Everyone knows the early sixties were a bummer. When the Beatles came along to shoot down Vee and his kind, he made a perfect target. It was like a scene from Tommy: “Gonna rape you… let’s forget you, better still.”
So much for the official legend of the early sixties. But there are legends beneath legends, and sometimes, even realities. The story of Bobby Vee is, after all, one version of the story of how rock ‘n’ roll survives (and how it doesn’t) when the music and the culture it forms loses its shape and its identity.
I. The Early Sixties
Thanks to the resurgence of the music of the early sixties, which has been going on for the first few years of the early seventies (in the music of Bette Midler—“low rent retro-rock,” she calls it—in terms of critical interest, and with numerous period hits reappearing in the British charts), I think we can see that the official version of the era obscures as much as it reveals.
Certainly it was true that most of the noble early rockers vanished from the scene, but there is little evidence that they had all that much more to give. Rock ‘n’ roll was a burst of novelty and noise for the artists as well as the audience, and by 1960 or so many of the founders had said their piece and lost interest in “rock” in favor of the respectable, dependable sounds more fitting to their advancing age. The mainstream pop taste of the great white middle class rock audience resurfaced after a few years of fooling around—a desire for “Your Hit Parade” with a rock ‘n’ roll gloss. And of course, the men who liked to think they ran the record biz were more than happy to oblige. The music sputtered along, the aesthetic of rock went underground, would-be rockers wandered off to folk and the blues and thus brought on the millennium of late sixties rock as a great-art-form-for-the-masses. Such a critical theory—“the only thing all rock critics agree on,” wrote one commentator—is so familiar it reads like the Lord’s Prayer.
What came in place of early rock anarchy (rockabilly, screamers, vocal groups, aging r&b veterans finding a new audience) can be easily broken down. Philadelphia high school rock, a la Dick Clark, emerged around 1958 and brought some order to a disorderly scene. The Bandstand audience, from South Philly, an Italian ghetto, fit the featured male crooners—also Italian—who played the show along with legitimate rockers. Local bands formed all over the country in the late fifties to reproduce the jukebox; a lack of songwriting talent made this form dependent on instrumentals, which were just as good for dancing as songs with words, anyway. By 1960 Philadelphia’s new organization of the audience had led to a revival of Tin Pan Alley-Brill Building song mills—writers and publishers who churned out ditties that at first went mostly to male solo singers, and later to girl groups. Surf music grew out of the ubiquitous local band scene. By around 1963-64, most of these forms had been mastered and milked dry, and new forms—Motown, new rhythm and blues from Memphis, and the British bands—had achieved distinctive styles strong enough to wipe the charts clean.
So the early sixties were for shit. There’s no denying it, unless you listen to records. It really did feel dull and boring and stupid, just like it does most of the time as I write (December 1972). But that was a result of the music losing its, oh, cosmic impact. This has less to do with anything that can be analyzed in purely musical terms than with matters that can be dealt with in political, historical, or social terms, since it is a cultural, and not a strictly musical question.
The music of the early sixties, the best of it, was in some ways (especially in retrospect) as good as what came before. What had collapsed, lost its meaning, was the impact of the music—we had rock and roll as opposed to Rock ‘n’ Roll. No longer something to scare your parents (and maybe you too), feed your aggression, startle your assumptions, turn you inside out, rock and roll was something to listen to. Its image was smoother, its songs dumber, its sentiment more conventional, its spirit softer. Instead of busting limits by definition, the music worked within them. Rock and roll became, in an odd way, much more subtle. Since it was still made by kids, most of the old values were there; since the kids were taking orders and combing their hair, you had to listen much harder to find those values. Since rock ‘n’ roll isn’t something you ought to have to listen to very hard, people didn’t.
In addition, there was a class problem. Much of rock ‘n’ roll continued to be made by lower class kids, black and white, but it was, in the end, music for the middle class. The rewards, after Elvis, were clearly defined, and his career, aimed straight at the mainstream, was the model to follow for most. Respectability was a goal; not just a Cadillac, but security was a goal. Middle class white kids, excited by the rage and sex and sneer of lower class rockers, tried to imitate, tried to bring those same things to the surface of their own lives, and they did alright. Certainly, they could not be denied. Democracy for the middle class: you didn’t have to be poor, black, unhappy or angry to rock and roll—you could just get off thinking you were. Neat.
