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.
“We did not believe in smacking,” Karen interjected with a chortle. “I’m the psychologist.”
Then she turned serious. “Now that we’ve been through tough times and we’ve really looked at life, I feel a lot of gratitude.”
“Exactly,” Bobby agreed.
“I didn’t expect to have a genetic disorder or for him to have this issue,” Karen continued. “My parents lived to be in their 90s. My mother is 98. I took health and aging for granted. What I’ve been through in the last six years and what I found after the two times I almost died last year, I was able to really go in and feel so much gratitude for my life and the miracles of it and the evolution of it and five wonderful grandchildren. I want to live and make the most of what we have.”
• • •
Bobby has had his share of accolades, not to mention brushes with stars. The walls of his studio are decorated with autographed memories from the likes of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Eddie Cochran. There are posters from shows Vee played with Brenda Lee, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard.
Revered in England where he toured regularly long after the hits stopped coming, Vee has become friends with two famous fans, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the maestros behind all those blockbuster musicals. In fact, Vee was enlisted to perform at Webber’s 50th birthday party, and Rice once greeted the ’60s rock star while wearing a vintage Bobby Vee T-shirt.
Earlier in his career, Vee connected with a couple of musicians who would go on to fame. While playing saxophone in Vee’s band in 1964 in San Antonio, teenager Bobby Keys met the Rolling Stones, who were on the same bill. Keys has been the Stones’ main sax man since 1969.
And, in the summer of 1959, when Vee’s career was just starting to take off in the Midwest, a teenage pianist from Minnesota’s Iron Range calling himself Elston Gunnn introduced himself to Vee and signed on for a couple of gigs before getting let go. That musician later renamed himself Bob Dylan — and he’s never forgotten about that first touring experience.
In his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles — Vol. 1,” Dylan waxed enthusiastic about the debt he owed Vee. The bard reiterated the praise onstage at St. Paul’s Midway Stadium last July.
“I lived here a while 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 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.’ I’m gonna say that Bobby Vee is actually here tonight. Maybe you could show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So we’ve been trying to do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice — ‘Suzie Baby.’ ”
After the concert, Vee and his sons huddled with Dylan. The next day, Dylan’s brother, David Zimmerman, called and invited Bobby to come hang out sometime with Dylan at his farm outside the Twin Cities.
• • •
Karen and Bobby’s three sons — drummer Jeff, bassist Tommy and guitarist Robby — backed Dad on tour in the ’90s and ’00s and even have their own band, the Vees. Jeff and Tommy run Rockhouse Productions in St. Joseph — a recording studio, artist management and event-production company. The Vees still occasionally tour with ’60s stars Fabian and Brian Hyland, with whom Bobby traveled, well, it seems like forever.
Oh, and there’s Jennifer, the youngest child. She has a graphic-design company in Minneapolis and an adobe construction business in Tucson.
In 2011, just weeks after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the family conspired on a little project to keep Dad busy on their annual winter trip to Tucson: Let’s record an around-the-campfire album at the new adobe house Jennifer designed.
The songs were chosen: old favorites that Vee had performed such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Walls,” Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” and Ricky Nelson’s “There’ll Never Be Anyone Else But You.” And some originals, including the newly penned “Tucson Girl,” “Father to a Son” and “Love Must Have Passed Me By.”
Back in Minnesota, a few extra touches were added, including a chant by monks from nearby St. John’s Abbey on Daniel Lanois’ hymnlike “The Maker.”
Jennifer did the cover artwork, taking a cue from her dad, who’d painted a piece for the back cover of his last album, 1972’s “Nothin’ Like a Sunny Day.” He’s a lifelong and exhibited painter, who still picks up his brushes, though the details in his work are less precise than they used to be.
The new album, “The Adobe Sessions,” will be issued on CD on Tuesday.
There will be no CD release parties. No public appearances for Vee to promote the record. Just this one last interview — the first he’d ever done with his wife.
They seemed tired after sharing memories for more than an hour. They wanted to go to their central Minnesota home to prepare for the next morning’s return to Tucson.
Later, after dinner, Bobby phoned Jeff.
“This was a good day, wasn’t it?” he told his son.