A few days ago I chanced to be with Tim Rice, who is no stranger to these parts. Tim is, of course, the Oscar-, Tony- and Grammy-winning lyricist of Evita, Aladdin, The Lion King, etc. But he's also a great expert on the early years of rock'n'roll and used to host a terrific oldies show on Capital Radio. So, when we run into each other, we often wind up on the more arcane shores of pop trivia. Thus, last week we started with a little diversion into the Poni-Tails and Fred Tobias (scroll down here for more on the Tobias family), and then we drifted on to Bobby Vee.
The lady with us must have looked a little baffled, because Tim helpfully explained, "Bobby Vee. 'Take Good Care Of My Baby.'"
That's one of those perfect early Sixties Brill Building pop songs, by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. I always loved the ending - Bobby's awfully sporting advice to the guy who stole his gal:
And if you should discover
That you don't really love her
Just send my baby back home to me.
I said my favorite was "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes". "Isn't that a great idea for a song?" [Shetland reader Chris Smith points out that Francis William Bourdillon got there first, a century earlier.] It was written for Bobby Vee by Elvis' "mad professor", Ben Weisman (more on his other great song idea, "Rock-A-Hula Baby", here). The tune begins with a magnificent paranoid urgency, and, for early boomer pop, the chorus is vaguely threatening:
'Cause The Night Has A Thousand Eyes
And a thousand eyes can't help but see
If you are true to me
So remember when you
Tell those little white lies
That The Night Has A Thousand Eyes...
Disregard that advice at your peril. Ben Weisman was at the session and complained that Bobby got a word wrong (at the end he sang "sorry" instead of "crying") thereby blowing a rhyme ("trying"). But it was such a spirited take they decided to leave it, and over the next half-century not a soul noticed it.
And then Tim said, "Have you heard the song I wrote with Bobby Vee?"
And I said: "You wrote a song with Bobby Vee?" Tim Rice has written with Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Don't Cry For Me, Argentina") and Elton John ("Can You Feel The Love Tonight?") and the Abba boys ("One Night In Bangkok"). But I couldn't quite figure out how he'd wound up on a song with Bobby Vee. The truth is almost everyone who makes it in show business starts out as a fan, and, if you're lucky, once in a while your paths cross with that of your boyhood idols. It turned out Rice and Lloyd Webber had been Bobby Vee admirers from their schooldays and years later they'd run into each other and wound up in some joint late at night with Tim and Andrew up on stage with Bobby bellowing out "Rubber Ball" and the other hits.
"What's the song called?" I asked Tim.
"'Whatever Happened To Peggy Sue?'" he said.
Of course. "Peggy Sue" is where Bobby Vee came in. "The day the music died" is the day that Bobby Vee was born, professionally speaking. In the early hours of February 3rd 1959, the four-seater Beechcraft Bonanza flying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper to a gig in Moorhead, Minnesota crashed in a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa. Later that day, in Moorhead, the promoters got the news and decided to go ahead with the event, appealing on the radio for any local talent to pitch in as last-minute substitutes for the deceased. A 15-year-old schoolboy calling himself Bobby Vee (short for Velline) and a handful of pals serving as a back-up band volunteered their services. On their way to the venue - the National Guard Armory - they stopped off at J C Penney to buy matching black trousers, woolen ties and sleeveless sweaters.
And so was born Bobby Vee & the... Well, the what? The emcee asked the name of the band, and Bobby looked back at the boys silhouetted by the stage spots and replied, "The Shadows." It was a great night, notwithstanding the grim circumstances. The following morning the surviving members of the Buddy Holly/Big Bopper tour party left for Sioux City, but without paying Bobby.
A few months later he'd saved enough cash to go into a recording studio and wound up with a modest regional hit called "Suzie Baby" - which is kind of "Peggy Sue" sideways, especially with Bobby Vee mimicking the Buddy Holly hiccup. On the one hand:
If you knew
Then you'd know why I feel blue
My Peggy Sue...
On the other:
Where are you?
Have you left me for someone new?
