Bobby Vee died Monday. He was 73.
He’s often lumped in with the teen idols of the so-called fallow period of rock ‘n’ roll, the period between Buddy Holly’s death in 1959 and Beatlemania in 1964. That’s a mischaracterization in itself: Dave Marsh, among others, has pointed out how much vibrant music came out of these years, whether it was Roy Orbison or the girl-group classics. But it also underrates Vee, whom even the New York Times’ obituary called a “pop idol,” mentioning him among a group of singers that includes Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.
Vee was better than that. He gave his Brill Building songs — including the Goffin/King-penned “Take Good Care of My Baby,” which hit No. 1 — more depth and energy than some of his fellow idols. Moreover, he was versatile: After his own fallow period, when he went three years without a Top 40 hit, he came back in 1967 with “Come Back When You Grow Up,” and managed another couple in 1967-68.
He still hadn’t turned 25.
Vee, born Robert Velline, actually owed his big break to Holly’s death. After the crash of the plane carrying Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in Clear Lake, Iowa, the promoter of the next show — in Moorhead, Minnesota, near Vee’s native Fargo — put out a desperate call for acts. At the time, Vee was the 15-year-old lead singer of a Fargo band. He had planned to go to the Holly show himself and was stunned by the news of the crash.
“I had a ticket for the show. I was a huge Buddy Holly fan and a huge rock ‘n’ roll fan,” he told me in 2009. “As I got closer into the kitchen … [my mother and brother] were talking about this plane crash that had taken place. I couldn’t put it all together.”
His band got on the bill. It didn’t even have a name. (They chose “the Shadows” that night.)
In a movie, Vee would have become an overnight star. It didn’t work out quite like that — the band didn’t get paid and went back to plugging away at local dances — but eventually had a regional hit, “Suzie Baby,” and by 1960 Vee was in Los Angeles, where his career really took off.
Before that, though, he was joined for a time on tour by a pianist named Elston Gunn. Today we know him better as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.
Dylan loved Vee. At a 2013 concert in St. Paul, Minnesota, he paid tribute to his onetime bandleader, who was in the audience:
I used to live here, and then I left … I’ve shared the stage with everyone from Mick Jagger to Madonna, but the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on stage with is Bobby Vee. He used to sing a song called ‘Suzie Baby’ … Please show your appreciation … with a round of applause. We’re gonna try and do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice.
Vee was modest and self-effacing. He didn’t expect to become a star, he told me; he took part in the Fargo show because it was the right thing to do.
“I was a 15-year-old. I’d never experienced that kind of tragedy. I wasn’t there to start a career — I didn’t know what a career was — I was just there to help out, because that’s what people do when there’s a problem.”