Monday, May 6, 2019

The Beatles on Vee Jay Records - More About Collectibles

As a collector (in my case 45s), one looks into the history the way others could care less. Collectors of anything know that the obscure is the score, and for Beatles' fans, one can't go wrong with the 45s released by Vee Jay, a fledgling record company out of Chicago and the first African American owned label. Founded in 1953 by Vivian Carter (the "Vee") and her husband, Jimmy Bracken (the "Jay") in Gary, Indiana, Vee Jay contributed a tremendous catalog of blues, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, jazz, soul, pop, and rock 'n' roll. The label started as an outgrowth of the Bracken's successful record shop, and Vivian's stint as a disc jockey at WGRY. The black music Vivian was playing on her radio show at the time was not generally available on records.

The Brackens decided to start recording these artists, and Vee Jay was born. Quickly the Vee Jay catalog included a wealth of blues recordings by Eddie Taylor, Snooky Pryor, John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Williams and Elmore James. The label regularly issued jazz albums by Wynton Kelly, Wayne Shorter, Eddie Harris, Lee Morgan, and gospel with the early recordings of the Staple Singers. Young unknowns David Gates (of Bread), Hoyt Axton and Jimi Hendrix briefly appeared on the label as well, as did Little Richard. As a result, Vee Jay attained national attention in September 1962, with the smash hit "Sherry" by the Four Seasons. The group would go on to have ten top 40 hits for the label.

Vee Jay was now a potent force within the record industry. EMI, the British record company with ties to the U.S. Capitol label, approached Vee Jay in Summer 1962, after Capitol had used their right of first refusal to turn down the artists EMI had offered; yes, The Beatles. The Beatles then recorded "Love Me Do" in September, a few weeks after the deal that contracted the group to Vee Jay, and the single hovered in the twenties of the English charts from November to January. The Beatles' next single, "Please Please Me" b/w "Ask Me Why" hit No. 1 in March 1963. When it reached No. 2 in early February, Vee Jay decided to release the single in the US, which they did on 25 February 1963 (VJ 498). The song got some airplay from Chicago top 40 giant WLS, and was placed on their top 40 charts for two weeks, making it the first local top 40 appearance for the group in the US. Ironically, the group was so unknown that their name was misspelled as "Beattles" on the record label and the top 40 charts. Here's the collector’s part. VJ498 in mint condition can sell for upwards of ten grand! It was the first true Beatles single to be released in the U.S. The Decca single, "My Bonnie"/ "The Saints" (Decca 31382), released in early 1962, merely features the Beatles as a backup band to Tony Sheridan (six grand, btw – I own any of these, btw). But poor, mom and pop style, business practices led to a troubled label.

The Beatles' third British single, "From Me To You," flew up the English charts with astonishing speed, making  No. 1 in only three weeks and staying atop the charts for six. Something along the lines of phenomenal was in the making. Vee Jay released the single (VJ 522) on 27 May 1963. It was made "Pick Of the Week" by Cash Box magazine, but by then, Vee Jay was in a serious business management crisis, most significantly due to a lawsuit filed by The Four Seasons.

Based on the label's allegedly shady accounting practices, The Beatles next single "She Loves You"/ "I'll Get You" (Swan 4152 - $45), was sent to the even smaller Swan label, which was founded in the late 1950s in Philadelphia. It was issued on September 16, 1963, just after the UK single. Despite their financial issues, Vee Jay issued the Beatles first album, which had been available since March in the UK (Please Please Me), changing the album title to Introducing the Beatles (VJLP 1062). In an interesting move, Vee Jay removed "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why" from the record and added "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You," meaning none of the songs on the album had been issued previously in the U.S. The album was allegedly issued in July 1963, although, while copies may have been pressed early on, the album didn't appear in stores until 1964, Vee Jay issuing, but not supporting, its release. (The LP, btw, is one of the most counterfeited albums of all time. If you have one and the "The Beatles" is printed above the center hole, it may be real - more investigation is required. If it is printed below the center hole, it is fake; you don't have to go any further, except to know that even counterfeit copies have value. If the vinyl is real, the cover may not be, so you will have to research that as well. I just point this out because it's one of the intriguing circumstances that make recording collecting fun.)

In late 1963, Capitol Records launched the largest promotional campaign in music history. "The Beatles Are Coming" was plastered everywhere. "I Want To Hold Your Hand"/ "I Saw Her Standing There" (Capitol 5112) was released December 26, 1963. The latter song was one already in possession of Vee Jay, as a part of Introducing the Beatles. "I Want To Hold Your Hand" hit the No. 1 spot in all three charts on January 13, 1964. Based on continued contract disputes, EMI, through Capitol, sued Vee Jay to cease and desist its sales of Introducing. Dragging their heels to comply with any court interference, Vee Jay continued to press copies of the LP well into 1964; by then The Beatles were the most famous foursome in the world. Based on the number of pressings, the LP’s value averages out at about $30 for a VG to Mint condition copy, though a Mint version of the stereo pressing can go for upwards of $500. 

Although Vee Jay sold over 2.5 million LPs in one month, they could not keep up the demand or pay their artists' royalties. With ongoing lawsuits from The Four Seasons and Capitol Records, the label shut its doors mid-1964. Interestingly, the last single released from the failing company was Little Richard in gospel mode ("I Don't Know What you've Got, But It's Got Me") featured a very young Jimi Hendrix on guitar.

The Vee Jay pressings of the early Beatles catalog are just a small part of The Beatles' storied international sales.