Faceless Local Bands made high-school dance and drunk-after-the-game music. There were blacks (often called The VIPs, the Counts, the Regents, the Dukes, the Crown Kings—that old yearning for nobility Gene Chandler summed up and took to Number One in 1962 with his classic “Duke of Earl”); there were pachucos; whites (the Flyers, the Nikes, the Motorsounds, the Rob Roys.) The idea of the music was simple—get ’em dancing, win fights, get girls. It was not artistic—often it was awful. You couldn’t listen to it, but you could get off on it. Those bands that won local contests made local records—often instrumental—and occasionally got local hits. In this same class we can also include much of the early British scene—the Beatles and other Liverpool groups, Van Morrison and the Monarchs; Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Wailers, the Rascals; and penultimately, the Kingsmen, whose “Louie Louie” crystallized the end of the form just as “Duke of Earl” had captured its inception. We can also include early Bob Dylan and his high school band, and the Hawks, who played rock and blues for an older audience that wanted more or less the same thing from their music that high school kids did, but didn’t need fake IDs to get it. Early Creedence (Blue Velvets) also paid their dues here.Surf Music grew out of this scene. Derived from fifties r&b (especially Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry), Link Wray, fifties harmony groups, lots of leisure time and more beer, this music, unlike the Local Band style, had a focus: it was tied to a cult, if not a culture. Much of it was instrumental, and it may have been here that the guitar took over from the saxophone as the crucial rock instrument. Surf music was loud and stereotyped. It gave its audience a great sense of community, based on the intricate surfer status system. If you couldn’t surf, you could listen to the music, and millions, especially in the midwest, did. It was about something—it had a mythology. If you suffered through the Brown Outs, the Woodies, the Trashmen (apt), and the Rivieras, you could get the Surfaris, the Chantays, Jan & Dean, and the Beach Boys, and a fine sense of teen life in general. This was the most effectively youthful of early sixties rock, and the least sharable.
Out of fifties harmony and the revitalized Brill Building came Girl Groups. Usually black, young, sexy as hell, this was the best the era had to offer. Here we find the ultimate flowering of rock craftsmanship, records that did not happen, like much of early rock, but which were really made.
It was simple. First you got a song out of a couple of writers you kept locked up in a cubicle (“you” often meant Don Kirschner, who was to use his early sixties talents to invade the late sixties with the Monkees), then you got a group to sing it, then you produced the disc and added five or six hooks to make sure nobody missed the point, then you hustled, you hyped, you promised, you stole—ie, you promoted—then, maybe, the audience got “One Fine Day,” which just may be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll record ever made.
Here we find Phil Spector, of course, but also George Goldner, one of rock’s true forgotten pioneers, who discovered the sound Spector later built on. His group was the Chantels, led by Arlene Smith, all of fifteen and the finest female singer in the history of the music. They were late fifties, but crystalized the girl group style. We find the Shirelles, with the timeless Shirley Allston—endlessly vulnerable, desirable, drowning in strings and never losing the beat, scoring six top ten hits. Also the Chiffons, the Marvelettes, the early Supremes, and countless others. Also solo spinoffs like Little Eva, Claudine Clark, Leslie Gore, Rosie of the Originals.
Most important here, of course, were the writers: Carole King and Jerry Goffin, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwhich, and so on—often laying down the essence of the hit on their demos. The records made in this milieu were controlled. The music was not “spontaneous” but the feelings were usually authentic. There are no more expressive singers in rock ‘n’ roll than Shirley Allston, Arlene Smith, or Darlene Love—none of whom have prospered outside of the limits of a rigid formula. You can put the best of Girl Group Rock up against any other style, and for my money, it will win.
Soul music was taking shape. Sam Cooke is the vital figure here, developing a style that still affects much of the Top 40, in the work of Johnny Nash (whose first hit was a joint effort with Paul Anka and George Hamilton IV—north, south, and black—“The Teen Commandments,” 1958) and Al Green. Cooke’s records—beautifully produced, funny, hurt, non-macho, friendly—set the tone for a lowered voice in black music as well as white. It was a music of limits that also produced the Impressions, Jerry Butler, and affected the ABC work of Ray Charles, who was dominant during this era, and the pop style of the Drifters, who were marvelous all through the period. This music had little influence on the white sounds with which it shared the charts, but was a massive influence on the Beatles, the Stones, and the rest of that crew. There were occasional anomalies that harked back to an earlier explosion—“Quarter to Three,” for example—but not many.
None of these styles mattered as much as a tradition absolutely central to mainstream white entertainment, and especially popular music—the tradition of the solo white male singer, usually Italian. Probably this strain can be traced as far back as Rudolph Valentino, but for our purposes, Sinatra will do. Vaguely operatic, melodramatic, dripping sincerity and a thousand caresses, easily managed, singers of this ilk reasserted themselves early in the rock ‘n’ roll game. Rooted in the styles of Perry Como and Dean Martin (a huge influence on Elvis), we find Frankie Avalon, Frankie Sardo, Bobby Vinton, Tony Orlando, Steve Alaimo, Gene Pitney, Dion, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka—and the dread Fabian.
