After 50 years in the music business, getting Bobby Vee the credit he is due both as an artist and as a person remains a difficult task.
For one thing, he doesn’t seek that credit, being quite content with the fact that, in his view, he has had a very interesting and sometimes incredible career. And primarily because he is, at heart, a humble person, a family man and rock ’n’ roll fan himself who is thoroughly appreciative of the life and career he has had, beginning publicly on the cold, sorry night of Feb. 3, 1959.
The story of Bobby, brother Bill and their group The Shadows helping to fill the void at the Moorhead, Minn., armory following the sudden death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper has been well-documented.
As Bobby states, it’s a subject that has come up in almost every interview he has ever done. Perhaps the point that is continually missed in such question-and-answer sessions is that quite simply, as one star sadly fell to earth, another thoroughly optimistic and joyful star arose to fill that void and is still with us today.
We are here to celebrate an outrageous accomplishment in the music business — 50 years of great records, including some of the biggest popular hits of all time and millions of miles on the rock ’n’ roll road making people happy around the world, countless hours given over to talking with fans and posing unselfishly for now-cherished photographs. All of it was done with a perpetual smile and an optimism that is as young and vital in 2009 as it was even before “Suzie Baby” made it onto Soma 1110.
From that point forward, Bobby Vee’s records blazed a musical trail through the lives of every baby boomer and pop-music fan since and have become an undeniable part of the very fabric of American pop culture of the ’60s. Perhaps because of the misguided opinions of so-called rock ’n’ roll purists who can’t see beyond 1957, the monumental discography of popular hits from 1959-1964 in particular get short shrift and are discounted. This not only bypasses Bobby Vee but also Gene Pitney, Rick Nelson, Del Shannon and Paul Anka, the 15-year-old Canadian who wrote and produced his own records and was savvy enough to hold onto his publishing.
My first contact with Bobby Vee was through the mail in the mid-’80s, when I was preparing to be the remote broadcast DJ at a vintage car/rock ’n’ roll show in Decatur, Ill. I wrote to Bobby’s agent for some promotional material, and while speaking to his representative on the phone, I broke out into “Run To Him” for no particular reason.
The agent laughed, we talked and the call was done. When the package came, there was a color 8×10 photo autographed “To Craig, the guy who knows the words to Run To Him.” I would imagine several billion people know those words and have probably made it known to Bobby and his associates ad nauseum, but there was that friendly acknowledgement, totally unnecessary and quite welcome.
Weeks later, at the event itself, as the on-air person I had the prerequisite backstage pass and made my way to the dressing room where I met Bobby and Del Shannon. In 1978, Shannon had actually taken my two little kids on a ferris-wheel ride at the fair in Keokuk, Iowa. He had come to the club my band where was playing the night before, sat in with us and spent hours telling great stories.
Here we were eight years later, and as Del realized he knew me, any rock ’n’ roll star pretensions fell off of him like an old coat, and he was again the nicest guy you could ever hope he might be. He and Bobby posed for pictures, did long, friendly interviews on the air and signed every album I could carry. Not only did Bobby & The Vees do my request, “Please Don’t Ask About Barbara,” but he dedicated it to me from the stage! I still clearly remember buying that single with the picture sleeve at the A&P grocery store record rack in 1962, so this dedication was a very big deal to me!
That was also the first time I saw Bobby arrive at an after-show gathering and sit until the wee hours posing for pictures, signing autographs and having casual, unhurried conversations with everyone who approached him until everyone had their autograph, their pictures and their stories before leaving.
Since then I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with Bobby & The Vees (Tommy Vee, Jeff Vee, Jeff Olson, Ar J. Stevens) at the Iowa Rock ‘N Roll Music Association Hall Of Fame induction in 2004 and most recently, and most pointedly, at the astounding week of shows known as “50 Winters Later” at the Surf Ballroom in Clear lake, Iowa, Jan. 28 through Feb. 2. Six days of rock ’n’ roll concerts and events, tears and joy, culminating with an all-star revue on the 50th Anniversary of the Winter Dance Party final show for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Despite being under the weather on the night of the PBS filming, that Bobby Vee optimism, professionalism and perpetual smile, born of 50 years of rockin’ and rollin’ and lovin’ it, won the day yet again.
Even though there was an emotional presentation made Feb. 2 to Bobby Vee by Terry Stewart of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and Jeff Nicholas of the Surf Ballroom, I still don’t think most people quite got just how significant this date in rock ’n’ roll history was — not only as it pertains to the loss of Buddy Holly but to the ongoing health and happiness of rock ’n’ roll and pop music that also began on that day all those years ago by virtue of the music, personality and sheer unrelenting optimism of one man — Bobby Vee.
