Jerry Lee lewis famously commented that one good thing the Beatles and the Stones and the British pop invasion did was get rid of the “Bobbies“.
He was referring to the group of good-looking but not necessarily over-talented male vocalists who followed in Elvis’s footsteps when he went into the army. Usually clean-cut and white they often covered songs by black artists and had hits with them. Pat Boone was a good example.
Bobby Vee’s clim to fame is slightly different. He famously stood in for Buddy Holly on the night that he was killed. As a fifteen year old schoolboy and a big Buddy Holly fan, he had a ticket to see the show when a call went out on the radio for local talent to entertain the crowd.
He volunteered with his backing group of school friends and his older brother Bill on lead guitar. He was put on stage without an audition so desperate were the promoters to put on a show in the face of the tragedy.
As he was being introduced the MC asked him the name of his group and the story goes that he looked at the silhouettes in the spotlight and blurted out “The Shadows“. Despite his nerves he went down well and a recording contract followed shortly afterwards with his first record called Suzy Baby.
He had four top ten hits in both the US and the UK – Take good care of my baby, Rubber Ball, Run to him, and The Night has a Thousand Eyes.
The ticket cost me 7 shillings and sixpence (37.5 p) which doesn’t sound a lot but was quite a bit from my £5 a week wage.
This was the Bobby Vee Show which also featured Clarence Frogman Henry , the Springfields, Tony Orland, and the Checkmates.
I also have a programme from November 1962 when he toured with the Crickets – Jerry Allison, Jerry Naylor, and Sonny Curtis – the tour promoting their album of the same name. I must have seen them in Manchester.
Jerry Allison’s wife Peggy Sue inspired the eponymous Holly song and Allison and Curtis wrote and recorded More than I can Say which was a hit for them, Bobby Vee and Leo Sayer. And a song we have performed many times.
The Crickets closing the first half and Vee and the Crickets the second half.
After the British invasion his career stalled at the mere age of 20. He tried to emulate the British sound but failed, appeared in a couple of films, grew a beard to look more adult – but to no avail.
However he continued performing on the nostalgia circuit on the strength of those popular hits – songs which were crafted in the Brill Building in New York with songwriters like Gene Pitney (Rubber Ball), and Carole King & Gerry Goffin (Take good care of …) – for the rest of his career.
He even had a top 5 entry in the UK, where he had a strong following, 40 years after his first hit single, with a compilation CD.
The Times ran a good obit of him which including some little known – to me at least – facts; such as that Bob Dylan briefly played piano with his band under the name Elston Gunn and was the one who suggested that he shorten his name from Velline to Vee. This was before Mr Zimmerman upped sticks and went to Greenwich village to became Bob Dylan.
Dylan was, perhaps surprisingly, a big fan and wrote that Vee’s singing was “as musical as a silver bell” and that “they had a lot in common”. On one occasion when Vee attended a Dylan concert in 2013, Dylan said “I’ve played all over the world with everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna but the most meaningful person I’ve ever been on the stage with was a man who used to sing a song called Suzy Baby” – which he then performed. Praise indeed from a Nobel prize winner!
Vee returned the compliment by recording a Dylan song on his farewell album The Adobe Sessions in 2014 after he had been diagnosed with Alzheimers and could no longer perform his hits.
RIP Robert Thomas Velline