Rock ‘n’ roll, whose primary figure had to be Elvis, a white male solo singer, was thus in a sense a compromise with this tradition—but the chance was that Elvis would alter the tradition and give it new content. But he fit in too well, and was more than willing. So was Buddy Holly, who was recording with Italinate pizzicato strings by the time he died. If Jerry Lee and Gene Vincent couldn’t fit, they were done without. And if Elvis went from rock ‘n’ roll into this tradition (though of course he had had it in him all along), others, like Avalon and Tommy Sands and Pat Boone, went from the tradition into rock, confusing the audience, whose allegiance was never that clear anyway.
Why was this tradition so important? Well, first of all, teenage girls bought most records, and teenage girls got turned on by good-looking, smooth male singers. Far be it from me to explain the Italian necessity—but I imagine it had something to do with the Legend of the European Lover, and the French were out because there weren’t that many of them in America; anyway, they can’t sing.
This sort of singer made everyone feel more comfortable. He wasn’t a diseased mongoloid absurdity like Little Richard—less exciting maybe, but built to last. So rock ‘n’ roll was a filling station on the road to Vegas—also conveniently Italian—or Sicilian.
If Elvis’s goals had not been conventional, mainstream goals like respectability, maturity, and money, and if he hadn’t liked schmaltz as much as he dug blues, things might have been different. But the crusher was that Elvis legitimized schmaltz as rock. He legitimized it for the money-men, for the singers, and for the audience. The lines were blurred, and the music lost much of its identity. And it is within this contradiction that singers like Bobby Vee, Brian Hyland, Dion, Del Shannon, Jack Scott, Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney, and Ricky Nelson had to do their work.
They and the rest fit into a pattern which went something like this. Find your self a good-looking young man, sexy but not threatening, who sings well with a personal style. Dress him nicely, avoid scandal, get the best material, promote his records, don’t let him get out of hand. Presto! You have a perfect mirror for gentle fantasy. (That England’s version of this style was cruder can be seen by the names of some of its practitioners: Marty Wilde, Johnnie Eager, Tommy Quickly, Billy Fury, Rory Storm, Johnnie Gentle. As George Melly says in his Revolt Into Style, the idea was to organize the pubescent sex fantasies of young girls, as in, “He’d do it gently, or quickly, or furiously, or eagerly.”)
So what remained of this key center of rock and roll was less a special, original style, and an exciting new relationship between a new music and a new audience, than a commercial reality based on the need to exploit that relationship while blurring its edges (expand the audience, pull in the parents), and a fuzzy desire on the part of some of the male singers, who had liked the new rock, to make rock ‘n’ roll, once it was no longer clear what rock ‘n’ roll was.
Bobby Vee lived out this paradox, succeeded because of it, suffered a bit from it, and survived it. His story brings together many strands of the early sixties—Local Band music, Surf music, the Brill Building, the Smooth Male Solo act. In some ways, his story is the story of his era.
Oddly enough he got his start on the very night which was to symbolize the beginning of the era itself.
II. Bob Velline with the Shadows: High School Rockers
In 1958 Bob Velline was a sophomore at Central High School in Fargo, North Dakota. His family had come over from Norway and Finland in the late 19th century, moving to Buttsville, N.D., a town made up of a grain elevator and a general store, which Bob’s grandpa owned. Only the elevator is left; when the family moved to Lisbon, N.D., they put wheels under the store and took it with them. Eventually, in a typically American way, they made it all the way to the city: Fargo. It’s not much. I was chased out of town by a tornado once.
Also typically, there was a musician in Velline’s family, an uncle. His lifestyle—more mobile than that of Bob’s father, who was a local chef—appealed to the kid. His brother played guitar in pick-up bands; Velline learned a little in 1956, and the two of them often sat around playing chords and singing current songs.
The first music that made any impact on Bob—“the first record I had to do something about, which was call up the radio station and demand that they play it again”—was, also typically, at least for that part of the country, a Hank Williams song, “Kaw-liga.” Outside of that there was Julius La Rosa gettin’ down with it every morning on the Arthur Godfrey Show.
And then, with transcendent typicality, there was Elvis Presley, reaching his rock ‘n’ roll fingers all the way into the netherworld of North Dakota, giving a whole new meaning to the vague word, “music.”
Along with the rest of the kids at his school Velline got caught up in something genuinely new and exciting. He had a list of all the Elvis songs that he toted around, looking it over, adding to it, probably putting little checks or stars next to records he owned, or loved, or hated. He’d flash records in class, overstay his time in the record store listening booth—just like everybody else.
