The Black Record Label That Introduced the Beatles to America
Over its 13-year run, Vee Jay built a roster that left a lasting impact on every genre of music
In February 1963, Dick Biondi, a popular nighttime disc jockey at WLS-AM in Chicago, dropped the needle on “Please Please Me,” becoming the first person to play the Beatles on American radio. Black with rainbow trim, the label on the record misspelled the band’s name as the “Beattles.” The record company’s name—“Vee Jay,” the initials of co-founders Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken, a married Black couple who’d set up shop on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s—appeared up top.
At the time, the Beatles were enjoying a surge of popularity in Britain but remained virtually unknown in the United States. Vee Jay took a chance on the Liverpool quartet, signing them after Capitol Records, the American subsidiary of the Beatles’ British label, EMI Records, declined to do so. (British artists fared poorly in the U.S.—or so the company believed.) Though Capitol eventually stepped forward to claim the Beatles, just as Beatlemania was poised to sweep America in late 1963, Vee Jay deserves credit for introducing the band to the U.S.
The most successful Black-run record company before Motown in Detroit, Vee Jay invited the Beatles to share an English interpretation of the rhythm-and-blues music then popular across the Atlantic. Rock critic Dave Marsh, in his 2007 book The Beatles’ Second Album, notes that the independent record company “made exactly the kind of American pop R&B records that the group admired,” unlike Capitol, which didn’t understand the band’s sound. Still, a key question posed by Marsh remains: “Could the Beatles have been as profitable, prolific and world-changing” had they remained on Bracken and Carter’s mom-and-pop label?
In 1953—four years before 16-year-old John Lennon and 15-year-old Paul McCartney met at a church garden party in Liverpool—Carter, a charismatic radio personality who hosted a popular gospel show in her hometown of Gary, Indiana, married Bracken, a budding entrepreneur who’d recently helped her open Vivian’s Record Shop in the city’s downtown. The couple’s ambitions were modest: start a record company to stock the store with the music radio listeners were requesting. They borrowed $500 from a pawnbroker to record the label’s first artist: the Spaniels, a local doo-wop group.
“[Carter] had the X factor,” says Billy Shelton, a Gary native who graduated from the same high school as Carter and whose teen vocal group later morphed into the Spaniels. (Shelton left before the band found fame, unsuccessfully auditioning for Vee Jay with another group, the Three Bees, before officially joining the Spaniels in the 1980s.) “She had the King Midas touch. Anything she did turned [into] gold.”
Vee Jay’s first release, the Spaniels’ “Baby It’s You,” debuted in 1953 at number ten on Billboard’s R&B chart. “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite,” released in 1954, reached number five—much to Shelton’s surprise. “I didn’t think they would make it. I didn’t think their arrangements and music was all that great,” he says. “What I failed to take into account was Vivian Carter was behind it. And Vee Jay Records was behind it. And Ewart Abner”—then the general manager of Vee Jay—“was behind it.”
Carter and Bracken hired Abner, who would later serve as president of Motown, to run Vee Jay in 1954. Trained as an accountant, he’d been unable to find work at any of Chicago’s accounting firms due to racial discrimination. Instead, he started his career as a bookkeeper at a Chicago record-pressing plant in 1949. The plant’s owners recognized Abner’s talent and recruited him to help out with their label, Chance Records, which specialized in blues, doo-wop, jazz and gospel, and at their record distribution company. After Chance folded, Abner moved on to Vee Jay. He was later appointed president of the label.
“Abner was a brilliant man. Brilliant,” says Gwen McDaniels, who worked for Abner at Vee Jay in the 1960s. “He was unreal. To see him in action was unbelievable.” In the 1997 PBS documentary Record Row, Vee Jay artist Jerry Butler described the traits that helped Abner thrive in the business: “Not only was he a genius in terms of marketing and merchandising. Ewart Abner was one of those guys who could stay up for three or four days at a time and just entertain people and hypnotize ‘em and draw them into his spirit.” The executive also studied how independent white labels like Chess and Atlantic Records found success with Black R&B acts. He had no doubt that Vee Jay could do the same.
A World War II veteran, Abner had joined other Black servicemen protesting segregation on and around the Tuskegee Air Force Base. The experience forged his determination to resist the constraints of an American music industry that expected record companies to produce Black music exclusively for Black radio and Black consumers. “I don’t understand and I don’t accept limitations, certainly not based on my color. What does that have to do with anything?” Abner said in a 1995 interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was” series. “That’s somebody else’s idea of restrictions and limitations, not mine.”
As Abner’s son Tony, a record executive in Los Angeles, explains, “[My father] felt that the music business allowed a Black person … to build financial independence and a power base to reach for some of those higher goals.”
At Vee Jay, Abner tapped the robust national network of Black DJs, distributors and retailers that he’d established at Chance. Crucially, he knew how to get Vee Jay’s records on the radio. In the label’s early days, the music industry practice later known as payola—paying DJs to play your records—was not only legal but common.
“My dad was well known in the business and well liked because whenever you saw him, it was good news,” says Tony. “He came ready to entertain you and wine and dine you and make sure you had a memorable time while he was around. And you’d walk away with some money in your pocket.”