For a while, Bobby's pianist was another young Minnesota musician going under the unconvincing stage name of "Elston Gunnn". Mr Gunnn subsequently adopted the more enduring persona of "Bob Dylan". But he still plays "Suzie Baby", as he did in affectionate tribute to Bobby Vee - "the most beautiful person I've ever been on stage with" - in St Paul's a couple of years back. [UPDATE: Powerline's Scott Johnson thinks Bob said "meaningful".] His voice, said Dylan, was "as musical as a silver bell". Which is true. He had a clean-cut mien, and a boyish tone that could cut through the novelty goofiness ("Rubber Ball") and the unsettling menace ("The Night Has A Thousand Eyes") and sell you the song.
A lot of people felt as Dylan did. "I'm flying out to Minnesota to see him next week," Tim Rice told me. "There's a musical about his life playing there." As for their song "Whatever Happened To Peggy Sue?", Tim emailed the following day enclosing an MP3. The original "Peggy Sue" is not just a landmark rock'n'roll record (one of NPR's Top 100 Songs of the Century) but a uniquely American name. The real-life Peggy Sue was the girlfriend of Buddy Holly's drummer and co-writer Jerry Allison: If you're from Lubbock, Texas, you get to meet girls called Peggy Sue. If you're a schoolboy in Lancing, England like Tim Rice, the chances are a lot slimmer. So it gave me a chuckle to see Tim's lyric sheet - "Whatever Happened To Peggy Sue?" Bobby Vee/Tim Rice - with his British spellings underneath ("rumour"/"humour"), and also a faint Briticism ("sorted").
But you can see what Bobby Vee must have liked about the lyric. It's a reflection on an era - his era:
The Fifties were not strictly as reported
Not always filled with innocence and fun
That boy from Lubbock sure did have things sorted
He seemed to know it all at twenty-one
He seemed to know exactly what he wanted
His words of love all sang so very true
And when he died my memory was haunted
Whatever would become of Peggy Sue?
It must be faintly unsettling to be yoked to a man you never met: Bobby Vee wound up making an album with the Crickets and then a Buddy Holly tribute LP, and on both he sang "Peggy Sue", although never its sequel, found on a demo after Holly's death and later the title for an Eighties movie on the Fifties: "Peggy Sue Got Married". Tim and Bobby's song disputes that:
She never did get married, just a rumour
She hoped to once but he was not inclined
He broke her heart but not her sense of humour
He left her but she wasn't left behind...
It's an interesting premise for a song - a realist take on myth - and the 60-year-old Bobby Vee's gravelly vocal is a long way from that "silver bell". Perhaps I was in a sentimental mood, nostalgic for an era of (the lyric notwithstanding) "innocence and fun", but I played the track four or five times on Sunday. And the very next day I heard that Bobby Vee had died, and the song's evocation of that time was even more poignant:
Whatever Happened To Peggy Sue
Is what happened to me and you
Times to be happy, times to get through
That's what we all do...
Indeed. Some guys are in it for the long haul, like Dylan. Some really are "teen idols": By the time, Bobby Vee turned 20 his big hits were behind him, and his moment was already fading. It can't be easy, as the decades roll by, accepting that your career peaked when you were 18 and that there's not going to be a glorious Second Act. In 1980 he returned to raise his family in Minnesota, settling near St Cloud, but touring the UK and other places frequently. By the standards of most post-Hit Parade rockers, it was a pretty great life - until he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's and his wife of fifty years was stricken by cancer.
Times to be happy, times to get through...
He took good care of his baby, and she took good care of him.
Here's Bobby Vee singing the song he wrote with a lifelong British fan:
With a one-word boy/girl switch, this verse sums up what those who danced to Bobby Vee at the National Guard Armory in Moorhead and all the dance halls that followed in Minnesota, England and beyond have been feeling this week:
We played again the songs that made him famous
Still ringing with vitality of youth
And if we shed a tear, well who could blame us?
The simple songs most often tell the truth...
That last line is Tim and Bobby's variation on what Noël Coward called "the potency of cheap music". Rest in peace, Bobby Vee.