But the real crusher was Buddy Holly and “That’ll Be The Day.” “To me it was the most original, fresh, unique record I ever heard,” Velline says today, “and I was right, it was.”
Bob Velline was and is one first-class Buddy Holly fan. He knows every cut, and he’ll correct you if you credit a Crickets’ side to Holly or vice versa. Holly bounded into rock because of Elvis, and Velline because of Holly. And if Elvis was Mr. King of the World, Holly was your average Nice Kid, statistician for the basketball team or something like that. Underneath the veneer he was a great rocker, one of the best, and years ahead of his time in combining flash with subtlety. Because of that, and because of his death, one of the biggest smashes of all time, his musical influence has been pervasive, virtually on a par with Elvis’s and Chuck’s.
Along with providing a way into rock ‘n’ roll, Holly provided a way out of it, and best of all, a way to walk the line. Since rock ‘n’ roll was disturbing, and many of its fans were less sure about it, this was worth something. Holly’s “Well… Alright” might get past an easy-listening DJ, but it is also one of the most remarkable pure rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, a quiet revolt of staggering intensity. His “Love is Strange,” with strings added after his death, is not only accessible in a superficial sort of way to any age group, it lets you in on the secret that love is actually a lot stranger than Buddy or anyone else can ever tell you. What you can hear in Buddy’s songs is risk and doubt, a young kid who knows what he wants and is pretty sure he’s never gonna get it, or that if he does, it’ll never last.
To Velline, I think, Holly must have been both more reassuring and more genuinely exciting than Elvis. Definitely, he was more like Velline; on the other hand, “That’ll Be The Day” was as tough as they come, which meant that realm of feeling was open to Velline if he wanted it.
Velline heard no black music outside of Fats Domino, for the simple reason that virtually none was ever played in Fargo (there was only one black man in town, Bob remembers—George Washington, who shined shoes). The big station was KFGO, and the DJ was the great Bobby Dale. He was the closest thing Fargo had to a rock ‘n’ roll star; witty, anarchic, always at the hop, he had all the kids in town lined up behind him.
Naturally, a little band came out of all this: Bob and an older brother, a drummer, and a bass player, who called himself Moby Dick, who pushed the group. He had ambition. The others were out for fun.
They had been together two weeks, with no name, because they hardly needed one, as the dawn came up on February 3, 1959. Even if nothing special had happened, this would have been a big day for Fargo, because the first real rock ‘n’ roll show was coming to town: Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Frankie Sardo, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts. Everyone was up for it.
Velline came home from school for lunch and his brother told him the news. He was sick. Later that afternoon KFGO put out a call for a band to help out the tour. Somebody—probably Moby Dick—called back and volunteered. Then the band got together, and panicked.
Not only didn’t they have a name, they didn’t have any outfits! They hustled off and bought matching angora sweaters, plus matching 25c ties, panicked some more, and made it down to the hall.
Velline remembers the scene backstage with some amusement and a little anxiety. His brother was asking Dion for his guitar strap, everybody was crying, no one knew who should go on first or what to say or how to say it. And the band still didn’t have a name. Bob picked “The Shadows” for no particular reason except that it sounded hip and ominous and groovy. This was their first gig, their first time in front of any kind of audience.
Sardo went on first. He commenced with a maudlin rap in the best tradition of the show must go on, and then sang “Donna.” Velline remembers him as a natural tearjerker. Not too many people remember him at all.
Next up were the Shadows. They were scared to death, of course, and they were really alright. Velline sang “Bye, Bye Love,” he sang “Long Tall Sally.” And, he says, “It happened—I was getting energy from that crowd, I liked it, it was real.” The Shadows kicked into gear for the first time, and that was it—spooky or not, they were a band.
The next day when Bob went to school a girl asked him for his autograph.
A couple of days after that a local promoter named Bing Bingstrom showed up. He had been in the audience that night, and he liked what he heard. In fact, he’d filmed the whole show—unfortunately double-exposing it with some footage of his little girl taking her first steps. The band hitched up with him and began to get some bookings. Bob changed his name to Bobby Vee.
Their first paying gig was on Valentine’s Day, 1959. They drove forty-five miles in zero degree weather in a heaterless station wagon to play on benches that had been pushed together to make a stage. In the middle of the show the benches fell apart and all the amps smashed to the floor. The band played straight rock. They made $60, which any musician can tell you is damn good for a first gig.
“We knew what we wanted,” says Bob. “We wanted records, so we could get known over more territory—a three-state area was what we were aiming for—so we could get more jobs. We had a plan of attack on a small scale that applied on a large scale.”
