As someone interested in music and history, it’s nice to have a guy like Bill Harnden handy. Bill started selling ads for the La Crosse Tribune long before I came along, and he’s overflowing with knowledge about La Crosse’s illustrious musical past and the characters that made it great.
A few weeks ago, he came by my desk to tell me about a show at the Minnesota History Theater about Bobby Vee, the pre-British Invasion teen idol best known for chart-topping hits that include “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” It definitely sounded like a cool show, and there are a couple more performances this weekend. Bill was excited about it because he had gotten to know Vee and his family, but his excitement was tempered with sadness. Bobby Vee, he told me, was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, which also claimed the life of Harnden’s mother.
This week, Bill and a lot of other people were remembering Bobby Vee in the past tense. Vee died Monday at the age of 73 in Rogers, Minn.
He was born Robert Velline in Fargo, N.D., and he got his big break in music as a 15-year-old when he and his band, The Shadows, were among the local bands tapped to fill in at a Moorhead, Minn., concert after the headliners — Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson — were killed in a plane crash in the wee hours of Feb. 3, 1959, near Clear Lake, Iowa.
Vee credited the show with launching his career, and he also credited a La Crosse deejay and music promoter, Charles Lindbergh “Lindy” Shannon, for helping make Vee’s first single, “Suzie Baby,” a hit in La Crosse in 1959. That year, a young man from Minnesota’s Iron Range going by the stage name of Elston Gunnn played piano in Vee’s band. He later adopted a new stage name: Bob Dylan.
Harnden is too young to have seen Bobby Vee and the Shadows when they played La Crosse’s Avalon Ballroom in 1959 (gotta wonder if Dylan was with them), but he has four rare copies of “Suzie Baby” on Soma Records, before Vee got a major label deal on Liberty Records. He also has huge respect for Vee, who he first got to know in 1995 in preparing for a 1996 concert fundraiser in La Crosse for a scholarship in Shannon’s honor.
“He was so grateful to Lindy for helping him with his career when he was getting started, Bobby didn’t charge us for his appearance,” Harnden said. “Bobby Vee was the most sincere, kindest, nicest person to work with. He was always accessible. He truly enjoyed people. He totally loved what he did.”
Vee is one of 12 recipients of the Lindy Shannon Lifetime Achievement Award and one of only two non-local musicians to be honored — the other was Jim Sundquist of the Fendermen, whose 1960 “Mule Skinner Blues” (also on Soma Records) got to be a local hit, thanks to Lindy, before going on to hit No. 5 on the national charts.
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I never got the chance to meet Bobby Vee, but last Friday night I got a chance to meet a guy I would estimate as every bit as nice as Vee: Ben Lubeck, lead singer and chief songwriter for the Twin Cities-based band, Farewell Milwaukee, which just released their phenomenal fourth album, “FM.”
Parker Forsell and Peter Engen of Ocooch Mountain Music in Winona, Minn., had arranged for an unconventional concert tour to celebrate the band’s new album, and one of the show’s was a concert last Friday in the blufftop backyard of Vince and Amy Stodola, who live just up the road from the Alpine Inn.
The band played two fantastic sets, including a mini-set of “rain” songs that coincided with a smidgen of drizzle (this set included Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” — “thunder only happens when it’s raining …”). I believe their well-timed songs held the rain at bay.
If this backyard concert wasn’t intimate enough, the band capped the night by gathering with the crowd around the fire pit and playing an acoustic, singalong version of “Lovable/Kind,” a song Lubeck wrote about meeting his wife. Definitely sealed the deal right there.
Lubeck is back in the area Nov. 17 for a songwriter’s series at Ed’s No Name Bar in Winona.
We might not ever get a chance to see Farewell Milwaukee play a local house concert again, but you can count on a steady stream of great musicians coming through the area for David Schipper’s Bluffview House Concerts in the town of Holland. I had a great time last year when folk legend Bill Staines came for a show, and David (another nice guy) has got a cool show coming up Nov. 4 with Norah Rendell and the Lost 40. Better call him at 608-526-9051 to make sure he’s got a seat open for you.
Rock on …