I punched my buddy in the nose after lunch,' considered too violent in some early '60s circles (I say go for it, Bobby, show that girlfriend-stealer who's boss!) Backed with the Sonny Curtis-Jerry Allison tune "More Than I Can Say," which had been a minor hit in England for the post-Holly Crickets in May 1960, it was one of several two-sided hits in Bobby's backlog; he also performed the song in the movie Swingin' Along, his first film appearance. Vee and the Crickets had become close since meeting in Moorhead that fateful day in February 1959 and Allison, the band's drummer, occasionally subbed for skin man Earl Palmer on Vee's sessions. The Shadows continued backing him on tour, but once they became aware of Britain's popular group of the same name, they switched to The Strangers (much as the U.K. Shadows had done in the late-'50s when, as Cliff Richard's backing band The Drifters, they changed after realizing there was a hot R&B group in the States with the same name).

While Bobby continued writing and submitting songs, Garrett consistently rejected them, sticking with outside writers for single releases. "How Many Tears," in the spring of '61, was the seventh Liberty single by Vee. Composed by Brill Building stars-on-the-rise Gerry Goffin and Carole King, it didn't make much noise, but opened the door for the husband-and-wife team. Carole made a special trip to L.A. to audition songs for Bobby, and one of those songs, "Take Good Care of My Baby," hit pay dirt, going to number one on the charts in September, his biggest hit ever. A songwriter-switch one day at the Brill Building (a creative "musical chairs" of sorts) resulted in King writing some songs with Howard Greenfield while Goffin and Greenfield partner Jack Keller teamed up on a few tunes. "Run to Him," by the latter pair, came out of this impromptu exercise and Bobby's recording of the song peaked at number two in December '61 while the flip, Goffin and King's "Walkin' With My Angel," had a nice run of its own. This kind of success was beyond anything Bobby had expected. He found himself settling comfortably into the role of "teen idol."

A minor slump ensued in '62; the hits kept coming, but none made it to the top ten. Bill Buchanan's "Please Don't Ask About Barbara" (which Vee avoided singing on American Bandstand because host Dick Clark had just divorced his first wife Barbara), reached the top 20, as did "Sharing You" and "Punish Her." The latter's flip featured "Someday (When I'm Gone From You)" from Bobby Vee Meets the Crickets (the band at that time consisting of Curtis, Jerry Naylor and Glen Hardin), an album made up mostly of remakes of older songs by the Crickets and others. He appeared in his second feature film around this time, crossing the pond to perform a song in the British production Play it Cool starring Billy Fury, a major teen idol in the U.K. who never managed to break through in America, and Helen Shapiro, who fared only slightly better with one U.S. chart single. Another British film, Just For Fun, came out in early '63 and found Bobby hobnobbing with both British and American acts, including his close friends and collaborators the Crickets.

Paranoia reared its million dollar head with "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," written by Benjamin Weisman, Dorothy Wayne and Marilynn Garrett, another top ten for Bobby in the early weeks of 1963. "Charms" (a Greenfield-Helen Miller love song) followed, after which it became increasingly difficult to get to the upper reaches of the charts. Garrett began pushing him in more of an "adult" pop direction, but his youthful energy was allowed free reign from time to time: in February 1964, a few weeks into The Beatles' assault on the U.S. airwaves, Bobby's composition "I'll Make You Mine" hit the charts, a dead-on British-styled tune complete with Beatleish 'Ooohs' that led some to believe it was a Fab Four song. It didn't go over in the U.K., but made a little noise here at home. The track featured backup vocals by The Eligibles; a different group from the one that did "Car Trouble" in '59, these Eligibles became regulars at Liberty sessions and later sang backup on many of Gary Lewis and the Playboys' hits.

Garrett's "easy listening" direction was more akin to a slow death and in 1965 Bobby convinced the label heads to let him work with other producers and arrangers. "Keep on Trying," a Van McCoy song, had a bit more of a mid-'60s pop-rock flavor (arranged by George Martin, no less) and set him on the right track. By 1966 he had a fresh team to work with; Dallas Smith became his regular producer and a new group called The Strangers served as his band (the original Fargo group having long since gone their separate ways), keeping the name that had been well established by that time. "Look at Me Girl," a minor charting single in the summer of '66, was the first credited to Vee and the Strangers, a catchy garage bandish record that was a far cry from the pop ballads of a year or so earlier.

Hollywood came calling again in 1967 and Bobby was suddenly the top-billed star of C'mon, Let's Live a Little, his only role as an actor, sharing screen time with Jackie DeShannon. Unfortunately for both the movie bombed, but has since become a cult favorite among fans of bad films. This one career misjudgment didn't cause any damage, though; the big comeback record he'd been searching for came just a few months later. "Come Back When You Grow Up," recorded the year before by Memphis group Shadden and the King Lears and written by Martha Sharp (who'd supplied Sandy Posey with her first two hits), had a breezy, understated arrangement and lyrics that would have fit right in with his early-'60s hits. It found a place amid the progressive atmosphere of the "summer of love," hitting the top ten in September. Next he competed head-to-head with Kenny O'Dell, whose original version of "Beautiful People" hit the charts the same week as Bobby's cover. Both singles climbed the charts neck-and-neck and spent two weeks together in the top 40 just before the end of the year.

Another Sharp song, "Maybe Just Today," came next, then Vee returned to his 1960 strategy with two earlier R&B favorites, only this time they were done as a medley. He felt "My Girl/Hey Girl" (originally by The Temptations and Freddie Scott, respectively) would go together well, and they obviously did, putting him in the top 40 one last time. It was hit and miss after that through the end of the decade as he experimented with interesting material from varying sources. Check out what he does with Toni Wine and Carole Bayer's "(I'm Into Lookin' For) Someone to Love Me" and its against-type psychedelic bridge that will make you swear you're hearing Jack Bruce of Cream. Goffin and King's "Sweet Sweetheart" was Bobby Vee's last record to hit the charts in 1970, though he continued recording for several years afterward and was a starring act on the oldies circuit for the next few decades. He revisited his roots in 1978 with a rockin' remake of one of Buddy's best, "Well All Right."

- Michael Jack Kirby

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Devil or Angel Rubber Ball Stayin' In Please Don't Ask About Barbara Punish Her Charms Be True to Yourself