Vee, a native of Fargo, North Dakota, launched his career in the late ’50s, and got his big break thanks to one of rock and roll’s most notorious accidents. His first group, The Shadows, was tapped as a replacement when a plane crash laid the original acts meant to play in Fargo — Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper — low. Within months, they’d released a single, “Suzie Baby.” (An early incarnation of the Shadows featured a pre-fame Bob Dylan playing keyboards.)
“Suzie Baby” was Vee’s first big hit, though its follow up, “What Do You Want?” didn’t land as well. But Vee’s good looks and connections with the Brill Building songwriting team all but guaranteed him fame. His third single, “Devil or Angel,” cracked the Top 10 in the middle of 1960…
… followed by “Rubber Ball.”
A year after “Rubber Ball” broke him on a nationwide level, Vee had his best stretch of success, with the singles “Take Good Care of My Baby” (three weeks at No. 1) …
… and the No. 2 hit “Run to Him.”
Unfortunately, Vee was coming along at a difficult time in pop music. Thanks in large part to artists like Bob Dylan (and a few years later, the Beatles), the mold of “songwriting factories” like the Brill Building and the pop stars they supported (like Vee) was being broken.
1962’s “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was Vee’s last big hit in the early ’60s before Beatlemania descended and swept almost everything else aside in its wake. Between the Beatles, Motown and the folk boom of the ’60s, teen idols like Vee seemed like outdated commodities, and tried his hand at the silver screen, performing in a handful of films.
Vee had one more hit with “Come Back When You Grow Up” in 1967, and by 1970, had landed 38 singles on Billboard Hot 100 chart over the past 11 years. Vee and his family — wife Karen, sons Jeff, Tommy and Robby and daughter Jenny — moved from Los Angeles to St. Cloud, Minnesota, in 1980, where the instituted a series of fundraising concerts for the area’s Cathedral High School that raised over $1 million.
Vee was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in January 2011. He performed in public for the last time in June of that year. Four years later, his wife of over 50 years, Karen Velline, died of complications of a chronic long disease. Vee moved to a memory care facility the month after her death.
“It’s kind of a blessing,” Dr. Rick Rysavy, Vee’s primary care physician and close friend, told the St. Cloud Times. “There was no reason for him to suffer any longer.”
Dylan, not usually one for talking much onstage, paid tribute to Vee in 2013 at a concert in St. Paul:
“I lived here a while back, and since that time I’ve played all over the world, with all kinds of people. Everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna and everybody in between. But the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on the stage with was a man who’s here tonight, who used to sing a song called ‘Suzie Baby.'”