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Bobby Vee: Fame is Linked to Holly Tragedy
By Leif Enger
February 5, 1999
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Lots of attention has been paid this week to the 40-year-anniversary of the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens; and the Big Bopper, Jape Richardson. The three last performed at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa; the plane went down in a snowstorm en route to Moorhead, where the next show was scheduled. Tomorrow the Surf will host a tribute concert to Holly, Valens, and Richardson. Among the performers: Bobby Vee, who as a teenager helped fill in at the Moorhead concert, and who found his career that night.

It's such fantasy for so many, it's hard to believe it can happen. But it did. Bob Velline was 15 when he stepped into the lights that night in Moorhead; a schoolboy who'd gone home for lunch and heard about the plane crash on the radio.

Vee: You'd think the show would've been canceled but, you know, there was the tradition of, the show must go on; and the radio station said, "We're looking for some local talent to help us fill in the evening." And one of the guys called the station. No audition, no "what's the name of your band?". He said, "come on down.""

We were the second act on. Waylon Jennings, who was one of the Crickets then, went out and did a little tribute to the fallen stars; and then Charlie Boone turned around to me and said, "What's the name of the band?" We were dumbfounded, we didn't have a name. And I said, "The Shadows". And he turned round and said "Ladies and Gentlemen, here they are, the Shadows."
40 years later, Vee's still playing this afternoon backed by his sons, Jeff and Tommy and Robby, in the basement of his home near St. Cloud. Any kinks in their Buddy Holly repertoire are long since worked out.
Blue days, black nights, blue tears that keep falling for you, dear now you're gone.
Blue days, black nights, my heart keeps on calling for you dear you alone.
Memories of you make me sorry I gave you reason to doubt me,
and now you're gone and I'm left here all alone, with blue memories, I think of you.
Fargo, North Dakota in the mid-1950s was hardly rock-and-roll country. In fact, it was country-and- western country. Bob Velline grew up going to the Moorhead Armory to see Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow.
Vee: I remember very clearly listening to the Lem Hawkins show on the radio in Fargo. And one day he played a song by Elvis Presley called "That's all right Mama". They didn't call it rock-and-roll, I just thought it was really good country music
As rock-and-roll gained steam (and a name), the Vellines put away their trumpets and trombones and acquired guitars. Pretty soon Bill Velline and a few friends started a band; not to perform, just to play. Bobby was five years younger than Bill. He wasn't invited.
Vee: My brother would go and he'd come back all pumped about this music: "aw, man, it was great", "well, what'd you do Bill? " "Aw, we did some Elvis songs and some Buddy Holly. " "Bill, you gotta bring me along! " And I was five years younger. "Yeah, okay, just be quiet! " And I got there and what I realized, listening to them play, was that nobody sang. They just played the music. So they'd be playing some Gene Vincent song or something, and nobody sang, so they'd get lost in the music. And I would say, "Bill, it's the bridge, it's (sings): well I wanna wanna lotta lotta lovin', "oh, yeah, thanks! ", and little by little I started singin the songs.
It was the sort of thing that was happening all over; the television 50s, only real; teenagers in 10,000 garages were strapping on guitars, mimicking and mangling riffs off their 45s, producing enormous noises and parental apprehension. And then, unlikely as it seemed, several performers at the top of the charts undertook a midwestern tour: the Winter Dance Party, it was called. Holly and the Crickets, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts. The Vellines and their buddies bought tickets.
Vee: Because we'd never seen anything like that in the midwest. To have a tour like that, with that many stars in it, traveling through playing rock and roll! In my 15 year-old life that was one of the big events.
A big event, Vee says, even before he went home for a sandwich and turned on the radio. Longtime WCCO announcer Charlie Boone was then a personality on the Fargo station that sponsored the concert.
Boone: When we heard the news, about the plane crash in Iowa, we were all shocked. We couldn't believe it. And we thought "what about the concert tonight? " And I went on in the afternoon, and I could tell from listener calls that people wanted the concert to go on. So we said "okay, lets put the show on, but we need talent to fill in".
School was out at three, giving the Shadows, as they were soon to be known, four hours to get ready. In their sadness and excitement they talked over what to play. They ate. They ran downtown and bought matching sweaters.
Vee: It was an emotional evening. A knee-jerk, headjerk event. And suddenly the spirit of coming together to get through this thing came down to me. It was our turn, and we had to play.

MPR: What did you play? Vee: You know, I don't remember. I talked to Bill about it years later, and neither of us could remember. We knew we did some Everly Brothers songs, probably Bye Bye Love. Some Little Richard, some Elvis. We only did about a 20 minute set, but there was a fellow in the audience who came up afterward and said: "Good job, guys, you sounded great. If you're ever looking for a job, give me a call. "
The next day, Bobby Vee signed his first autograph when a girl approached him at school. Thereafter, the Shadows played every event they could get to. And on June first, they went to Minneapolis to record Suzie Baby, the first of three dozen hits Vee would chart in the next 17 years.

Suzie baby, don't you know
that I love you and want you so?
Come back baby, come back home,
Say you love me and never again roam
Bobby Vee will headline the tribute concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa; shadowed this time by his sons, the Vees. The Crickets will be there as well; and JP Richards Jr., the son of the Big Bopper.