SOMEWHERE DOWN THE LINE
BY RONALD SKLAR
Rock and roll is cram-packed with ironic stories. Read the bio of almost any artist and you’ll find the woulda-coulda-shoulda tale of how he almost became an accountant. And prefacing almost every Top 10 hit is the tiresome fable of how the song nearly wound up in the garbage until some DJ in Peoria played it by accident.
Bobby Vee’s story, however, is the mother of all rock and roll ironies and yet it’s as original as his rollercoaster-ride career. Gather around and I’ll tell it to you:
On a snowy February evening in 1959, a plane crashes in Clear Lake, Iowa. Its passengers, namely Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, are taken to Rock and Roll Heaven (this fateful night is immortalized as The Day The Music Died in Don McLean’s 1972 hit, “American Pie.”) Because these three future rock gods never make it to the concert hall, which at the same moment is packed with teenagers ready to jump, jive ‘n’ wail, replacements are needed, with bells on. The group hastily chosen to perform that night is called The Shadows. Their frontman: fifteen-year-old Bobby Velline, later shortened to Bobby Vee when he became, as Billboard magazine would call him, “one of the Top 10 most consistent chart makers ever.”
“I’ve told the story so many times that the Buddy Holly anniversary has sort of adopted me,” Vee comments on the irony in a recent telephone interview. “I wasn’t planning on thinking that it was the start of something big. It was just a bunch of guys getting together to try to get through this tragic event. And at my age, fifteen, that was a big deal. It was so tragic. Rock and roll was so new and exciting and to lose three of the main guys in a plane crash took a big piece out of me because I was such a huge Holly fan.”
Forty years later, Vee remembers his influence and idol, Buddy Holly, in a tribute CD called “Down The Line” (Rockhouse Records). The CD is chock-full of Holly covers, many of them obscure, clearly showing how one artist left his mark on a generation and then some, from Vee to the Beatles and beyond.
On that fateful night, Vee knew that if he had his chance that he could make those people dance and maybe they’d be happy for a while.
“Doing the show that night,” he reminisces, “there was no reason why we should have been there because we were just a garage band. But they didn’t ask us for our credentials. They just said, come on down, and we did a fifteen minute set at the beginning of the evening. What I remember from the moment of getting on that stage and being introduced is that the noble part of it was over with. It was time to perform. I was in shock, but it was amazing. I look at that as one of the milestones of my life, and I have several of them, but that was an important one for me because I got through it. And I remember enjoying it while I was on stage.”
Today, Vee makes his living doing oldies shows and/or performing rockabilly and swing with his sons Jeff, Tom and Robbie, all of whom are in their 30s. The generation weaned on Aerosmith and Kiss and now raising babies and working in corporate centers is discovering that everything old is new again – even the guy who replaced Buddy Holly – and even Buddy Holly himself.
His sound is distinctive: young and vulnerable, but direct and insistent, even when he can’t make up his mind whether his girl is a devil or angel. Today, in his fifties, he sounds more like a CEO, but it’s only due to a deepened, controlled authority in his voice. It’s a long road from his first regional record, “Suzy Baby,” in 1959. It rocked the heartland and was followed by “What Do You Want,” another big hit that rang his phone and rang the bells of teenagers everywhere.
At that time, Vee remembers, “the whole business was young. I was sixteen when I signed with Liberty Records. At seventeen I had my first hit. Snuffy Garrett (later to become a legendary record producer) was 19 or 20. The president of the record company was 31. It’s was a young business and a young world and I never really thought too much about any of that. It was flat exciting and we were all over the place. In 1962, I was away from home for eleven months. I was 19.”
The Camelot years saw a truckload of hits that exploded in both the USA and England (in fact, Vee still makes an annual pilgrimage to Britain, where he is adored). These chart-toppers are still standard oldies fare today, including “Devil or Angel,” “Rubber Ball,” “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” and Bye Bye Birdie‘s “One Last Kiss.” It was the pre-Beatle era, and Bobby was able to straddle the fence between teen idol and serious young man.
