OPINION

Vee-Jay lost The Beatles

The Chicago firm in 1963 signed a contract to release The Beatles' records in the United States but it lost that license to print money out of mere fecklessness.

One mistake and your reputation is shot. Dick Rowe was one of the pillars of the Decca label, but he has gone down in history as "the talent scout who turned down The Beatles." A sin of a different nature was committed by Vee-Jay Records, the Chicago firm that in 1963 signed a contract to release The Beatles' records in the United States. But it lost that license to print money out of mere fecklessness.

Early in 1963 Capitol, the California branch of EMI, didn't want to know about The Beatles, or even how to pronounce their name. Despairing of making any progress in the matter, EMI ceded its masters to Vee-Jay, which was trying to sign a balladeer, Frank Ifield. The Beatles came as part of a two-for-one package.

The Beatles saga is portrayed as a triumphal march, but it might have ground to a halt on several occasions. In spite of Vee-Jay's good relations with Chicago radio, the first Beatles singles hardly got any air time. Faced with this lukewarm reception, they delayed their first LP, Introducing... The Beatles .

Meanwhile Capitol had thought better of its refusal, and mounted a colossal campaign to launch the "longhairs." The 1964 visit by the group from Liverpool to the United States touched off Beatlemania there and the rest of the world.

To Capitol's fury, Vee-Jay sold millions of copies of the handful of songs it controlled, bringing out LPs with unlikely titles such as The Beatles vs The Four Seasons. Capitol alleged, successfully, that the Chicago firm had lost its rights, having carelessly omitted to pay royalties for the skimpy first sales of Beatles singles.

At any rate, Vee-Jay was not a bad choice for an unknown British group. Motown claims to have been the first black-owned recording firm to hit the big time. In fact, Vee-Jay was six years ahead of the Detroit firm. And it covered a wider range: doo-wop, jazz, deep blues, gospel, soul. In the background were two radio announcers, Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken, who saw that an independent gave them greater elbow room, as it served different markets.

Vee-Jay liked to "light one candle for God, and another for the Devil." It released vibrant gospel music by The Staple Singers and the Swan Silvertones. At the same time, it worked with hard-living roués of blues such as John Lee Hooker who, being irregular in his rhythms, often recorded under a pseudonym. Jimmy Reed's problems were of the alcoholic kind: his wife often sat beside him in the studio, and whispered what he had to sing.

Presiding Vee-Jay was Ewart Abner, a recording legend. Now and then he emptied the till at the office, and went off to Las Vegas. He would return with a smile from ear to ear, mumbling excuses like "your paycheck will be a bit late this month." The radio stations loved him. At a disk jockeys' convention, he ran a "hospitality suite," with 15 prostitutes flown in from Scandinavia.

Out of sheer openhandedness and inattention to his financial commitments, Abner lost his rights to The Four Seasons and The Beatles. With a plunging reputation and skeptical creditors, Vee-Jay declared bankruptcy in 1966. Abner, however, stayed afloat: he hopped over to Motown, an empire he was to direct in the 1970s.

Compilations such as Big Boss Man: The Vee-Jay Story illustrate the company's extraordinary run of hits. There was an abundance of one-hit wonders, such as Gene Chandler ( Duke of Earl ), Betty Everett ( The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss) ) and Gene Allison ( You Can Make It If You Try ). Vee-Jay also launched Jerry Butler, Dee Clark, The Dells and Donnie Elbert.

What sank the ship was his megalomania and the attempt to establish the firm in Los Angeles. And there was the usual Achilles' heel of the independents: the time-lag between outlay (how to print large volumes of vinyl paid for in cash) and income (the distributors, always dragging their heels). Not even the fleeting Midas touch of The Beatles was enough to keep the company alive.

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