They hustled up $500 and made it on down to Soma Records in Minneapolis, where you could cut your own discs. On June 1, 1959, they recorded “Suzy Baby,” a song Bob had written, with an instrumental, “Flying,” on the flip.
Both sides are quite interesting. “Suzy Baby,” included on this set, is an intense little rock song, very dark and moody, obviously commercial. It reminds me of Robin Luke’s “Susie Darlin’,” but it is stronger, less sentimental. After an opening with some odd percussion and a sharp Spanish guitar intro by Bobby’s brother Bill, Vee comes right in with a classic teen vocal: “Suzy baby, where are you?” The guitar simply doesn’t quit, while the rhythm is deftly understated. The whole performance is quite dramatic, with a quality of submerged urgency you can still see in Velline’s eyes today.
“Flying” is pure flash—a fast guitar workout, with a good melody and a lotta sharp riffs. Though the Ventures were yet to be heard from, this was, in essence, surf music—which is just another way of saying it was music made by a kid who has just discovered what he can do with an electric guitar.
Also cut that day was “Lonely Love,” another of Bob’s tunes that is little more than a rewrite of “Teenager In Love.” It had a tough sound, close to “Maybe Baby,” and the guitar solo is exceptional—“Wipe Out,” note for note, though that record was four years in the future. Clearly, The Shadows were a good band, but what is unusual was that they were able to make good records.
So they had their disc. They were ready for the big push. They were optimistic, single-minded. Moby Dick figured it would be nine months after the record came out before things were rockin’. But it didn’t take that long.
“Suzy Baby” hit locally that summer, going to number one on the Minneapolis charts. They took it around to radio stations themselves, playing little jobs in Oaks, N.D., and Sioux City, Iowa, to promote it. No one had ever made that circuit before in that part of the country. Bob says their ambition at that point was to be known as the best band around, and they were. “It was fun,” Velline says, “being motivated entirely within our little unit. And that really was the best time we had.”
There was more to “Suzy Baby” than a local hit. A relative took the disc to San Diego, where it made #12 for the year. Liberty released the master and gave it national distribution—it peaked at 77 on the Billboard charts.
Vee quit school when the record hit. “The music made me happier than anything else I could do; and I said, ‘I have an opportunity and I have to take advantage of it.’ I told that to my high school counselor; he didn’t agree, but he wished me luck. It felt weird the next fall when I was home fixing the porch and the other kids were off to school—but I knew I did right. Hoped I did right and knew I did.” Bobby Vee was 16.
Trying to figure out what to do next, the Shadows thought it might be nice to get a piano in the group, vary their style, be different, maybe do a few ballads. They put out the word, and a Fargo kid whose dad owned the junk shop where they brought their instruments came back with Bob Zimmerman, who was spending the summer. They were impressed—after all, hadn’t he just finished a tour with Conway Twitty?
“He played very well in the key of C,” Velline says. “But that was about it.” They did two gigs together, and then the Shadows paid him $30 and kicked him out. He just wasn’t right for the band, even if he had played with Conway Twitty.
I asked Velline if Zimmerman was calling himself Dylan in those days. “No,” he said. “He called himself ‘Elston Gunn’.”
It wasn’t long after that, a couple of months maybe, when Vee began to hear stories of things “he’d” done and parties “he’d” been at down in Minneapolis. Zimmerman was passing again. Vee saw him one more time, a year or so later, when he was topping the bill at a concert on Staten Island. Zimmerman, already Dylan, was in the audience. Vee was surprised the kid had made it so far East in such a short time, considering his ability, that is.
“You see,” Velline said, “I took the high road, and he took the low road, for those days. And there were a lot of things changing right at that time… “—changes that shuffled many lives. Now, Velline is into a folk-singer’s role, influenced, if only indirectly, by the changes Dylan wrought; while Dylan’s latest material—“If Not For You,” say—sounds more like “Rubber Ball” than Bob Velline does. Bob Velline, Bobby Vee, Robert Thomas Velline, Bob Zimmerman, Elston, Gunn, Bob Dylan, maybe Robert Zimmerman someday—these upper midwest rockers never make up their minds, do they?
III. Bobby Vee as a Professional
The pace began to pick up once “Suzy Baby” had run its course on the charts. Liberty moved in, in the person of staff producer Snuff Garrett, and signed Vee and the Shadows to separate contracts, a la the Coral arrangement with Holly and the Crickets. Except that in this case, Liberty had no real interest in the band—they were after Vee, a good-looking young kid with a nice way with a song.