“The very early stuff that I did was more rockabilly and rock and roll,” he says. “But I love pop music. I loved Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and stuff like that. I love structure. The Buddy Holly fans thought I was trying to copy him, but I had my own legion of fans who I introduced to Buddy Holly. I’ve been able to walk in the rock and roll camp and the pop camp.”
Most people don’t realize that, for a very short time, Vee had a band member named Robert Zimmerman, who later became better known under an assumed name: Bob Dylan. However, prior to that, Zimmerman had yet another name change: Elston Gunnn (yes, with three n’s).
Vee recalls, “My brother Bill was in a record shop in Fargo and Bob introduced himself to him as Elston Gunnn. He said he had just gotten off the road with Conway Twitty as a piano player. Bill’s eyes got wide. He played pretty good in the key of C. We hired him to come out and work that weekend with us. He was staying with a mutual friend of ours in Fargo. The gig was in a church basement. When he wasn’t playing, he would come up behind me and do handclaps. It was a Gene Vincent thing. He must have seen Gene Vincent do it. He was a nice guy, and wiry, with a lot of energy and no money, just like us. I didn’t fire him, it was a natural evolution of lack of finances.”
Of course, Dylan went on to whatever he went on to do and was never heard from again. Vee, on the other hand, had a few more moments in the sun before the British Invasion almost locked him in “Whatever Happened To…?” Hell.
Regarding the dry spell, Vee recalls, “it was not as bad as you might think. I had a lot of record success. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. And the most difficult time came around 1965, when the hits stopped coming, and the record company said, let’s do something here. We tried a couple of things. We were going all over the place. I wasn’t enjoying it so much.”
Get ready for more rock and roll ironies: in an era of Iron Butterfly and Steppenwolf, Vee hit it big again. And not only once but twice! His hippie-light song, “Beautiful People,” was accessible to those afraid to love Haight-Ashbury.
“In an era of dark stuff, it was a wonderful song,” Vee says.
However, it was the bubbly but serious “Come Back When You Grow Up” which changed everything for him, again.
“It was quite a different sound,” he says, “but the sentiment was familiar in my records. My time had pretty much come and gone, but there were still radio stations out there who were willing to give it a spin. I remember taking out an ad in Billboard magazine, plugging the song, and that time it was number one in Billings, Montana, and top five in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and number one in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And the guys at the record company said, ‘whoopie, isn’t this exciting!’ but I was out on the road, touring. People are just people. It doesn’t really matter what town you’re in. If they’re willing to belly up to the bar and buy my record, that counts. Over the course of the year, that became the biggest record of my career.”
Things quieted down again until the early seventies, when heads starting turning back to the more innocent fifties and early sixties. The release of “American Pie” and American Graffiti triggered an interest in Vee-like music, and he found himself on the road doing the shows that would keep him busy for the next twenty years.
“The music didn’t die,” Vee says. “If you’re really a music fan, you’re going to end up in the mid-fifties. Then you have the whole story. Everything makes sense.”
In England, the very country that almost shut him down, fans go nuts for Bobby Vee. He is often part of a fifties-phile tour, with the likes of such old soldiers as Johnny Preston and Little Eva. It’s, as he puts it, “a dream tour where everybody got to be successful. At this time of my life to be able go out and work with friends who love each other and have known each other for over 40 years is a great feeling.”
“Liberty Records was so hot in America in the early 60s and they wanted to launch the label in England,” he explains. “By then, I was having hits so I got in on that ride. In the early days, you could have many versions of the same songs as hits all over the place. A country version, a swing version, because everything was so localized. It was easy to cover an American record in England, because chances are the act would never come over there. I did, and so did Del Shannon and Neil Sedaka and Gene Pitney. Gene Vincent too. I took the time to go over there and do television, and they never forgot that. I went over a lot in the 60s, and a little bit in the 70s. And I went over in ’85 and it was like I never left.”
At last, Vee comes home with his tribute to his original influence.
“I remember hearing Elvis and the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino,” he says, “but Buddy Holly was my primary influence. Nothing has been lost. The stuff that was important to me then is still important to me. It’s not about the head, it’s about the heart.”
Copyright ©1999 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted August 13, 1999.
Photo courtesy of Bobby Vee and the Vees.