I often watch youtube music videos of some of my favorite artists. The other day I ran across a clip from a Dylan concert at Midway Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota from July 10, 2013. When the audience quieted down, Dylan stepped up to the mic and said, “I’ve played all over the world with everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna and everybody in between… but the most meaningful person I’ve ever been on stage with, who’s here tonight, used to sing a song called Suzie Baby." Dylan then introduced Bobby Vee to the audience. The band started playing and Dylan sang Suzie Baby, an unremarkable, simple early rock & roll sounding song, which I’d never heard before.
Did I hear him right? I dragged the cursor back and listened again. Sure enough, Bob Dylan just said the most meaningful person he’d ever been on stage with was Bobby Vee. If you were alive in the early 1960s and turned on a radio, you'd have heard Bobby Vee. He had a string of hits: Devil or Angel, Rubber Ball, Take Good Care of my Baby (written by Carole King and Gerry Goffen), Run to Him and The Night has a Thousand Eyes to name a few. Between 1959 and 1970, Bobby Vee had 38 top 100 hits and 7 gold records. He was part of the popular music phenomenon that filled a void shortly after 1959. Around that time Elvis entered the army, Little Richard quit singing to become a preacher, Jerry Lee Lewis went to jail for marrying his 14 year old cousin and Buddy Holly along with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens died in a plane crash. Early rock & roll was all but dead and into the void rushed a bunch of good looking male singers, singing catchy pop tunes. We called it “bubble gum music”. It’s greatest appeal was to young teenage girls, “bubblegummers”. Bobby Vee was one of the most popular of the bubble gum hit makers.
In 1964 rock & roll was revived by the Beatles and Dylan. Dylan’s influence spawned the birth of the singer/songwriter and blended folk and rock music. Popular music moved away from the catchy pop songs of singers like Bobby Vee and became more relevant and meaningful with more musical complexity. So why is Dylan so reverential towards a pop star, who sang the kind of music that he broke away from and stood in stark contrast to. To understand this we have to go back to “the day the music died”, as Don McLean put it in his song American Pie.
On February 3, 1959, a plane crashed in Minnesota killing Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens along with the pilot. They were part of a concert tour called Winter Dance Party, which also featured Dion and the Belmonts. The plane was on its way to Moorhead, Minn for their next concert. It was a tragedy, but the concert tickets were sold and the manager wanted the show to go on. He put an add out on the radio for a band who could fill in. A local group made up of the Velline brothers, Sidney and Bill, responded to the add and were asked to fill in for the lost musicians. Sidney and Bill let their 15 year old brother Bobby sit in with the band for the concert. Bobby had been perfecting a singing style that sounded like Buddy Holly, which made him perfect for the gig. Just before the performance, the Velline brothers were asked what their group was called and Bobby spontaneously said "The Shadows". The Shadows were a hit that night and went on to record four sides for the Soma label, one of the songs being Suzie Baby , featuring Bobby singing in his Buddy Holly style.
In the summer of 1959, The Shadows hired an 18 year old musician from Hibbing, Minnesota who was working in Fargo as a busboy at the Apple Café, named Bobby Zimmerman. Here is how Dylan puts it in his autobiographical book Chronicles Volume One. Talking about Bobby Vee he writes, “In the summer of ’59, he had a regional hit record out called Suzie Baby on a local label. His band was called The Shadows and I had hitchhiked out there and talked my way into joining his group as a piano player on some of his local gigs, one in a basement of a church. I played a few shows with him, but he really didn’t need a piano player and besides, it was hard finding a piano that was in tune in the halls that he played.”
The young Dylan credits Bobby Vee for inspiring him to go on in his own career. He admired Bobby,thought he had a great Rock-a-Billy style of performing and was grateful to be given an opportunity to play with his band. They both left the mid-west and had extremely divergent careers. Bobby Zimmerman went to New York, where he changed his name to Bob Dylan and invented his Woody Guthrie, troubadour persona and Bobby Velline got picked up by Liberty records, changed his name to Bobby Vee and became a pop star and teen heartthrob .
Dylan says in Chronicles: “ Bobby Vee and me had a lot in common, even though our paths would take such different directions. We had the same musical history and came from the same place and the same point of time.” “I’d always thought of him as a brother. Every time I’d see his name somewhere, it was like he was in the room.”