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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Bobby Vee--An appreciation

("Rubber Ball")

Bobby Vee’s voice and singing was so distinctive, as oldies radio personality Rockin’ John McDonald notes, that “you could spot a Bobby Vee record a mile away!” He and many others looked back at least that far when the great 1960s rock ‘n’ roll star died Oct. 24 at 73.

“RIP My friend & inspiration, Bobby Vee,” tweeted Howard Kaylan of the Turtles. “His voice, his happy-go-lucky passion for life, family & song.” His and Vee’s contemporary Lou Christie likewise reflected.

“We probably met in ’63 and did a lot of touring together,” says Christie. “I knew his whole family—his brothers, and his sons--who played in his band over the last 15 years or so. He was just such a nice person and very professional and always gave his best and never shorted anyone with his appearances on stage. He was just a decent human being.”

And one with an immortal recording legacy.

“He had such a great sound to his voice,” says Christie, echoing McDonald. “And [producer] Snuff Garrett produced some incredible records with him, and then writers like Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote for him [his1961 chart-topper ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’]. Thank God we have these records, because they last.”

Russ Titelman, producer of hit albums by the likes of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and a songwriter who worked with Goffin, notes how Vee’s records “introduced us to more wonderful early Carole King and Gerry Goffin songs as well as a fine remake of ‘Devil or Angel’ [Vee’s Top 10 hit in 1960, originally cut by the Clovers], the Gene Pitney song ‘Rubber Ball’ and so many more. All great pop records produced by Snuff Garrett. There's an innocence and beauty to the work they did. Inspiring stuff.”

Born Robert Thomas Velline in Fargo, N.D., it was “Rubber Ball” that broke him through in 1961, two years after he famously volunteered, at 15, to fill in for Buddy Holly at the show in Moorhead, Minn., where Holly, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, were traveling when their plane crashed. He did in fact sound very much like Holly early on (he released the I Remember Buddy Holly tribute album in 1963), and also gave Robert Allen Zimmerman, then calling himself Elston Gunnn and later Bob Dylan, a position in his touring band (Dylan cited Vee as “the most beautiful person I've ever been on the stage with” and characterized his voice as having "a metallic, edgy tone [that] was as musical as a silver bell”).

Notes music archivist Gregg Geller: “Buddy Holly provided the template with his latter-day ‘pop’ hits like 'It Doesn’t Matter Anymore' and 'Raining In My Heart,' and Bobby Vee, with producer Snuff Garrett and the best musicians the L.A. studios had to offer, gave voice to great songs by writers like Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The result was a long string of memorable records during the so-called 'wasteland' of the pre-Beatles early-1960s. That he may have provided fellow Upper-Midwesterner Bob Dylan with his professional start is an interesting footnote, but really secondary to the general excellence of Bobby Vee’s work.”

Rockin’ John McDonald saw Vee regularly at the annual Winter Dance Party Buddy Holly tribute in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Holly, Valens and Bopper played their last concert at the Surf Ballroom prior to boarding their ill-fated flight.

“He was a fixture there, and his kids played in his backup band,” says McDonald. “He was a great guy, and the whole family was really nice. It’s almost like losing a close friend and classmate.”

McDonald recently played a cut off Vee’s 1962 album with Holly’s band the Crickets (Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets), along with tunes from his son Robby Vee, who performed two weeks ago in Madison, Wis., home of McDonald’s WORT-FM radio station.

“The songs still stand up—“Take Good Care of My Baby,’ ‘Run to Him,’ ‘The Night Has a thousand Eyes,’ ‘Come Back When You Grow Up.’ The list is endless—pop-rock but catchy, by Brill Building songwriters like Goffin & King, and produced by Snuff Garrett. When he did ‘Rubber Ball’ at Clear Lake, he batted beach balls into the crowd!”

But the one-time teen idol stayed active and relevant until 2011, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

“He did some great music in the ‘80s and ‘90s and 2000s--totally different than what he did in the ‘60s,” says McDonald. “And one of the greatest albums was his last—The Adobe Sessions, which he and his kids cut after he was diagnosed. It had songs that he always wanted to do—and he really went for it.”

("The Adobe Sessions")



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