Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Visit with Robby Vee: Opening Act for Duluth Dylan Fest

There's no business like show business, they say. How many children of entertainers have taken up the occupations of their parents? There are plenty of examples in Hollywood. And in the music scene, Jakob Dylan and Julian Lennon immediately come to mind. This weekend here in Duluth we'll warmly welcome Robby Vee, son of Bobby Vee, to kick off the eight-day Duluth Dylan Fest in a concert sponsored by the Armory Arts & Music Center at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum.

The connection? A young Bob Dylan briefly performed with Bobby Vee under the pseudonym Elston Gunnn. You can read Bobby Vee's 1999 account here at Expecting Rain. Now the son of Bobby Vee is preparing to visit the town where Dylan was born and was raised till his family uprooted to the Iron Range.

After his father got into show business he moved to Los Angeles where the action was, but once he had a family the Midwest seemed the preferred world in which to raise his brood. As Robby puts it, "I 'm from Los Angeles originally. I live in Prior Lake, MN. Dad was entertainer. Started family in L.A. but felt the Midwest was a better place to raise a family."

"Mom was a show business mother, Robby says. "She met my father when he was 15. Watched him carve out a career in the entertainment business. She tried to deter me (from Show Biz) because it's such a hard business." But the young Vee had opportunities to perform at a young age and took to it. 'My father put me in front of an audience," he explined, and he liked it.

Robby has been playing with his current band for ten years, calling them the Rock N Roll Caravan. "They're truly some of the greatest rockabilly players out there." Vee acknowledged that one of the advantages of having the same team is that you can draw on some of the same music you've worked out over the years and know where you're all going with it.

Vee has produced six albums now. I asked which is his favorite.

"Good question. They're really different. My rock-a-billy albums got me to the Hall of Fame, but the more recent are Americana," he said. His most recent album, Blue Blue Blue, was produced in part for the purpose of raising awareness for Alzheimers, which overtook his father beginning in 2011.

Robby, raised on Eddie Cocker and the rock 'n roll of the late 50s and early 60s, enjoys the light-hearted fun of early rock, yet he also appreciates where rock evolved to post-1965 and beyond. "Rock became more intellectual," he said, citing artists like Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and Cat Stevens (EdNote: All favorites of mine as well.) "I really appreciate both sides of the fence," he said. "I don't have to be one or the other."

"Here's one you might like."
I also learned that like Dylan Robby Vee is a painter. It began with this statement. "Records to me are like paintings. You should be allowed to push the envelope with experimentation." He then added that, "painting is what I do when I am home." I asked if he had a website so we could see his work, and he said he didn't, but that sometimes he puts them on Facebook. "Painting is an outlet to get away from music."

Robby's website includes praise from a number of legendary names. "Your Caravan show is getting kudos from Dion, Sir Paul and Robert Plant," I said. "What is it that makes your show so special?"

"Dion liked our first couple records, live and from the hip. Not too heavy, recorded live, raw energy.
Paul McCartney invited us over (to England) to play Buddy Holly music... He loves the same kind of music I love. Paul said, 'You guys could play on any stage.'"

Carl Perkins' quote, happened like this. "When I did a show with him once he sat on a chair next to the amp and afterward gave me a pick." That was an honor.

They played together when they were young. 
"What kind of relationship did you have with your dad?" I asked.

"We had a good relationship. We were both painters, guitar players, singers and writers. At a pretty young age he encouraged me to do my own thing and not be like him. My career has been separate and different from him. I took off and didn't look back much. When he got sick I was the one who was with him almost daily and taking care of him with my sister." Vee has a younger sister and two older brothers. All of them do art of some kind, graphic design and production work.

Does Robby Vee have any favorite Dylan albums or songs? Of course.

"I would say there's a handful... The Man in Me, a song my father I played together. And Forever Young. We used to have mass at our house on the lake. We played Forever Young at every mass it seemed like."

When Dylan performed in St. Paul in 2013 Robby took his father to see him. It was his birthday but distracted by other things he forgot to get tickets. He called Dylan's office and they were able to get special treatment. "We watched the entire show from the monitor board. After the show Dylan visited with my dad and it was really great."  Here's Dylan giving the nod to the Bobby Vee, singing one of Vee's signature songs, Susie Baby.

In 2012 I interviewed a attorney who has been representing musicians to help them get better contracts. As it turns out Robby gives a nod to the friend of a friend on his website, Brian "kool-hand" Lukasavitz. Small world, eh?

For what it's worth, Saturday's concert should be killer. Special thanks to St. Luke's for making available several of their parking lots for those who wish to attend.

For more information about this coming week's Duluth Dylan Fest events, see today's News Tribune.

To book Robbie Vee, or follow him in the future, visit and bookmark For what it's worth, you know who else likes rock-a-billy? Bob Dylan does. His 1998 concert at the DECC here in Duluth opened with a zinging rock-a-billy set by David Allen and the Guilty Men.

Meantime, I'm in the mood. How about you? Let's have some fun!

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Bonus Track: Here's a cartoon about Elston Gunnn's brief stint with the young man who filled in for Buddy Holly way back in time. (Click to enlarge)

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