Vee says no one was very upset by this—everyone realized the focus had to shift if they were ever gonna get off the grind of small one-nighters and local hits. Vee kept the band together, and they backed him on tour for several years, making him perhaps the only singer of his style to work with a regular band. Such an arrangement allowed him to avoid a lot of the pit-band package tours—Vee and the Shadows usually did one-nighters on their own, rather than splitting the take with a dozen other acts. Occasionally, at fairs and weekend rebel rousers, Vee’s band would back up other acts; but, Vee remembers fondly, they balked at Freddy Cannon. “That was proof they had taste,” is the way he puts it.
The band didn’t get to make many records (though early in the game Bobby started his own local label in North Dakota—“V” Records—and produced an instrumental hit by his brother, which did 40,000 in the area). The band played on the B-side of the first Liberty single, and on one side of the unreleased Clovis LP, discussed below. Around 1963 they scattered. They were a good band. RIP.
While the Liberty arrangement was coming together Vee and the Shadows continued to make records in Minneapolis. “It’s Too Late,” from the fall of ’59, included here, and later re-cut at Liberty, was far above the norm for the period; a tough, middle-Holly piece of rock. Vee’s shift from high (vulnerable) to low (hard) were delicate and effective. The guitar was again distinctive, in the vein of the Beau Brummel’s later “Laugh, Laugh.” The song was a put-down, with a little sneer. Also cut at this time was “Remember the Day,” a bouncy pop tune.
The last record Vee and the Shadows made on their own was quite fine. “Love Must Have Passed Me By” was slow, dramatic, and convincing in the Jack Scott style (“My True Love”). Had it been released, it might have been a true early sixties classic.
Taken together the Soma records have their own sound—a fast little rockabilly beat, brooding mood, an expressive guitar. You can hear vitality, commitment, resentment, and a hint of swagger.
Liberty introduced Vee to “a different kind of music”—that is, smooth ballads with pizzicato strings. It was, he says, different from what the band had started with—but they felt more comfortable with it, and obviously the audience did too.
Bobby would fly out from Fargo for the sessions, which Garrett strictly controlled. The first few tries came up duds, and Garrett decided to take Vee and the Shadows to Clovis, New Mexico, to cut an album and wrap it all up—obviously, nothing was happening with this kid.
They went to Norman Petty’s studio. “Clovis” was a concept to Garrett, says Vee—he knew Petty and Holly, and to Snuff, if you wanted rock ‘n’ roll, you went where it came from. Six rock tracks were cut, including “Party Doll” and “Buddy’s Song,” included here. Both were straight-ahead tributes to the kind of music that brought the band together in the first place. The latter was re-cut a couple of years ago by Fleetwood Mac—Bobby, whose first gig was a direct result of Buddy’s death, sings his song with affection and wit. “Party Doll,” though originally a thin rockabilly song in the style of the Soma numbers, is too clean, too bright—it lacks the intensity and doubt of the records the band made on their own. There is no personality to it—anyone could have made this record, while the Soma sides were special.
The flip side of the LP was cut in LA with strings. And apparently Garrett had second thoughts about dumping the singer—he gave Bobby the Clovers’ old “Devil Or Angel” to sing. Bobby didn’t like it—he figured it was the kiss of death. Naturally, it was his first real hit, making #6 in 1960.
After Bobby made it into the top ten, things changed fast. Material from the Brill Building began to pour in. Vee liked “Rubber Ball,” for one. It also made #6, in early ’61. “Stayin’ In,” which peaked at #33, was next, and then “How Many Tears,” notable as the first Goffin-King number Vee recorded.
It was at this point that Vee, a bit put off by the songs he was being given, tried to get Garrett to let him record some of his own. He had, after all, written “Suzie Baby” and the rest of the Soma sides. He played about twenty numbers for Garrett, who announced that they all stunk. Vee began to decide he had no writing talent, and made no more trouble.Once the center of a small-time local band with some good musical ideas and a lot of desire, Vee had already become a male solo singer who was working hard at musical roulette. He was one element in a system designed to bring some rationality and predictability to a very unstable business. Predictability allowed a lower investment and a higher return. So conventional bureaucratic tools were used—division of labor, chain of command, etc. And it worked.
Vee got first choice of material from Don Kirshner’s songwriting stable, which mainly meant Goffin-King. Carole would fly out to LA from New York and audition for Snuff and Bobby. Vee remembers her as a stunning performer, and still has some of her demos: “I take them out to play for close friends, the way you’d bring out a really fine bottle of wine.” Carole did more than write melodies—she provided a complete disc. Many of the singers who recorded her material—Little Eva, the Chiffons—relied on her phrasing.
