Bobby Vee never set out to be a rock star.
He was too nice of a guy. Minnesota Nice — even if he was from Fargo. It used to be Fargo/Moorhead until the Coen brothers gave Fargo its own identity. So we always claimed Vee as Minnesota’s first rock star.
Rock stars have big attitudes, bad habits and broken marriages. Not so with Bobby Vee.
Vee, who died of Alzheimer’s on Monday at age 73, was a sweet, unassuming Midwesterner who married at age 20 and stayed with his wife until she died 51 ½ years later. Karen was there for all those hits — “Devil or Angel,” “Run to Him,” “Take Good Care of My Baby” — and all those oldies tours.
In early 2014, I conducted Vee’s last interview — and the first with his wife present. They’d met at a dance in her hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minn., moved to Los Angeles when his career took off and returned to St. Joseph, Minn., to raise their four children.
Vee was no different in the last interview from how he was in our first nearly 35 years earlier — or in any of the intervening conversations. There was a gleam in his eyes and a grin on his face. He was cheery and unwaveringly upbeat. There were moments when Alzheimer’s robbed him of his ability to find the right word or the right memory, but as Karen filled in the right answer, he smiled knowingly.
Vee wasn’t really a rock star. He was a teen idol. He was a 15-year-old with an appealing voice, cool pompadour and boyish smile who got to be in his older brother’s band because he knew the lyrics to popular songs of the day.
By now, the story is familiar. In February 1959, rock star Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash while en route from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Moorhead, Minn. KFGO radio put the call out for local talent. Bobby Velline and his brother’s band filled in and created a stir. That led to a regional hit single, “Suzie Baby,” recorded in Minneapolis, and a pre-Beatles career based in Los Angeles with six Top 10 singles.
“Teen Idol” is the name of a new musical about Vee’s life that, fittingly, will close this weekend at the History Theatre in St. Paul. With Vee’s sons Jeff and Tommy serving as consultants, the musical tells a deeply personal story with details that weren’t part of previous narratives. Mental illness ran in the family — Mom was institutionalized for a while, older brother Bill developed debilitating stage fright.
“Teen Idol” chronicles the rise of this innocent sweater-wearing kid from Fargo, where North Dakota native Lawrence Welk was their idea of a music star. Hollywood producer Snuff Garrett was a key player behind the scenes, making sure that Vee had the right songs to compete with the likes of Fabian, the Four Seasons and a fading Elvis Presley. However, once the Beatles and the British Invasion arrived, Vee enjoyed only one more hit, “Come Back When You Grow Up,” in 1967.
He wanted his music to grow up, he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, he wanted to be a singer-songwriter. In 1972, he recorded an album of original material under his given name, Robert Thomas Velline. But his post-Beatles detour was a dead end, with no audiences for this music and fans calling out for “Rubber Ball” and other oldies at sparsely attended performances.
Vee faced reality and returned in 1980 to Minnesota — and the oldies circuit, including regular visits to England, where he was treated like a pop idol. While he saw such buddies as Del “Runaway” Shannon succumb to alcohol, ego or other rock-star issues, Vee settled in a solar-powered house in rural Minnesota as his wife earned degrees in social work and psychology and helped start a rape crisis center in St. Cloud. Vee’s three sons toured as his backup band, and his daughter became a graphic artist.
Vee himself was an artist, too, an exhibited acrylic painter whose artwork appeared on the back of his 1972 album, “Nothin’ Like a Sunny Day.” He continued to record — even after he stopped touring in 2011 when his Alzheimer’s was diagnosed.
“Teen Idol” addresses his disease and the genetic lung problem that afflicted his wife. The musical also chronicles his final recording, 2014’s “The Adobe Sessions,” a family project made at their winter home in Arizona over the course of a couple of years. Reading lyrics from cue cards, Vee sang some favorites — including tunes by Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan and Ricky Nelson — and the newly penned “Father to a Son” and “Love Must Have Passed Me By.”
After seeing Vee’s life pass before me on the History Theatre stage this month, I recalled a question he’d asked me back in the ’00s or the ’90s: Why isn’t Bobby Vee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Here was a guy who scored 14 Top 40 hits in eight years. A guy whose career crossed paths with Buddy Holly (the plane crash), Bob Dylan (whose first paying gig was as a pianist in Vee’s band for two nights in 1959 and who has acknowledged his debt to Vee) and Paul McCartney (who invited Vee to appear at Holly tribute shows in London).
The answer isn’t easy or simple. The Hall of Fame process is fraught with all kinds of industry politics. Like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee didn’t have a great influence on the music world. In other words, there seems to be no room for teen idols — or genuinely nice guys — in the Rock Hall of Fame.