According to Old Town Records executive Sam Weiss,
Vee-Jay came the closest to being the number one black-owned pop labelÖ.
They penetrated the white market like a cannonball going through butter. Had
they overcome the family and financial problems that ultimately destroyed
them, they would have become as big as Motown.
Vee-Jay was founded by deejay Vivian Carter and her husband, Jimmy Bracken, in Gary, Indiana, in 1953, in order to provide an outlet for the kin of black rhythm and blues that was still hard to find on records. The labelís first two singles, Jimmy Reedís "High and Lonesome"/"Roll and Rhumba" (Vee-Jay 100; 1953) and the Spanielsí "Baby Itís You"/"Bounce" (Vee-Jay 101; 1953; #10 R&B; the A-side was the first song recorded by the company), sold well, enabling Vee-Jay to adopt a more ambitious recording agenda. In addition to Reed and the Spaniels, the label found success in the 1950s with R&B acts such as the El Dorados, Jerry Butler, the Dells, Dee Clark, the Magnificents, John Lee Hooker, and Wade Flemons.
By 1955, Vee-Jay was successful enough to have established its own house band for use in the studio; key members included Lefty Bates on guitar, Quinn B. Wilson on bass, Paul Gusman and Vernel Fournier in drums, Horace Palm on piano, Red Holloway, Lucias Washington, and McKinley Easton on sax, Harlen Floyd on trombone, arrangers Von Freeman and Riley Hampton, and bandleader Al Smith. In 1957, the label began issuing albums and founded its first subsidiary, Falcon, in order to garner a greatly broadcast share (the threat of a lawsuit from a southern label led Vee-Jay to rename it Abner; another subsidiary, Tollie, would be created in the early 1960s). In 1958, the company formed a jazz department (signees would include Eddie Harris, Bill Henderson, Lee Morgan, Wynton Kelly, and Wayne Shorter), and substantially expanded its slate of gospel releases the following year, the first group of LPs featuring the Staple Singers, Swan Silvertones, Five Blind Boys, and Highway QCís.
By 1960, Vee-Jay had its own headquarters building at 1449 Michigan Avenue, Chicago, and had adopted its distinctive label design: a rainbow-colored band around a black and silver background which featured an inset red and white oval logo. In an attempt to garner a greater share of the mainstream pop market, the company issued Butlerís "Moon River" (Vee-Jay 405; 1961; #11 pop, #14 R&B, #3 easy listening), the first time it scored on three national charts simultaneously.
Vee-Jay was recognized as a major force within the record industry by early 1963, having scored number one hits with Gene Chandlerís "Duke of Earl" (Vee-Jay 416; 1961) and the Four Seasonsí "Sherry" (Vee-Jay 456; 1962), "Big Girls Donít Cry" (Vee-Jay 465), and "Walk Like A Man" (Vee-Jay 485; 1963). Furthermore, they were given U.S. distribution rights to EMI artists Frank Ifield and the Beatles. Ifieldís "I Remember You" (Vee-Jay 457; 1962) reached number five, but a succession of releases by the soon-to-be famous Fab Five all flopped.
By late 1963, however, the label was threatened by a rash of lawsuits, many of which were instigated by artists such as the Four Seasons due to poor bookkeeping practices and the failure to keep up with royalty payments. Ultimately, the loss of its leading artistsóand the failure to find new talent at the height of the British Invasionócaused Vee-Jay to close its offices and file for bankruptcy in May 1966. Beginning in the early 1990s, the companyís classic material was being reissued by the New York-based Vee-Jay Limited Partnership.
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