Vee-Jay was founded in Gary, Indiana, in 1953 by Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken, a husband-and-wife team who used their initials for the label’s name. Vivian's brother, Calvin Carter, was the label's A&R man. Ewart Abner, formerly of Chance Records, joined the label in 1955, first as manager, then as vice president, and ultimately as president.
Major acts on the label in the 1950s included blues singers Jimmy Reed, Memphis Slim, and John Lee Hooker, and rhythm and blues vocal groups the Spaniels, the Dells, and El Dorados. The 1960s saw the label become a major soul label with Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Dee Clark, and Betty Everett putting records on both the R&B and pop charts. Vee-Jay were also the first to nationally issue a record by the Pips (by a master purchase from the tiny Huntom label of Atlanta), who became Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1962 when they moved to Fury Records.
Vee-Jay had significant success with pop/rock and roll acts, such as the Four Seasons (their first non-African American act) and the Beatles. Vee-Jay acquired the rights to some of the early Beatles recordings in a licensing deal with EMI, as their American affiliate Capitol was initially uninterested in the group. The main attraction at the time, however, was another EMI performer, Frank Ifield. In the mid-1960s, Vee-Jay signed the former successful child singer Jimmy Boyd, known for the hit "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"; Boyd was then twenty-five years old. The company even ventured into folk music with Hoyt Axton and New Wine Singers. The label also picked up Little Richard (who re-recorded his Specialty Records hits) and recorded (1965) the soul classic, "I Don't Know What You've Got (But It's Got Me)", an R & B success, with Jimi Hendrix, Don Covay, Bernard Purdie, Ronny Miller, and Billy Preston (before he became successful on his own).
Vee-Jay's jazz line accounted for a small portion of the company's releases, but recorded such artists as Wynton Kelly, Lee Morgan, Eddie Harris, and Wayne Shorter. The A&R for the jazz releases was Sid McCoy. The company also had a major gospel line, recording such acts as the Staple Singers, the Argo Singers, Swan Silvertones, The Caravans, Dorothy Love Coates and The Gospel Harmonettes, and Maceo Woods. Vee-Jay even released comedy on LP, with records by Dick Gregory, and Them Poems, Mason Williams' early nightclub act, recorded with a studio audience in 1964.
Vee-Jay's biggest successes occurred from 1962 to 1964, with the ascendancy of the Four Seasons and the distribution of early Beatles material ("From Me to You" b/w "Thank You Girl," "Please Please Me" b/w "From Me to You," and "Do You Want to Know a Secret" b/w "Thank You Girl" via Vee-Jay and "Love Me Do" b/w "P.S. I Love You" and "Twist and Shout" b/w "There's a Place" via its subsidiary Tollie Records), because EMI's autonomous United States company Capitol initially refused to release Beatles records. Vee-Jay's releases were at first unsuccessful, but quickly became huge hits once the British Invasion took off in early 1964, selling 2.6 million Beatles singles in a single month. Cash flow problems caused by Ewart Abner's tapping the company treasury to cover personal gambling debts led to the company's active demise; Vee-Jay had been forced to temporarily cease operations in the second half of 1963, leading to royalty disputes with the Four Seasons and EMI. The Four Seasons then left Vee-Jay for Philips Records, and EMI's Capitol Records picked up the U.S. rights for both the Beatles and Frank Ifield.
Other Vee-Jay subsidiary labels included Interphon (which yielded the Top 5 hit "Have I the Right?" by another British group, the Honeycombs), and Oldies 45 for reissues along with Tollie and Abner Records, which was an early subsidiary label formed in 1958. Vee-Jay also did distribution for Ted Jarrett's Champion Records, Rick Hall's Fame Records, and for a time, the Memphis label Goldwax Records and Johnny Vincent's Ace Records.
As Vee-Jay International
Vee-Jay Records filed for bankruptcy in August 1966. The assets were subsequently purchased by label executives Betty Chiappetta and Randy Wood (not the Dot Records founder), who changed its name to Vee-Jay International. From 1967 to 1972, Vee-Jay was limited to selling some of the inventory on hand when the company went under, and leasing or licensing the Vee Jay masters to Buddah Records, who came out with "The First Generation" series, and Springboard International, who issued dozens of albums featuring Vee Jay material on their subsidiary label, Upfront. In the 1970s, Vee Jay International itself re-released a number of titles on LPs and 8-track tapes.
In 1978, Vee Jay issued a Silver Anniversary catalog to commemorate the 25th birthday of the label. The catalog is an impressive slick-paper booklet with a silver cover. Inside are pictures of many of the artists, some history of the label, and photos of close to 200 different album covers with complete song titles listed.
As a disco label
It revived under new management in 1982 as a disco and R&B label, but it closed down again in 1986.
Under the management of Michele Tayler, the company was reactivated in 1998 as The Vee-Jay Limited Partnership. Its main office is located in Redding, Connecticut.
In 1986 Motown licensed 26 of Vee Jay's soul, blues and R&B hits for a CD compilation, "Hits from the Legendary Vee Jay Records."
In 1993 Vee Jay Limited Partnership released a 3-CD boxed set, "The Vee Jay Story (Celebrating 40 Years of Classic Hits)," again drawn from the label's R&B, soul and blues catalog. The package includes a red-vinyl facsimile 45 of the Spaniels' "Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite."
Collectables Records has been remastering and reissuing Vee-Jay albums on audio CD since 2000. A compilation which contains a Best of Vee-Jay box set as well as individual "Best of the Vee-Jay Years" CDs is released by Shout! Factory.
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