Money alone didn’t win airplay. DJs had reputations to maintain, and the music they played had to be good. Carter’s younger brother Calvin, the fourth member of Vee Jay’s core team, took charge of this area, developing the label’s artists and producing its records. “He was good at picking out talent,” says Shelton. “He could hear something and say, ‘Yeah, that will sell.’” Carter also innovated in the studio. “I recall ‘The Shoop Shoop Song’ by Betty Everett,” said Butler in Record Row. “People often wondered how in the world did he get that sound out of the bass drum. And it wasn’t the bass drum, it was people stomping on telephone books.”
Over Vee Jay’s 13-year run, Carter built a roster that left a lasting impact on every genre of American music. After opening its doors on Record Row, a 12-block stretch of South Michigan Avenue, the label signed—among others—blues musicians Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker; gospel group the Staple Singers; and Jerry Butler and the Impressions, who recorded what is often considered the first soul record.
As major labels like RCA Victor and Decca realized the universal appeal of Black music, some took the exploitative step of enlisting white artists to record copies of R&B songs. “Because it was a white artist, they could get it played on white radio and thus get it exposed to the larger universe, which was the general market,” Abner said in “Black Radio.” Sometimes, the windfall for these labels was orders of magnitude higher than what the original Black artists reaped. For example, while Butler was the first vocalist to record “Moon River” in 1961, it was Andy Williams’ version that became the standard. “Everyone in my office was really upset about that,” says McDaniels, describing the reaction of Vee Jay’s largely African American staff.
Timothy Dowd, a sociologist at Emory University who has written on the rise of R&B music in America, says that major labels adopted the “cover strategy” to undercut the rising success of independent labels. (These smaller companies lacked the in-house manufacturing plants, distribution networks and large promotional budgets of the multinational conglomerates but nevertheless produced songs that won favor among consumers.) “It could almost be like retribution,” Dowd says. “‘Oh, you’re having a hit with this? Let’s put our own version out there.’” Still, some artists—like Ray Charles, who was represented by the independent Atlantic Records—rendered this strategy pointless. “There was no cover that could beat him,” Dowd adds.
Vee Jay witnessed the turning tide firsthand. Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl,” a more traditional doo-wop number, became the label’s first number one record in February 1962. As Vee Jay found greater success, Abner decided to confront the major labels on their own turf. “I can be general market just like they are general market,” he said in the 1995 interview. “Only, I’ll do it differently. Instead of covering some white artists, I’ll sign some white artists of my own.” By November 1961, white artists comprised 30 percent of Vee Jay’s roster. “If we want to stay in business,” Abner told Ebony magazine, “we’ve got to stop thinking of ourselves as just a Negro company.”
The Four Seasons, an Italian American vocal group from New Jersey, earned Vee Jay the top slot on the Billboard chart twice in 1962. That same year, Vee Jay obtained from EMI the U.S. distribution rights for Frank Ifield, a British Australian performer whose “I Remember You” reached number five on the charts. Ifield’s success belied Capitol Records’ pronouncement that British acts wouldn’t sell in the U.S. But Capitol continued to pass on the Beatles.
An oft-cited account of how Vee Jay obtained the Beatles’ distribution rights suggests the quartet was part of the Ifield deal—an extra that EMI threw in. (Calvin Carter recalled it this way.) But Mark Lewisohn, an expert on the Beatles’ recording history, disputes this narrative. “It had nothing to do with Frank Ifield,” he says, adding that the January 10, 1963, contract only mentions the Beatles. Abner’s version of events, shared in 1995, supports Lewisohn’s:
I had a very astute lawyer in New York named Paul Marshall. Called me on the phone and said, “Ab, this group, they’re going to be bigger than bubble gum.” Says, “They’re already happening in Liverpool and in England. Capitol’s got a right to them because Capitol is owned by EMI. Capitol doesn’t want to exercise their right. We can get ‘em.” I said, “Let’s get ‘em!”
Just over a page long, the contract also granted Vee Jay right of first refusal on American distribution of Beatles records for the next five years. Had things gone Vee Jay’s way, said Beatles historian Bruce Spizer in 2017, “Sergeant Pepper would have been released [by the label].”
“Please Please Me” made a muted American debut. Biondi and WLS in Chicago played the record enough for it to rank on the station’s own chart of most played songs, but it failed to break through elsewhere. Vee Jay’s next Beatles release, “From Me to You,” received airplay from Biondi, now based in Los Angeles, but the single also failed to chart.
At the time, Louise Harrison Caldwell, sister of Beatles guitarist George Harrison, lived in southern Illinois. According to her memoir, upon witnessing the Beatles’ poor performance with Vee Jay, she advised the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, that “without the financial and influential backing of one of the major companies, our little band might as well be nowhere men!” (A database compiled by Dowd shows that by the end of 1963, the Four Seasons had charted ten times on Vee Jay, bringing the label’s total number of Billboard hits since its inception to 56.)
