Sixty years ago this morning, 15-year-old Fargoan Robert Velline went to school with a ticket in his hand for that night’s Winter Dance Party concert featuring his idol, Buddy Holly, as well as Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion & The Belmonts at the Moorhead armory.
By the end of the day, the rock 'n' roll landscape was turned upside down, and Velline had a ticket to stardom.
Holly, Valens, Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson died in a crash shortly after their plane took off from Clear Lake, Iowa, early in the morning on the way to Moorhead.
Feb. 3, 1959, is now remembered as “The Day the Music Died,” but at the time promoters determined that the Moorhead armory show would go on because Dion & The Belmonts had arrived via tour bus. A few local acts were needed to round out the bill.
Bill Velline’s band was enlisted and played its first show with his younger brother singing.
The day is still remembered for the tragedy, but it was a small triumph for Robert Velline, who would shorten his name to Bobby Vee, record the first of many career hits and become teen idol by the end of the year.
Months after taking the stage at the Moorhead armory, Vee and the Shadows recorded “Suzie Baby,” his nod to Holly’s “Peggy Sue”. The song became a hit and earned him a record deal. He would go on to release six top 10 hits, including his only No. 1 song, “Take Good Care of My Baby,” written by Carole King and Gerry Coffin.
His songs would influence The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who opened up for Vee on their first United States tour. (Oddly, it was the success of the British Invasion that pushed Vee off the top of the charts.)
Bobby would also star in a handful of movies and moved out to Los Angeles with his wife Karen. They had four children before moving back to the Midwest, settling in the St. Cloud, Minn., area in 1980.
His recorded production slowed down in the 1970s, but he kept playing. In 1999, he received the Rough Rider Award, the highest honor given to North Dakotans.
“That’s the nicest award that I’ve ever gotten, to be recognized in my home state,” he said
Bobby wasn’t just loved in the Midwest. He remained a draw in Europe, Asia and Australia until he stopped touring about eight years ago before he passed away in 2016.
“When we went to different parts of the world we’d have to learn what different songs of his were hits because they weren’t all the same,” Vee's son, Tommy, said, pointing out songs like “More Than I Can Say,” “Baby Face” and “Forever Kind of Love”.
“He really was the soundtrack to so many people’s lives,” he said.
Tommy explained that his dad was asked two questions in every interview, " ‘What was that night (Feb. 3, 1959) like?’ and ‘What was it like having Bob Dylan in your band?’ ”
Before moving to New York in early 1961, Dylan was passing himself off as a pianist, something Bobby wanted in his lineup. It didn’t take long for Bobby to realize the keys weren’t Dylan’s strength. They parted on good terms, and Dylan often fondly remembered the pop star. During a 2013 show in St. Paul, Dylan praised Vee, calling him “the most meaningful person I’d ever been on the stage with,” then played, “Suzie Baby.”
In his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan said of Bobby, “I’d always thought of him as a brother.”
And what did Bobby have to say about filling in for Holly, Valens and Richardson on that cold night in Moorhead?
“He always referred to that night as a rock 'n' roll wake,” Tommy recalled. “He didn’t say that to be funny; he said it because that’s what it felt like. Everyone was trying to deal with this tragedy that happened.”
“I remember being petrified when the curtains opened,” Vee told The Forum in 1970. “I was blinded by the spotlight and just numb all over.”
“My dad said it happened really fast,” Tommy recalled. “They weren’t even sure it was the right thing to do.”
Bobby didn’t shy away from talking about that night, but he never really felt that his own career was overshadowed by the sudden end of three others’.
“I could see why he would feel that way, but he didn’t. My dad was a great singer, a great songwriter and a really good looking guy, but the music business was full of those people at that time,” Tommy said. “Things just kind of worked out for him. He never took anything for granted. He always felt blessed. He came to terms with that night and that was just the way it was supposed to be.”