American singer Bobby Vee was just 15 years old when a tragic accident led to the sudden launch of his career as a rock ‘n’ roll legend. The teenager was vocalist with a band, the Shadows, when three of his idols – Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, alias Jiles Perry Richardson – died in a plane crash in 1959.
Their pilot, Roger Peterson, was flying them to a show when their plane crashed near Clear Lake in Iowa, on 3rd February. All four died after the aircraft took off from Mason City Municipal Airport when weather conditions changed mid-flight and they hit snow.
The young Vee was born and grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, with a father who played piano and fiddle. Vee sang and also played rhythm guitar, but had been with his band for just two weeks when the plane crash tragedy occurred.
However, he had no hesitation in answering an appeal for local acts to play live at the Moorhead National Guard Armory, where his hero Holly had been scheduled to headline a gig. He always described this as a life-changing “milestone”, as within months, Vee and the Shadows (who changed their name to The Strangers on learning about The Shadows who backed Cliff Richard) won a recording contract with Soma Records of Minneapolis as a result.
Their first single, Suzie Baby, was a commercial hit and between 1959 and 1970, Vee went on to sign for Liberty Records and had 38 top 100 hit singles, including his number one song, Take Good Care of My Baby, in 1961.
He broke into the UK market with Rubber Ball in 1961, reaching number four in the UK singles chart and number one in the Australian singles chart. He also recorded 24 hit studio albums and released seven compilation albums, his last one being The Adobe Sessions in 2014.
Vee continued to tour with his live show until 2011. However, he noticed he kept forgetting his lyrics on stage – something that had been happening since around 2000. His memory had progressively worsened, so in 2011, he underwent tests and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s affects around 850,000 UK residents and is the most common type of dementia. The progressive neurological disease affects multiple brain functions, including the memory.
The precise cause of Alzheimer’s isn’t known, although factors believed to increase the chances of developing the condition include increasing age, family history, or an earlier severe head injury.
Vee didn’t reveal his condition publicly right away, although he announced he was retiring from touring at the age of 69. He played his farewell concert (a community fundraising show) at St Joseph, Minnesota, later that year.
In 2012, he announced his medical condition via his website. He told fans the diagnosis had “stunned myself and my family to the core.” He added he had chosen to remain private initially and focus on what was important to him – his family and his music.
Vee’s wife of 48 years, Karen, had her own health issues and in 2012 was on a waiting list for a lung transplant at Duke University. Vee wrote on his website that they “treasured each moment with their amazing family.”
Following his diagnosis, Vee released his new album, The Adobe Sessions, in 2014. Its release coincided with the 55th anniversary of the 1959 plane crash tragedy. The same year, Bobby and Karen celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
At the time, Karen told the press they were “fortunate to have great kids” and even though she and Bobby were now going through tough times, she still felt a lot of gratitude for their life. Sadly, although Karen had a lung transplant, she died of kidney failure in August 2015.
Bobby Vee died on 24th October 2016, aged 73. Family members said despite the Alzheimer’s affecting his memory and causing difficulties in communicating, Vee had always said he “wasn’t going to cry about it” and faced his condition with bravery and dignity.
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