The Vee-Jay Record Label Story
Vee-Jay Records was born in 1953 in Gary, Indiana and then located in Chicago by a husband and wife team, Jimmy Bracken and Vivian Carter – a black couple – uncommon in the record label business – unlike the owners of Chess/Checker, Modern/RPM and King/Federal – all white founded and owned. The label located in close proximity to Chess Records in what was known more or less as ‘Record Row’ in downtown Chicago, first residing near the original Chess location in Chicago’s South Side at 4747 South Cottage Grove (Chess was located at 4750) making the two label next door neighbors.
Ewart Abner joined on with Vee-Jay in 1955 taking a part-ownership role and later becoming vice president.
Later the move by Chess to 2120 South Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago would place them once again right next door to Vee-Jay at 2129! The Mercury Records distributor was located 2021 as well as four or five other prominent record distribution companies all located within a block or so of each other.
The label’s brother, Calvin Carter was a musician himself and responsible for A&R at Vee-Jay and would later be instrumental in obtaining the early releases for The Beatles in the United States.
Vee-Jay declared bankruptcy in the Spring of 1966. Problems for Vee-Jay began when VP Abner was gambled the company’s earnings away in Las Vegas, resulting in his ouster in 1963. Abner’s carelessness, coupled with other fiscal problems, forced Vee-Jay to sell to buyers Betty Chiapetta and Randy Wood, who would change the label’s name to “Vee-Jay International”.
Abner went on to form Constellation Records with minimal success and then joined the Motown family in 1966 where he remained until his passing On December 27th, 1997.
Vivian Carter had risen to label co-owner from a career as a a DJ in Gary, Indiana. Her next musical stop was as a record store owner also in Gary. Vee-Jay was a combination of Vivian’s and husband James Bracken’s first initials.
The first Vee-Jay release was Jimmy Reed and His Trio’s “High and Lonesome” b/w “Rock and Rhumba” on Vee-Jay 100 pressed in both 45 and 78 rpm formats.
Vee-Jay’s first charting release “Baby It’s You” by the Spaniels was put out on the Chance record label due to lack of distribution capability, although being pressed on the Vee-Jay label as well. The song reached number 10 on the R&B charts in 1953. Brother Calvin Carter, after Vee-Jay’s demise, hired on with Liberty Records where he was in charge of subsidiary Minit Records. Carter boosted the careers of Burt Bacharach and Hal David when he contacted them while at Vee-Jay requesting permission to cut their song “Make It Easy On Yourself” with Jerry Butler. The song would peak at number 20 Hot 100 and number 18 R&B charts.
Ironically, the label based primarily on recording and featuring black rock/rhythm & blues/jazz and gospel acts, found their pot of gold through a group of East Coast musicians, The Four Seasons, and then next by landing a loosely held agreement to record the Fab Four! Those were definitely Vee-Jay’s ‘glory years’ and Vee-Jay would ride the Four Season wave from the Summer of 1962 and continuing on with releases after the group departed for Philips Records into 1965.
As for the Beatles, Vee-Jay was very inventive and creative packaging and releasing (over and over) a total of about one dozen tracks via 45, extended play and long play from February of 1963 until only August, 1964 when Capitol Records finally put the hammer down. Much has been written about the Beatles’ search for a label in the U.S. and so we won’t beat that tale over here.
Vivian passed away on June 12, 1989 after battling many crippling afflictions. James Bracken died on February 20th, 1972 and Calvin Carter died on July 9th, 1986.