Vee’s career began in the wake of a tragic incident. In February 1959, musicians Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens were traveling for a concert to Moorhead, Minnesota, when their light chartered plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all of them. The organizers decided to go ahead with the concert, which was to be part of the ‘Winter Dance Party Tour,’ and looked for a local band to fill in. Vee and his friends, who had been practicing for 2 weeks, got a chance to step in and took up the band name ‘The Shadows.’ Their act was well-received, fetching them more local assignments.
During this period, Bill Velline added Elston Gunn (real name: Robert Allen Zimmerman) to play the piano. He played with the band for a few assignments but then parted ways. Later, he became interested in country music and came to be known as Bob Dylan.
After several local shows, in June 1959, the group recorded ‘Suzie Baby’ (their take on Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’), with ‘Soma Records,’ Minneapolis. They also added some instrumental tracks to the record. The single became number 1 in Minneapolis and was noticed by ‘Liberty Records.’ By the end of the year, Vee was signed by the label.
However, some of the subsequent tracks, such as a cover version of Adam Faith’s (UK) ‘What Do You Want?,’ failed to create any waves. The label was about to terminate his contract when Vee’s ‘Devil or Angel’ (a remake of an old ballad of ‘The Clovers’) picked up pace on the charts and reached number 6 (1960). Vee was offered a long-term contract with the label. He was 17 back then. His next number, ‘Rubber Ball,’ written by Gene Pitney, managed to make a place among the top 10 singles (number 4 in the UK).
Working with ‘Liberty Records,’ Vee achieved stardom (both in the US and the UK) in rock-n-roll music during the 1960s. The songs released in the first half of 1961, such as ‘Stayin’ In,’ ‘How Many Tears,’ and ‘Baby Face,’ achieved moderate success. In July 1961, his track ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’ topped the national hit charts for 3 weeks. Another track, ‘Run to Him,’ reached number 2. He received brand endorsement assignments and became one of the first rock-n-roll singers to endorse products.
In 1962, Vee delivered hits such as ‘Please Don’t Ask about Barbara’ and ‘Sharing You.’ In 1963, he delivered the hit ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.’ He was considered a “Brill Building Performer.” He also appeared in movies such as ‘Swingin’ Along,’ ‘It’s Trad, Dad,’ and ‘C’mon, Let’s Live a Little.’
With the emergence of ‘The Beatles’ in 1964, there were many changes in the rock-n-roll scene. For the next few years, Vee’s tracks did not make it to any charts. In 1967, his single ‘Come Back When You Grow Up’ reached number 3 and brought him back in the race. His back-up band had now changed its name from ‘The Shadows’ to ‘The Strangers.’ In 1968, his song ‘Sweet Sweetheart’ was his last single for ‘Liberty Records’ that made a place on the charts.
In 1972, Vee released the album ‘Nothin’ Like a Sunny Day’ under his own name, but it was not successful. He continued touring and had packed shows in the UK, Europe, and the Far East. In 1989, he was invited to Clear Lake, Iowa, for the ‘Buddy Holly Memorial Concert,’ and this continued year after year. ‘Last of the Great Rhythm Guitars,’ a mail-only cassette, was released in 1992.
In 1999, Vee was awarded the ‘Rough-Rider Award,’ North Dakota’s highest award for native achievers. He was inducted into the ‘Rockabilly Hall of Fame’ in March 2011. Till 2011, he toured with his family band, ‘The Vees,’ which included his sons, Robert, Thomas, and Jeffrey.
Family & Personal Life
On December 28, 1963, Vee married Karen Bergen at the ‘Holy Rosary Church,’ Detroit Lake, Michigan. They were married for over 50 years when Karen died of kidney failure on August 3, 2015. They had three sons and a daughter, Jennifer. Since 1981, he and his family had been staying in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The family ran ‘Rockhouse Productions’ in St. Joseph, Minnesota. They performed regularly at the annual community fund-raising programs.
In 2011, Vee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He then completed his final CD, which was released 3 years later (‘The Adobe Sessions,’ February 2014). He was under memory-care during the last few months of his life and died of complications related to the disease on October 24, 2016.