Singing star Bobby Vee and his wife, Karen, have sustained each other through sickness and health for 50 years.
ST. JOSEPH, MINN. – Bobby Vee, Minnesota’s first rock star, has been married longer than any other rock star except maybe Fats Domino.
“Is Fats still alive?” Vee asked, pointing to a framed photo of the “Blueberry Hill” piano rocker on the wall of the Vee family recording studio. Yes, Domino is alive but his wife died in 2008. They were married for 60 years.
Vee looked at Karen Velline, his wife of 50 years, sitting next to him on a piano bench. He smiled and grabbed her hand.
Bobby and Karen, both 70, have entered a new stage of their lives — and not just because they celebrated their golden anniversary in December. Karen recently had a lung transplant after using an oxygen tank for six years. Bobby is struggling with Alzheimer’s, experiencing those kind of lapses when words elude him. He has a new CD coming out Tuesday but doesn’t do concerts or public appearances anymore. Some days are better than others.
Yet the gleam in his eyes and the grin on his face say he’s the same Bobby Vee — the cheery, unwaveringly upbeat purveyor of such 1960s hits as “Rubber Ball.”
Bobby and Karen met in 1960 at a dance at the armory in Detroit Lakes, her hometown. She wanted to go to college to study early-childhood development, and he was already a rock star — a guitar-playing teenager with a slick pompadour from nearby Fargo, N.D.
Bobby Vee (it’s short for Velline) famously filled in, at age 15, for Buddy Holly after his fateful Iowa plane crash in 1959 en route to a concert in Moorhead, Minn. A few months later, Bobby was in Minneapolis recording his self-penned “Suzie Baby,” which became a regional hit on Soma Records and led to a big-time contract with Liberty Records.
His career took off with such national hits as “Devil or Angel” and “Take Good Care of My Baby.” By the time he and Karen got married on Dec. 28, 1963, he’d scored 11 Top 40 hits. They moved to Los Angeles, where they began raising their four children.
In June 1980, they returned to Minnesota.
“He started moving himself back emotionally first. I was so rooted in L.A. and he had traveled everywhere,” said Karen, pointing out that the family kept a cabin in Detroit Lakes all those years they were in California.
Bobby nixed the idea of settling in another big city like Minneapolis. Karen’s brother lived near St. Cloud, so the Vellines moved there.
“We came back here environmentally friendly and built the passive solar home with solar panels, and no one back here cared about energy,” Karen recalled with a chuckle.
She finished college and became a clinical social worker. Bobby never had a Plan B. He just kept rocking, playing as many as 80 shows a year.
Why has their marriage survived?
“I think we’ve both led our own lives and led life together,” said Karen, sounding chirpy and analytical at the same time. “We supported each other in what we were doing. We both had careers, and we both enjoyed the other’s career. He participated in mine sometimes, and I participated in his. Raising the kids together and having common goals and common values. And we had a lot of fun.”
Bobby just sat there listening and smiling.
“When he wrote [songs], I’d give him feedback. And I drew him outside more, and he loved nature and camping with the kids. The kids were always so much fun. We were fortunate to have great kids. They always brought a lot of joy to our life.”
“We would smack ’em if we had to,” Bobby joked.