When Vee heard Carole sing “Take Good Care Of My Baby” he knew it was a hit. It was his first and only Number One record, one of those songs that was impossible to dislike.
“Run To Him,” which made #2, was next. Bobby missed the top ten on his next couple, but scored with “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” a fairly dramatic song in the Del Shannon mold. It topped out at #3 in early 1963.
At this point came a real dry spell. Bobby missed the top 30 with nine straight releases. The Beatles and the Stones and the other spear-carriers of the new hard rock didn’t help, of course. (Vee had heard “Love Me Do” in England in 1962, and flipped for it. Liberty tried to pick up the master for US release, but this swell-headed fool named Epstein wanted $50,000—for the master! So much for rationality.)
Vee had been touring all this time. He had kicked it off at the Brooklyn Paramount with five shows a day, starting in the morning with the seven year old screaming girls and keeping right on until he hit the late night drunks throwing their bottles and beer cans. Once the show was done the local hoods usually chased after the bands—not surprising, given the somewhat less than hellfire image of most sixties singers. Phil Spector himself, on this circuit, was once forced into the can and made to squat while four heavies undid their flies and pissed on his head. And there was the time a carful of studs chased after Dion and the Belmonts, who got out of their car, baited the bullies into a fight, and left them bloody and unconscious in the gutter.
After that came ballrooms, union halls, county fairs, beauty shows, theatres. In the midwest Vee and the Shadows still came on as The Number One Band, and played to both boys and girls. In the East, Vee was a teen idol, and it was mostly girls. He toured England, made movies.
Once the hits stopped coming Garrett made the obvious move and sent Vee into second-level nightclubs as a supper singer. The first record to come out of this scene was “Pretend You Don’t See Her,” which was on the charts at #97, for one week. None of Vee’s records had ever done so poorly, until the next try, “Cross My Heart,” which slipped in and out at #98. Vee, who had lost his band by this time, was confused—he had always done pretty much what he had been told, and it had worked—he’d liked the songs and he was a hit. Now nothing was happening and he didn’t even like the songs. He liked the nightclubs less. There was bad-rapping from the likes of Eric Burdon (who castigated Bobby on his “Story Of Bo Diddley”). Bobby broke with Garrett in ’65. He had no real interest in performing without the band—he had always been record-oriented. He still liked the material he was identified with, but felt uncomfortable at not being part of the massive changes that were turning the charts around.
Vee came back briefly, in his old style, with “Come Back When You Grow Up,” which soared to #3 in 1967. It may have looked like his old audience really was coming back, but the hit was a fluke. Vee was asked to cover Kenny O’Dell’s “Beautiful People” as a follow-up, and while he resisted, he liked the song and eventually cut it. His version was released the same day that O’Dell’s went national. They fought it out on the charts, and Vee won by a hair: #37 as opposed to O’Dell’s #38. An unlikely medley of “Hey Girl” and “My Girl” came in at #35 six months later, Liberty folded, and that was that.
Vee thought it out for a while. His nightclub act put off customers who wanted pre-war evergreens or pre-Beatles hits, since Vee was as likely to throw in a song off Music From Big Pink as he was to sing “Rubber Ball.” He liked both, but it didn’t make sense to the crowds Vee didn’t have to play to anyway. So he stopped.
IV. The Essence of the Style
What was “Rubber Ball” really about? I mean, when it resonates in the cultural echo chamber, what does it bounce off of? Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, stuff like that. The core of Vee’s material—“Take Good Care Of My Baby,” “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” “Letter From Betty,” “Three On a Date,” “Run To Him,” “Please Don’t Ask About Barbara,” “Come Back When You Grow Up,” just about the whole show, was a perfect compliment to the family situation comedies that were flooding the airwaves about the same time.
In more ways than one, this was rock ‘n’ roll as television. The rules were similar: offend no one, take no unnecessary risks, try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Throw in a little heartbreak, a little tension, but always give ’em a happy ending—the kid gets forgiven for smashing up the car, he wins back his girl, oh, he suffers, but he always bounces back. And he’s nice. You never hate him. He’s dumb—you empathize and feel superior at the same time. It was, to put it mildly, a winning formula.
“It Might As Well Rain Until September,” which was also a small hit for Carole King, who co-authored it, is typical. The kid is just not gonna take a step until his girl gets back from her summer vacation—will she be true?—so “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” We are a long way from the thin, tough mood of the Soma discs. In fact, the song is fairly stiff, though Vee takes it about as far as it can go. Goffin threw in too many words and broke the back of King’s melody, except on the chorus, and the song as a whole has none of the pop poetry of the title.
