Dukes of Soul: How Vee-Jay, Chicago’s most successful record label, fell into, and rescued from, obscurity

By Mark Guarino

The music is dead on South Michigan Ave., while the real estate market thrives. On what was once “Record Row,” a strip of independent record labels that defined the blues, jazz, R&B and gospel of black Chicago in the 1950’s and 1960’s, is now Chicago’s hottest market for luxury condos. There, escalating property values justify building teardowns, which not just lead to the crumbling of bricks and mortar, but the disintegration of a vital chapter in Chicago history.

A current CD reissue campaign is shedding new light on what got buried in the rubble. Between 1953 and 1966, Vee-Jay Records was the most commercially successful record label out of Chicago, trumping Chess, Chicago’s celebrated blues powerhouse. If that wasn’t enough, Vee-Jay shares the odd distinction for being, not only the first black-owned record label in the U.S., but also the first in the U.S. to issue music by a little-known British band called The Beatles.

Yet despite all its accomplishments, Vee-Jay ended up a footnote in the history books and its rich catalog of jazz, gospel, blues, doo-wop and R&B has fallen in and out of print since its ill-fated demise.

Which is hardly the story of the majority of Vee-Jay’s contemporaries. In recent years, through a glut of film documentaries, books and reunion tours, there has been a renewed public interest in the impact that early independent labels like Sun, Atlantic, Stax, Motown made in shaping contemporary American music. Meanwhile, Vee-Jay’s story is largely unknown.

“I think it’s interesting that you don’t have to try to explain to the public what Chess is and what it means to Chicago, but you do have to do that with Vee-Jay,” said Elmhurst-based music historian Robert Pruter. “Vee-Jay was explosive … they, more than any other independent label in Chicago were like a full service company covering all kinds of music, including rock and roll.”


Vee-Jay’s name is derived from the last names of its founders: husband-and-wife team Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken. The couple lived in Gary, Ind., where she worked as a local DJ and he operated a record shop. They became entrepreneurs after borrowing $500 to record four songs by The Spaniels, a local high school vocal group. When one of the songs broke the top ten on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1953, Vee-Jay officially opened its doors.

It was an opportune time to start a record label. Between 1940 and 1960, Chicago’s black population surged due to a migration of Southerners primarily from Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama who settled in the city’s South and West sides. Naturally, a flood of independent businesses followed which, relating to music, meant a network of music clubs, record labels and distributors, recording studios and record shops that together formed an infrastructure that led to the rhythm and blues revolution. Like other Northern industrial cities with factory jobs to lure Southern blacks from the heat and toil of agriculture, Chicago suddenly teemed with a deep well of incredible talent — vocal groups, blues singers and songwriters, gospel shouters, jazz artists — who offered a level of artistry that was sophisticated and exciting.

After a stint on 47th St., Vee-Jay moved its headquarters to 2129 S. Michigan Ave., on a 12-block stretch that would soon house the majority of Chicago’s record labels and distributors. Calvin Carter, Vivian’s brother, became the label’s producer in charge of sessions and signing artists. In 1955, a charismatic industry veteran named Ewart Abner, Jr., was hired as Vee-Jay’s business manager, later to become its president, handling the label’s business affairs deemed too cumbersome or difficult by the Brackens.

“He was an incredibly bright guy, very bright, very smooth. He had the gift of gab,” said Pruter, who detailed Vee-Jay’s history in his book “Chicago Soul” (University of Illinois). “This might be unfair to Vivian because she was a good talker but (she and Bracken) came across as less sophisticated and not really with it in trying to run a business. But what happened was, for some reason, they found artists who could sell and they needed someone who could run the company.”

Abner took Vee-Jay to the next level, working deals and pushing artists that crossed genres, race and trends. Vee-Jay soon rivaled the major labels with a roster including Little Richard, John Lee Hooker, The Dells, The Staple Singers, Jerry Butler & The Impressions, Elmore James and Jimmy Reed, the magnetic blues singer and former Gary, Ind. steelworker who sold more records than Chess stars Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in their prime.

Vee-Jay boasted a valuable songbook that the British Invasion bands of the 1960’s would later borrow from and famous, including “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby” and “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jimmy Reed and “Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker.

The label also contributed many of the best-known classics of the early R&B era: “The Shoop Shoop Song” (Better Everett), “Oop De Oop” (Earl Phillips), “Oh What a Nite” (The Dells), “The Twist” (Hank Ballard & the Midnighters), “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (The Staple Singers) and “Sherry” (The Four Seasons).

Vee-Jay differentiated itself its Record Row peers in that it sought crossover artists who could make an impact on the pop charts instead of ones relating to a single genre. Carter and Abner chased popular hits and did not care about building a consistent brand for the label, a foible that would later contribute to its demise. Before that happened, Vee-Jay became Chicago’s powerhouse label, peaking in 1962 when it enjoyed its first million-seller, “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler.

“Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection” (Shout! Factory), a recent four-CD box that surveys the label’s singles, balances Vee-Jay’s biggest hits with its more obscure curiosities. A single listen clearly illustrates Abner’s super-sized ambition.

“It wasn’t the fact it had so many different genres, but it didn’t grow properly,” said Shout! Factory Marketing Director Michael Ribas, who also compiled the collection. “The big problem was Abner ran the label as an indie mom and pop label even thought it signed major acts like The Beatles and The Four Seasons.”

Meet the Beatles

Vee-Jay and The Beatles is one of the most unlikely partnerships in recording history.

The group ended up releasing its first 16 singles, starting with “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why,” on Vee-Jay starting in 1963, a year before Beatlemania swept the U.S. and the band arrived to screaming crowds in New York City. How an unknown pop band from Liverpool ended up on a black-owned independent Chicago label specializing in R&B is mostly due to Paul Marshall, a New York lawyer who represented both Vee-Jay and EMI, the London company that signed the band to Parlophone, its subsidiary. One year earlier, Vee-Jay had signed a licensing agreement that granted EMI rights to press and distribute Vee-Jay records outside the U.S. In return, Vee-Jay was routinely offered EMI artists to expose to U.S. audiences. In 1962, the deal paid off: Vee-Jay had a hit with British singer Frank Ifield, making EMI very happy.

That same year, EMI was positioning The Beatles to follow Ifield’s success. But the band kept getting the turned down by Capitol Records, EMI’s U.S. subsidiary that had the right of first refusal to any of its parent company’s British imports. Capitol chief Dave Dexter disliked John Lennon’s harmonica playing, so Marshall brokered an agreement with Vee-Jay, which leased the singles for the U.S. market.

Vee-Jay wasn’t sure what to do with The Beatles (it misspelled the band’s name — “The Beattles” — on its pressings), which resulted in limited releases and scarce promotion. “Please Please Me” sold poorly as did “From Me To You,” which followed a few months later. Instead, Abner’s priority was The Four Seasons, then basking in the success of number one hits like “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”

Beatlemania was only months away, but Vee-Jay was crumbling. A prolific gambler, Abner borrowed company money to pay massive debts, leaving Vee-Jay unable to pay full royalties to its artists, despite selling millions of records. The label was ordered to cease-and-desist pressing Beatles records and by the time U.S. teenagers were screaming their brains out at airports and concert halls, Vee-Jay had relinquished its future rights to the Beatles over to Capitol. Vee-Jay continued releasing the 16 singles it owned the rights to during 1964, but the company’s losses were too great and it declared bankruptcy two years later.

 “Abner was a promotional genius but he also single-handedly brought the company down,” said Bruce Spizer, the author of many Beatles books including, “The Beatles On Vee-Jay” (498 Productions). “Vee-Jay was never able to recover from that.”

Slow fade

Vee-Jay’s brief, but massive, commercial success was never rivaled by any of its Chicago peers. Yet in the years that followed, its catalog faded from record bins along with its story.

According to Pruter, the British Invasion improperly positioned Chicago as a center for blues music, which diminished its rich legacy of soul music and doo-wop. “If you look at the history of popular music in Chicago, they were selling a lot more than blues,” he said.

Vee-Jay’s principals returned to their former lives — Vivian Bracken to the radio microphone and Jimmy Bracken to behind the counter at another record store in Gary — but they died a few years later. Through the years, the label’s catalog was passed around among holding companies, preventing its chances of being reissued and remaining in the public eye.

“Its sad. Once it stopped being a recording center, everyone forgot about Chicago,” said Ribas. “Vee-Jay is similar to other post-War labels like Motown, Stax and Atlantic, but the one difference is it didn’t really find a larger corporate home where it could be taken care of.”

The label also suffered from the wide scope of its success. Embracing so many genres put Vee-Jay “all over the map,” Ribas said. “It’s hard to find someone who loves every single thing Vee-Jay put out while it’s easy to say ‘I’m a Motown fan’ or ‘I love Chess blues’.”

Along with the current box, Shout! Factory plans to issue best-of collections of notable Vee-Jay artists through the end of the year including two proper albums: “Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall” and “I’m John Lee Hooker.” Also in the works are plans to license its catalog for film and television soundtracks.

With time comes an unexpected footnote on race. In 1993, Pruter’s research revealed that, despite its reputation as the first black-owned record label before Motown, Vee-Jay was partially financed by Art Sheridan, a white Chicago nightclub owner who chose to remain a silent partner, following the invisible rules of segregation. Looking back, his veiled participation demonstrates that no matter how well blacks and whites worked as equals in the recording studio, outside those doors remained, for the time at least, a critical divide.

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