Music icon battling Alzheimer’s, but his treasure trove of memories remain

ROGERS, Minn. — Pop music legend Bobby Vee — an icon for music fans around the world — died early Monday morning of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 73.

Vee had been in hospice care at The Wellstead of Rogers & Diamondcrest, a memory care facility where the Avon, Minn., resident lived for the final 13 months of his life.

“It’s kind of a blessing,” said Dr. Rick Rysavy, Vee’s primary care physician and close friend. “There was no reason for him to suffer any longer.”

Born Robert Thomas Velline on April 30, 1943, in Fargo, N.D., Vee burst onto the national music scene at age 15 after the 1959 plane crash that claimed the lives of rock ‘n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson). Vee and his band The Shadows filled in at the Winter Dance Party stop in Moorhead, Minn., launching his career.

That career subsequently included 38 singles that reached the Billboard Hot 100 between 1959-1970, including Suzie Baby, Devil Or Angel, Rubber Ball, Take Good Care of My Baby, Run To Him and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

Vee and his family — wife Karen, sons Jeff, Tommy and Robby and daughter Jenny — moved from Los Angeles to St. Cloud, Minn., in 1980, and immediately made an impact on the community. The family’s “Rockin’ Round the Clock” fundraiser concerts generated more than $1 million for Cathedral High School.

Vee was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, at age 67. His last public musical performance was July 3, 2011, at Joetown Rocks in St. Joseph, Minn.

He lost his ability to speak.

“Early on in his disease, he got this type of aphasia that affected his ability to talk,” Jeff Velline said last month. “He knew what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t spit it out.

Karen Velline died in 2015 of complications from a chronic lung disease. Vee moved to The Wellstead a month after his wife died, in September 2015, and his health took a recent downward turn.

“I told Jeff that it was time to pull the family together,” said Rysavy, who visited Vee on Saturday. “I told them he might have 72 hours.”

Just last month, the Velline family helped organize Rock for Alzheimer’s, a musical fundraising event in St. Joseph. It was a tangible way for the Vellines to strike back at the disease that ravaged their dad.

“You just can’t believe this is your life,” Jeff Velline said. “Well, this is our life now. This is the deal.”

“It’s a death sentence,” Tommy Velline said. “How do you comprehend that? It takes time.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Follow Dave DeLand on Twitter: @DaveDeLand