Bobby Vee braves Alzheimer's to record once more
St. Joseph, Minn. • Bobby Vee still has the infectious smile, bright eyes and boyish good looks of his 1960s pop idol days, when he scored such hits as "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Rubber Ball" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes."
Alzheimer's disease forced him to stop performing in 2011, but the 70-year-old Vee who helped a young Bob Dylan get his start is now releasing what may be the capstone to his career.
"The Adobe Sessions" is a loose jam session recorded with his family. It features some of Vee's favorite songs from Townes Van Zandt, Gordon Lightfoot and Ricky Nelson.
"There's some songs I liked," Vee told The Associated Press on a recent sunny winter day while at Rockhouse Productions, his and his sons' recording studio in Minnesota. "I wanted to do some more music."
The album was released on Feb. 3, the 55th anniversary of the plane crash that killed rock 'n' roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. The tragedy also launched Vee's career. That night, as a 15-year-old named Robert Velline from Fargo, N.D., he stepped onstage at the Moorhead National Guard Armory to take Holly's place.
Within months the young singer and his band, The Shadows, which included his older brother Bill on lead guitar, recorded Vee's "Suzie Baby" for Soma Records in Minneapolis. It was a regional hit, and Vee soon signed with Liberty Records.
He went on to record 38 Top 100 hits from 1959 to 1970, hitting the top of the charts in 1961 with the Carole King-Gerry Goffin song "Take Good Care of My Baby" and reaching No. 2 with the follow-up, "Run to Him."
"I always wanted him to do well. He became like a little brother to me," said producer Snuff Garrett, 75, who produced Vee's early Liberty hits and went on to produce hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Cher. "I thought I did good when I picked him up."
Vee kept recording into the 2000s. But a few years ago, while in England, he felt something strange. He said he couldn't really describe it.
"But it just came one time, and I thought, 'Gee, this is an odd thing.' And it never came back again," Vee said.
Then in 2011, doctors diagnosed him with Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative and incurable brain disorder that currently afflicts more than 5 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
"The primary way it's affected us is just pure sadness," said Vee's wife of 50 years, Karen. "Because he brings so much joy and music and fun."
Vee performed his last show that same year, billed as his retirement, during a community fundraiser that his family holds near their home in St. Joseph, about 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis. The annual event draws thousands of fans.
He didn't announce his diagnosis until a year later on his website. Vee said he knew his abilities were diminishing and he didn't want to put his family through a public decline.
"It's not getting any better, I can tell you that," Vee said. "But I'm doing the best I can."
Family members said his memory hasn't been affected so much as his speech. Vee gamely answers questions but becomes tongue-tied as he searches for the right word.
He is still a skilled rhythm guitarist. During his interview with AP, he broke into an impromptu jam session with his sons Jeff, 49, on drums and Tommy, 47, on upright bass.
Vee has tried unconventional methods to alleviate his Alzheimer's symptoms, from chiropractor visits to acupuncture, without success. He does daily exercises and speech therapy and has renewed his passion for painting.
And of course, there is music.
Vee and his family didn't plan to make an album when they set up drums and amps in his adobe garage north of Tucson, Ariz., after his diagnosis. They just wanted to make music.
"Our mantra from that point forward has been, 'Don't turn down any parties.' We're going to make every day as good a day as it can be," Jeff Vee said.
His father described recording again as "a feel-good kind of thing."
For the 18-track album, Vee chose songs he would sing on family campouts while strumming a guitar: "Save the Last Dance for Me," Gordon Lightfoot's "Walls" and Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You." His three sons helped Jeff on drums, Tommy on bass and Robby, a guitarist and daughter Jennifer added some lyrics.
The album also includes Vee's cover of Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me," a nod to the folk-rock legend who got his start in Vee's band in Fargo.
Dylan grew up in Hibbing on northern Minnesota's Iron Range. He was going by the name Elston Gunn when he hammered on the piano at a couple of The Shadows' gigs. It was Dylan who suggested Bobby Vee change his last name from Velline to Vee.
And he didn't forget his old bandmate. In his "Chronicles: Volume One" memoir, Dylan says Vee "had a metallic, edgy tone to his voice and it was as musical as a silver bell." When Dylan performed in St. Paul last summer, he saluted Vee in the audience and performed "Suzie Baby."
Vee said he hopes being open about his disease helps others coping with the same fate.
Sometimes, he acknowledges, he wishes he could do the things that once came easily.
"But I'm not going to cry about it," he said. "God brought me home. And that's the deal."