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The Success and Undoing of Vee-Jay Records

<em>Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection</em> collects blues, soul and R&B from acts like John Lee Hooker, The Spaniels, Jay McShann, The Staple Sisters and Jimmy Reed.
Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection collects blues, soul and R&B from acts like John Lee Hooker, The Spaniels, Jay McShann, The Staple Sisters and Jimmy Reed.

In 1953, Vivian and James Bracken from Gary, Ind., borrowed $500 from a pawnbroker to start a record company. Thirteen years later, Vee-Jay Records became the country's biggest independent, black-owned record label, and for a time, it was bigger than Motown.

Vee-Jay was even the Beatles' first American label. Yet three years later, the company folded, leaving behind $3 million in debt, a slew of hits and a rich legacy of black American music captured on the four-disc Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection box set compiled by Michael Ribas, a longtime fan of the label.

The story of Vee-Jay is littered with irony. The Brackens spent the entire $500 on their first recordings — including "High and Lonesome" by Jimmy Reed — but had no cash to actually distribute those records.

Catering to the big blues and gospel market in nearby Chicago was a wise choice. Reed was Vee-Jay's first star and helped the label take on local blues giant Chess Records.

A year later, Vee-Jay released "Uncloudy Day" by the Staple Singers, with a 12-year-old Mavis on lead vocals. The Staples went on to international fame with Stax Records. Vee-Jay was doing well with regional hits but had yet to crack the mainstream. That changed in 1958 with "For Your Precious Love" by Jerry Butler & the Impressions.

Jerry Butler & the Impressions soared on the charts, selling nearly a million copies. But the Impressions, including Butler's childhood friend Curtis Mayfield, took umbrage at the billing, and they soon disbanded, only to surface big-time later at Motown Records.

Vee-Jay's records were crossing over into the pop charts, but the label could not seem to capitalize on its success. Vee-Jay had recorded a novelty song by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, "The Twist," but never released it. A missed opportunity perhaps, but then, that same year, label-hopping John Lee Hooker had a big hit with "I Love You Honey."

Despite growing success and trend-setting artists, Vee-Jay was having money problems. Even in the era of payola, the label was known in the industry as being very generous. According to the box set's compiler, Ribas, business manager Ewart Abner in particular had some unusual practices.

Ribas says, "As they got bigger, he came up with crazy, crazy schemes. He would take the payroll, and fly to Las Vegas, and gamble it off. And luckily he won a few times. And that kind of got to his head and made him think that he could help run the company by gambling.

"Another crazy stunt that he pulled was there was a big convention for black DJs. He flew in 15 Scandinavian prostitutes, fresh from Scandinavia directly to the convention. And you can understand why he was having pop hits because he was doing things like that! He knew exactly how to get his records played."

Vee-Jay was in the big league and decided to do what no other black-owned label had dared to do: It began signing white acts, among them Hoyt Axton and, under license, The Four Seasons.

In 1963, British label EMI offered Vee-Jay a group that had been turned down by Capitol Records — The Beatles. Vee-Jay did not really want the Beatles, either. It wanted another EMI hit, "I Remember You" by Frank Ifield, which was a monster smash worldwide at the time. EMI told Vee-Jay it could have the hit but only if it also agreed to take the other group.

It sold 2.5 million Beatles records in one month, but Vee-Jay could not keep the records pressed and on the shelves or pay the artist royalties. Then, to strike another blow, lawsuits came from both the Four Seasons and Capitol Records, the latter regretting that it had passed up the Beatles.

Vee-Jay shut its doors in 1964. For a label that had once been ahead of its time, it was over. Eerily, one of the last singles was from an icon of the past: Little Richard, in full gospel mode on "I Don't Know What You've Got, But It's Got Me," featuring a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar.

In the end, Vee-Jay's success was also its undoing, and it is easy to view the label as just a footnote in the career of the Beatles. But more important is the enormous influence of its catalog, particularly the blues of Reed and Hooker. The sound of pop music would be very different if it were not for the likes of Vee-Jay Records. Ask the Rolling Stones. Ask the Beatles.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Derek Rath