He has had associations and friendships over the years with everyone from The Crickets to Dick Clark, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Tim Rice and countless legendary songwriters and performers and an enviable circle of very special people, not to mention literally millions of fans around the world, sustained over decades in a notoriously very fickle business.
In this conversation, Bobby discusses his incredible 50-year career, recording details and candid vignettes that will entertain record collectors, musicians and fans alike, and gives us an insight into pending new releases of rare material and even a possible new direction for Bobby Vee on stage.
The key word in this story is “fun.” Fasten your seat belts, turn the Wayback machine to 1959, and hold on!
Listening to your latest CD again and again (I Wouldn’t Change A Thing) the song called “Whatever Happened To Peggy Sue” being such an integral part of it, also brings to mind the question for people who might not know: Whatever happened to Bobby Vee? You’ve been out playing all along.
Bobby Vee: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s what happens to me and you; that’s what’s so clever about that song. I guess our fondest thoughts are that we’re all still out playing, and she’s still being sweet and cute, and whenever we’re down in her area she always shows up. She’s a friend I’ve known since 1960, so those kinds of friends, The Crickets, who have been an integral part of my friendship circle, are alive and well.
So what records were you listening to in your early days, before you actually cut “Susie Baby,” before you became the guy on the records?
BV: Well, I was really influenced by the area that I grew up in, in Fargo, N.D., and at that time, they were playing Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, big-band stuff, Johnny Ray, Frankie Laine … I loved that stuff.
I loved country music. I’m old enough to remember a time before rock ’n’ roll, and I was listening to Hank Williams. I remember when I was 7 or 8 years old calling the radio station and asked them to play “Kaw-Liga.” That’s a great pop thing — it’s a great song, it’s a great lyric, it’s a great story. “Settin’ The Woods On Fire,” a lot of the old Hank Williams stuff. Went to the shows, [and] my brother Bill was five years older than me, but he would take me to the shows. I saw a lot of people — never saw Hank Williams, but I saw Johnny Cash a couple of times, Marty Robbins a few times, Jimmy Newman, Ernest Tubb and that’s the stuff I loved. I didn’t get to see Johnny Horton, but he was another one of my favorites. That was the rockin’ part of country that really appealed to me.
The Honky Tonk Man … I was 12 or 13 when he got killed, and I was a paper boy, picking up the papers one morning and reading that he’d been killed, and I cried.
BV: Oh, I know. It was a sad day. I think it was 1960. He had so many great records, [with] Floyd Tillman and all the people that worked with him; it was a pretty unusual record sound that he came up with. And The Louvin Brothers … I used to love those guys, and all that great old hillbilly stuff.
So what did The Shadows do at their gigs? Bobby Vee And The Shadows in ’58?
BV: Bill and I sang together a lot. We’d do some Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley … Buddy Knox was the first rock ’n’ roller to travel through our part of the country, and so I saw him around the time of “Party Doll.” He was out touring with that. Jimmy Bowen was with him, and Don Lenier on lead guitar, and what was the drummer’s name? Dave Axel or something like that. I think that’s who played on the record, but Dickie Do came out, Dickie Do & The Don’ts, and he was playing drums with him.
It was, you know, for living in Fargo, I mean everything was so inaccessible for rock ’n’ roll, and all of a sudden, they were playing in my neighborhood and packin’ ’em in. I saw Ronnie Self. I don’t know if you remember his records? “Bop A-Lena” … good record, good writer. [He] wrote for Brenda Lee. He came through one time, and he played with a band called the Minnesota Wood Choppers, and I could tell … I mean I was so young, but I could tell, and I thought, “He’s not having any fun at all.” He was supposed to do two sets, and the band … they were kind of a polka band. He only did the one show. But I saw Gene Vincent five times in 1958, and that was an amazing thing. I saw him in Fargo I think three times and at Moorhead a couple of times, and Fargo being a good, big town, he was just out doing business.
So these were the days when The Surf and places like that were the better places to play.
BV: Absolutely, right, and that’s … you know it’s special for me when I go back to Clear Lake, Iowa, and play The Surf Ballroom. Nowadays they’ve turned it back into the original ballroom; they’ve cleaned the walls off, and you’ve got the waves and the palm trees. And there’s a few places like that around. We were talking about it, that Perry, Iowa, thing I did; that was a place I’d never played before, and I thought I had played every ballroom in the Midwest. It’s all farm country, pick-up trucks and combines and rock and roll! That’s the Midwest, and I’ve always loved that part of it.