Bobby Vee, a clean-cut teen idol singer of the early 1960s who recorded such hit songs as “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Rubber Ball” and “Come Back When You Grow Up,” and who once hired Bob Dylan to be in his backup band, died Oct. 24 at a care center in Rogers, Minn. He was 73.
Mr. Vee released his last recording, “The Adobe Sessions,” accompanied by his sons, in April 2014 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. A son, Jeff Velline, confirmed the death.
Mr. Vee was a Fargo, N.D., teenager and bandleader when he got his first big break replacing the rock star Buddy Holly, who had died in a plane crash in 1959 on the way to a dance near Mr. Vee’s home town. Mr. Vee modeled his nasal vocal style on Holly’s and, through a long string of hit songs that explored unrequited love, cultivated the persona of a cheerful underdog.
He told his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to “Take Good Care of My Baby” (1961) in a song by writers Carole King and Gerry Goffin. He also sang of being “bounced around” by his girl like a “Rubber Ball” (1961). And in “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (1963), Mr. Vee sang a jealous warning to a paramour: “Remember when you tell those little white lies, that the night has a thousand eyes.” In each, Tommy “Snuff” Garrett’s string- and percussion-laden productions created a sense of heightened adolescent drama.
On his blog Eight Miles Higher, English rock critic Andrew Darlington wrote that Mr. Vee “was the perfect parentally-approved dream-boyfriend. He’d never pressure you into inappropriate heavy-petting. He’d respect your emotional responses with an almost impossible sensitivity.”
He added, “No love was ever as single-mindedly pure as Bobby Vee’s.”
There was no disputing Mr. Vee’s influence or his popularity. The Beatles recorded “Take Good Care of My Baby” during a 1962 audition for Decca Records. From 1959 to 1963, the period between Holly’s death and the Beatles’ ascendancy, Mr. Vee placed seven songs in the Billboard Top 10. Mr. Vee also performed in a more muscular rock-and-roll style on albums with surf instrumentalists the Ventures and Holly’s original band, the Crickets.
Holly’s death had huge repercussions for Mr. Vee’s career. Holly and fellow singers Ritchie Valens and Jiles P. Richardson Jr., better known as “the Big Bopper,” died on Feb. 3, 1959, when their chartered plane crashed into a field near Clear Lake, Iowa.
The singers were en route to a dance in Moorhead, Minn.
Instead of canceling the dance, the promoters put out a call on a local radio show for talent to replace the deceased stars. Mr. Vee, then 15, and his band, the Shadows, with his older brother Bill on guitar, called the station and got the gig. (Also on the show were Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo and Holly’s sideman Waylon Jennings — all performers who rode the tour bus instead of boarding Holly’s ill-fated chartered plane.)
Six months later, Mr. Vee recorded “Suzie Baby,” a Hollyesque ballad, for Soma Records. It sold well locally and led to a contract with Liberty Records in Los Angeles. He broke onto the national charts with “Devil or Angel” (1960), first recorded in 1956 by the Washington, D.C., doo-wop group the Clovers.
Mr. Vee’s last chart success was “Come Back When You Grow Up” in 1967. He tried unsuccessfully to reinvent himself as a county-rock singer in the 1970s under his real name, Robert Velline. In later decades, he did Holly tribute shows with the Crickets and performed on the oldies circuit with a band that featured his three sons.
“There are no bad gigs. There really aren’t,” Mr. Vee told the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press in 2011. “We were in London at the Palladium for the last show of our tour there, and then we came back home, and the next show we did was on a flatbed truck in Iowa.”
He added, “I thought to myself, ‘This is the best shot I could’ve ever had,’ ” meaning that, absent his break, every show might have been on a flatbed truck.
Robert Thomas Velline was born in Fargo, N.D., on April 30, 1943. His father, Sidney, played the violin and piano. Two older brothers played guitar.
“I played saxophone in the high school band,” Mr. Vee recalled on his website, “but I wanted to rock out. We were playing all the standard band pieces, and I wanted to do ‘Yakety Yak.’
“My brother Bill went out and bought a guitar, and I saved up enough money from my paper route to eventually buy a new (but sun faded) thirty dollar Harmony guitar for myself,” he added. “We used to go to all the country music shows that came through the area and then would come home after and do our own version of the show in the living room of our small home in Fargo.”
His wife of 51 years, the former Karen Bergen, died in 2015. Survivors include four children, Jeffrey Velline of Avon, Minn., Tommy Velline of St. Cloud, Minn., Robby Velline of Prior Lake, Minn., and Jennifer Velline-Whittet of Buffalo, Minn.; and five grandchildren.
In the summer of 1959, as Mr. Vee’s career was beginning to take off, he hired a pianist from Minnesota who called himself Elston Gunnn. The pianist worked with Mr. Vee for little more than a month.
Unfortunately, most of the pianos at their gigs were not in tune, and neither Gunnn nor the band could spring for a more tuneful and portable electric model. However, Gunnn got some mileage out of the few gigs by telling his friends that he was Bobby Vee. Later, in 1961, Gunnn — real name Robert Zimmerman — moved to Greenwich Village and took the stage name Bob Dylan.
Mr. Vee was in the audience when Dylan paid tribute to him from a St. Paul concert stage in 2013.
“I lived here a while back,” Dylan told the audience, “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. But the most beautiful 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.’ ”
And, on that note, Dylan sang the song and dedicated it to Bobby Vee.
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