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The Rise and Fall of Vee-Jay Records

The Spaniels' "Goodnite Sweetheart, Goodnite," released in 1954, was a major hit for Vee-Jay Records.
Michael Ochs Archives
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The Spaniels' "Goodnite Sweetheart, Goodnite," released in 1954, was a major hit for Vee-Jay Records.

It's not often that you hear of a record company being destroyed by success, but that was the fate of one of America's most prominent blues, jazz, and soul labels, Vee-Jay Records. The music they recorded fell victim to legal problems after the label's collapse and has been unavailable for years, but now, Vee-Jay has launched a reissue program with Shout! Factory records. Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection is a four-disc set that came out this past summer.

In 1953, Vivian Carter Bracken and her husband, James, borrowed $500 from a pawnbroker because they wanted to record a group they'd found in Gary, Ind., where they owned a record store. They took their initials, V and J, and Vee-Jay Records was born. Right away, they had success — so much so that they had to lease the record, Baby, It's You by the Spaniels, to another label for distribution. But it was a Top 10 hit, and by the time the group's second record came out a year later, the Brackens were on firmer financial ground and had a crossover hit on their hands.

Naturally, this attracted attention, so when a Chicago slaughterhouse worker named Jimmy Reed walked into their store asking to be recorded after being turned down by Chess, they did a session with him. The first record they put out by him went nowhere, but the second one was a Top 10 R&B hit.

With that, Vee-Jay was on the map. Another doo-wop group, the El Dorados, took off soon afterward with "At My Front Door," also known as "Crazy Little Mama," which was a Top 10 crossover hit, and the Brackens moved their operation to Chicago. There was talent all over the place, and Chess — which was located just across the street from Vee-Jay for a while — wasn't taking it all. Perhaps because Vivian had a radio background, she was able to get Ewart Abner, Chicago's top promotion man, to join her team. Convincing her brother, Calvin Carter, to become the label's talent scout was probably a bit easier.

While Chess continued to focus on blues, Vee-Jay knew there was something new happening, and in 1958, it discovered a group that not only recorded a Top 10 hit right out of the box, but also became deeply associated with Chicago for the next 40 years: The Dells.

If the Dells were a harbinger of soul music, the other group the label recorded that year was already making the transition. Jerry Butler and the Impressions made "For Your Precious Love," but soon went their separate ways. Butler stayed on to become another Vee-Jay hit machine. Not that the label gave up on classic doo-wop, recording one of the great cult masterpieces of the genre.

Nobody's quite sure what Sheriff and the Ravels are singing on "Shombalor," although there are references to chicken knees and Nazis along the way. Vee-Jay was also home to one of the last great doo-wop records, 1961's "Duke of Earl," by Gene Chandler.

By then, Vee-Jay was one of America's top labels, with a strong jazz catalog, some top gospel groups, and Jerry Butler, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Betty Everett cranking out hit after hit. The first hint of disaster came in 1962, with their biggest record to date.

The Four Seasons hit "Sherry" was so big that Vee-Jay's owners found themselves without the money to pay for pressing more copies of the records, although the label stumbled along for a while. The worst thing it could have done would be to sign another hit group, but it did. And what a group: Capitol Records already had passed on the option to release The Beatles in America, but the Brackens jumped at the chance. "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You" both came out on Vee-Jay, followed by an album at the end of 1963. The Four Seasons and the Beatles both went to greener pastures, and Vee-Jay wound up in court, its day in the sun over.

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