“Stayin’ In” is more effective. Here the singer has caught some creep bad-mouthing his girl, so he slugs him. The principal catches him and makes him stay after class, and as he looks out the window, he spies his girl walking off with the very same dork who was besmirching her purity only hours before. You can bet as soon as our hero gets out he’s gonna set things straight. Light enough, but you get a feel for a teenager being pushed around, treated like dirt, for school as a prison. What’s really weird is that by singing these Leave It To Beaver songs, and playing the role of Beaver’s older high school brother, Bobby was made to live out the high school life he left behind for music.
This is a version of teen life, though, where everything really works out, unlike Del Shannon’s version, where nothing works out, where everyone is wracked with heartbreak, running around half-suicidal or scared to death. Both were accurate enough. It wasn’t really as bad as Shannon makes out, but it hurt more than Vee’s songs let on.
Two big hits, “Take Good Care Of My Baby” and “Run To Him” illustrate the Vee persona perfectly. Here is how Vee sums it up: “I’m a nice guy, who can lose a girl and still have something nice to say about her. I’m cool, but I still care. I can get on without vengeance.”
With “Take Good Care Of My Baby” Vee accepts his loss, wants the best for his girl, but figures since he still loves her she’ll be back. He hopes. The doubt of the song, along with its melody, is what makes it attractive. On “Run To Him,” the message is about the same, addressed not to the new guy but to the old girl. Vee gives up, he suffers, he is sure of his worth, but he doesn’t fight it. This is a long way from the hard-edged snarl that Elvis began with down at Sun Records, or even later at RCA, where his basic message to unfaithful women was quite precise : Eat Shit. Or, at times: Watch Out. As in, “If you don’t believe I’m leavin’ you can count the days I’m gone”; as in, “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog”; as in, “I’d rather see you dead little girl than be with another man.”
This was hot stuff, but of course tnere was more to Elvis than that. He shouldered massive anguish with “Heartbreak Hotel,” pleaded without much worry on “Don’t Be Cruel,” tore at our heartstrings with “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” And by the time Vee was cutting hits, Elvis was, if anything, softer than Bobby. Just recall such killer sides as “Return To Sender” (the chump is so fucked up he can’t even mail her a letter), “Marie’s The Name,” the maudlin “Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello,” or the unforgettable bummer, “Wooden Heart.” Elvis was the first to lay out the rock response to fickle girls and busted love affairs, and it was anything but monolithic, but his mid-sixties version of that response was one-dimensional. If anybody carried on his tradition of anger, fear, and spunk, it was Shannon. Elvis, at this point, defined the tradition which had already succeeded in defining him, and Vee simply did his best within it.
Really, though, he was better than the TV shows with which his music naturally merged. Paul Peterson and Shelly Fabares emerged off The Donna Reed Show and gave a nation real TV-rock, with “My Dad” and “Johnny Angel.” You can’t listen to them anymore, but you can listen to Vee without much trouble. Paul Peterson sells job training on late night UHF TV these days—“Hi, remember me, Paul Peterson of The Donna Reed Show and ‘My Dad?’ Well, I’ve grown up now”—fingers beard—“and I’ve got an offer…” Bobby Vee, as Robert Velline, is back on the road. If you listen to “Take Good Care Of My Baby” as he does it now, on his album Nothin’ Like a Sunny Day, you will find that Vee has as much affection for his past as you probably have for yours, along with some hard-won knowledge about what it was worth and what it cost to escape it.
V. Last Kiss
These notes were written in Berkeley on December 15, 1972—Allan Freed’s birthday. The local FM station, KSAN, celebrated with a day of oldies and contests, all mixed in with the latest news from Saigon. There was Elvis, singing his heart out in Memphis in 1954, Maurice Williams shrieking “Stay,” the Coasters looking for an idol with a golden head, Eddie Cochran cursing the summertime blues (“Too bad Eddie’s not around to hear it,” said Ben Fong-Torres, working hard on his platter chatter, “but that’s the way it goes in rock ‘n’ roll”). There was Jimmy Beaumont of the Skyliners hitting that last high ouuuuuuuu at the end of “Since I Don’t Have You” (“Yep,” said the DJ, “that’s the note that put Jimmy in the hospital, been fakin’ it ever since, but wotta thrill it was!”).
Well. I had a good time. “How much has the Revolution cost you?” sang out the radio. “Still got any brains left? Can you remember this little item, or has all that grey matter just gone right down the tubes? Listen closely now….”
For once, there was no tastemanship. They just played everything, and about halfway through, Bobby Vee got his turn. “Devil Or Angel” came on, said its piece, and it was all right. Kind of classy, if you really want to know.
Bobby Vee: Legendary Masters Series #7 (United Artists, 1973)