A voice as 'musical as a silver bell'

From 1959 to 1970, Bobby Vee had 38 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
From 1959 to 1970, Bobby Vee had 38 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NEW YORK • Bobby Vee, who became a teenage idol in the early 1960s with infectious hits such as Take Good Care Of My Baby and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, died on Monday in Rogers, Minnesota. He was 73.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease, his son Jeff Velline said.

Vee was one of a crop of dreamboat singers promoted by the music industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s, joining Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and others on the charts.

His career had a fairy-tale start. His show-business baptism came when he was 15 - he filled in for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, after they died in a plane crash in 1959.

He went on to place 38 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 from 1959 to 1970, notably Take Good Care Of My Baby, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, which reached No. 1 in 1961.

He continued recording until 2014, when his last album, The Adobe Sessions, was released.

Among his other hits were Run To Him, Come Back When You Grow Up, Rubber Ball and Walkin' With My Angel.

Sweetly sincere, an accomplished guitarist and songwriter as well as a singer, he wangled his way into his older brother's band as the lead vocalist because he was the only one who remembered the lyrics to their songs.

They had practised together only a few weeks when they responded to a radio appeal and were recruited to substitute for Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), whose death en route from Iowa to a concert in Moorhead, Minnesota, was immortalised in 1971 by Don McLean as "the day the music died" in his hit song, American Pie.

On their way to perform at the National Guard Armory in Moorhead, the band members dropped by J.C. Penney to buy black peg pants, sleeveless sweaters and Angora ties.

Vee also improvised when the emcee asked his band's name. Inspired by silhouettes cast on the stage by the spotlights, he pronounced them "the Shadows".

"The fear didn't hit me until the spotlight came on and then I was just shattered by it," he said in 1999. "I didn't think I'd be able to sing. If I opened my mouth, I wasn't sure anything would come out."

It did, but the band did not get paid and were left at the Armory as the surviving members of Holly's Winter Dance Party Tour decamped for Sioux City.

Four months later, they scraped together enough for their first recording session, which included Vee's first hit, Suzie Baby. That led to Hollywood, a contract with Liberty Records and a breakthrough song, Devil Or Angel. It made the Top 10 in 1960, when Vee was 17.

"During a period when flash-in- the-pan, one-hit-wonder teen idols often ruled the charts, Vee was a consistently reliable chart-topping singer," Robert Reynolds wrote in his book, The Music Of Bobby Vee, published this year. "He was a talented musician who was as comfortable crooning a heartrending ballad or belting out a bass-driven rocker, as he was singing a light and breezy teen ditty."

Robert Thomas Velline was born on April 30, 1943, in Fargo, North Dakota. His father, Sidney Velline, was a chef who played the fiddle and the piano. Vee's wife, the former Karen Bergan, died last year. Besides his son Jeff, he is survived by two other sons, Robby and Tommy; a daughter, Jennifer Velline-Whittet; and five grandchildren.

"It was rural America," Vee said of Fargo in the 1950s. "It certainly was not a place you would go to get into show business."

He played the saxophone in his high-school band, but with savings from his newspaper route, he bought a US$30 Harmony guitar after his brother Bill taught him a few chords.

A few months after the Moorhead performance, the band recruited a fledgling pianist who went by the name of Elston Gunn. It was his first gig with a professional group that had released a record.

While their collaboration was short-lived, it was transformative. Gunn, who had been born Robert Zimmerman, left to enroll at the University of Minnesota, moved to New York and changed his name again to Bob Dylan.

Vee abbreviated his surname at the suggestion of Dylan, who was taken by Vee's graciousness and later described him as "the most beautiful person I've ever been on the stage with".

"I'd always thought of him as a brother," Dylan was quoted as saying. Vee's voice, he said, was "as musical as a silver bell".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'A voice as 'musical as a silver bell''. Print Edition | Subscribe