Bobby Vee's storied music career involved a who's who of rock 'n' roll heroes, including Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Even after his own teen-idol fame and Billboard chart success, though, he famously remained a humble, hardworking Midwesterner who settled into a quiet life in St. Joseph, Minn., with his wife of more than 50 years, Karen.
Vee, 73, died early Monday of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He had been in hospice care at a facility in Rogers, according to family.
Born Robert Thomas Velline on April 30, 1943, and raised in Fargo, Vee got his big break under tragic circumstances at age 15 in 1959. He and his band, the Shadows, were recruited to fill in for Buddy Holly at the Moorhead stop of the Winter Dance Party tour the night after Holly died in a plane crash outside Clear Lake, Iowa.
Vee's career soon rocketed as he landed 38 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 between 1959-1970, including "Suzie Baby," "Devil or Angel," "Rubber Ball," "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Run To Him" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes."
A takeoff on Holly's "Peggy Sue" that he recorded for Minneapolis' Soma Records, "Suzie Baby" became Vee's first hit and landed him a national deal with Liberty Records in 1959.
"That was a game-changer for Minnesota," said author Rick Shefchik, whose book "Everybody's Heard About the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock 'n' Roll in Minnesota" chronicled Vee's early years. "There were rock bands around town playing shows, but nobody was really thinking about making a record that would wind up on the radio and on the charts. Bobby opened that door."
Vee then scored his first No. 1 in Billboard in 1961 with "Take Good Care of My Baby," written by legendary Brill Building songwriting duo Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
The Beatles recorded both "Take Good Care" and "Devil or Angel" during their failed auditions for Decca Records in 1961, each with George Harrison singing lead vocals. Decades later, Paul McCartney invited Vee over to England to perform in tributes to Buddy Holly, whose song publishing McCartney co-owns. Vee also sometimes performed and recorded with Holly's surviving bandmates, the Crickets.
In a 2004 Star Tribune interview, Vee said, "There are so many synchronicities to the Buddy Holly connection that spread out all over my career. That has been absolutely enjoyable, because I was and still am such a fan."
As for the night he had to fill Holly's shoes in Moorhead, Feb. 3, 1959, he remembered, "It was very much a show-must-go-on situation. It really was an exercise in mixed emotions. But we had to put that aside and get out there and perform, which was frightening and thrilling at once."
A few months after the Winter Dance Party gig, the budding teen idol employed an equally young Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing as the piano player in the Shadows, even though the future Bob Dylan could only play in the key of C. Dylan lasted only a couple of gigs but never forgot Vee's kindness and influence.
In his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles, Vol. 1," Dylan wrote of Vee, "I'd always thought of him as a brother." In 2013, a year after Vee was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Dylan paid tribute to him during a concert at Midway Stadium in St. Paul, where he performed "Suzie Baby" and reconnected with Vee backstage.
"I lived here awhile back, and since that time I've played all over the world, with all kinds of people. Everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna and everybody in between," said Dylan, usually a man of few words in concert. "But the most meaningful person I've ever been on the stage with was a man who's here tonight, who used to sing a song called 'Suzie Baby.' "
Just last month, a musical about Vee's life debuted at the History Theatre in St. Paul. "Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story" showcases his hit songs and highlights his move back to Minnesota from California to live a balanced life with his wife and their four children in 1980. The musical is scheduled to run through Oct. 30.
Vee continued to perform 75-plus shows per year and make albums well into his 60s. He converted a historic bank in St. Joseph into a recording studio, dubbed Rockhouse Production, which he ran with his musician sons Jeff, Tommy and Robby Velline, who often served as his backing musicians.
"He's such a laid-back, modest Fargo kind of guy, he never had the ego/career problems that a lot of other singers had to come to terms with," Jeff Velline said in 2004 of his dad.
The Velline kids and Bobby faced the death of Karen in August 2015 from kidney failure several years after she endured a lung transplant.
A social worker and psychologist who helped found the Rape Crisis Center for Women in St. Cloud, she and her husband split their golden years between their home on Watab Lake and another in Tucson, Ariz.
"We supported each other in what we were doing," Karen said in a 2014 Star Tribune interview as she and Bobby celebrated their 50th anniversary while facing their own health crises. "We both had careers, and we both enjoyed the other's career. We were fortunate to have great kids. Now that we've been through tough times and we've really looked at life, I feel a lot of gratitude."
Summing up his own career in 2004, Bobby pointed to a childhood hero who was an actor instead of a musician, Walter Brennan, known from John Ford westerns and the TV series "The Real McCoys."
Brennan "was a character actor for most of his career," Vee said. "He was in a lot of movies, but he still maintained a certain amount of anonymity. I see myself, happily, as someone like that."
Funeral arrangements for Vee have not yet been confirmed.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658