Vee Jay’s rapid growth in the early 1960s sparked dissent among the company’s leaders. Rumors circulated about Abner using Vee Jay funds to pay off gambling debts; the music executive, in the 1995 interview, maintained that the dispute hinged on “how big to get [and] whether to go into debt to get any bigger. … We disagreed, so I left the company” in 1963. Abner added, “I expanded beyond our ability to handle, … built up a staff and a force, which required that we have a certain kind of product and needed capital.”
Abner departed Vee Jay just as it was realizing its greatest financial success. The company issued the first Beatles album in the U.S., Introducing… The Beatles, on January 10, 1964—ten days before Capitol Records, which had by then filed a lawsuit asserting distribution rights for the band, released a separate album of mostly new songs titled Meet the Beatles! Both albums raced to the top of the charts, with Capitol’s claiming the top spot for 11 weeks, leaving Vee Jay at number two for nine weeks. Full-fledged Beatlemania had finally hit America.
Introducing… The Beatles was effectively the American release of the band’s first album, Please Please Me, minus the title track and “Ask Me Why,” songs that had flopped as the two sides of the Beatles’ first U.S. single. That left the album with 12 tracks, half of which were covers of songs by Black artists. (The album’s closer, “Twist and Shout,” had been a hit for the Isley Brothers the year before.) Vee Jay also released “Twist and Shout” as a single on its subsidiary label, scoring a number two hit with the song in 1964. For the B-side of the single, the label selected “There’s a Place,” which Lennon acknowledged in a 1980 interview “was my attempt at a sort of Motown, Black thing.”
In April 1963, EMI sent the master recordings for the album to Vee Jay, which had 30 days to exercise its right of first refusal. But the company didn’t immediately move forward with the release, in part because the Beatles weren’t a priority but also because of cash flow problems. EMI’s U.S. representative, Transglobal, unilaterally terminated Vee Jay’s licensing contract in August 1963, after plans to print 6,000 copies of Introducing… The Beatles stalled and the company failed to pay royalties to either Ifield or the Beatles. In a telegram to the label, Transglobal demanded that Vee Jay “immediately cease manufacture and distribution of any and all records containing performances of Frank Ifield or The Beattles [sic].” As far as EMI and Capitol were concerned, this note reverted American distribution rights to Capitol and provided the legal basis for Capitol to sue the independent label in January 1964, when Vee Jay rushed out over 80,000 copies of its album to capitalize on Beatlemania.
Vee Jay immediately countersued, arguing that its distribution agreement was still in force. But a “procedural blunder” by the label’s lawyer led a court to temporarily ban Vee Jay from issuing Beatles records, as Spizer wrote for Goldmine magazine in 2010. Over the next several months, the Beatles historian added, “the injunction would be lifted and reinstated over and over again, thus undermining the company’s ability to get its Beatles records into the stores.”
In April, the parties reached a court settlement that allowed Vee Jay to continue issuing records from the 16 master recordings already in its possession through October 1964; after this date, full American distribution rights reverted to Capitol.
Vee Jay realized unprecedented profits in 1964, putting out records by the most popular band in the world. Though the label didn’t allow the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to audit its books during the 1960s, Spizer later obtained the sales data from Vee Jay’s comptroller, leading to the 2014 certification of Introducing… the Beatles and three other Beatles singles issued in 1964 as platinum (over a million units sold).
At the peak of Vee Jay’s success, in August 1964, the label’s new president, Randy Wood, met the Beatles backstage at the Hollywood Bowl and presented them with the company’s own version of the RIAA gold records (over 500,000 units sold). Marsh writes, “One wonders whether the Beatles were struck by a Black man being the president of their previous record label.”
From these heights, Vee Jay made a rapid descent into ruin. In 1965, the Brackens called Abner back in a desperate bid to save the company. Vee Jay had by then moved to Los Angeles, where it watched its gains evaporate from mismanagement. But it was too late. The label filed for bankruptcy in 1966. Abner joined Motown as an advisor to founder Berry Gordy and later as the company’s president. Carter returned to Gary to DJ, while her brother continued producing. Bracken launched an unsuccessful label, and he and Carter got divorced.
How big could Vee Jay have become if it had been better positioned financially to capitalize on the Beatles’ popularity? And how exactly did Vee Jay contribute to the Beatles’ success?
The popular story of how Beatlemania arose in America revolves around a white teenager in Washington, D.C. who asked local DJ Carroll James to play the band’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio in December 1963. He did, and listeners went wild. Vee Jay’s role in the Beatles’ ascent to superstardom is lesser known. But the fact remains that the Beatles’ first album in America was released by a Black-run label and consisted of six covers of songs by Black artists. “Black radio and Black disc jockeys are more responsible for today’s music industry than any single factor,” said Abner in 1995. “Without [them], there wouldn’t have been, in our view, rock and roll.”
Vee Jay laid the groundwork for the Beatles, and it was Abner who literally handed Biondi the Beatles disc in February 1963. As the DJ told NPR in 2013, “[Abner] came up, and he was bringing his latest releases. And he handed me one, and he said, ‘Dick, listen to this. This is a group from England. You might like it.’ I listened and I played it that night, and it was on.”