How a couple turned $500 into a major Chicago record label

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Posted: WGN9,

CHICAGO — It was the sound heard around the world — a little mom and pop record label out of Chicago called Vee Jay Records.

It got its start in Gary, Indiana, by a woman with a vision named Vivian Bracken. She had a radio show called, “Livin’ with Vivian.”

She also owned a record store.

“People were coming in looking for blues, looking for local artists, looking for gospel and she just didn’t have it available, so she got the idea in early 1953 to start a record company with James Bracken,” Bob Marovich, music historian, said.

They named it Vee Jay, the “V” for Vivian and the “J” for James.

They took $500 and cut a couple of singles for an R&B group out of Gary’s Roosevelt High School named “The Spaniels.” Vee Jay would end up with a long string of hits from several genres: R&B, blues, gospel, folk and jazz.

Among the stars: ‘The Duke of Earl,’ Gene Chandler.

“I had the first million seller for Vee Jay,” Chandler recalled.

“The Duke of Earl” was a smash hit in 1962, crossing over and getting play on the white pop radio stations. That was how Vee Jay was able to break into what was a closed market.

“I don’t want to say it’s a racial thing, but it’s the way it was in the business in those days,” Chandler said.

“In order to be able to get on the pop stations, you had to sell so many records on the R & B market and they had to have a few calls coming in from their people, but fortunately they just happened to like the Duke of Earl.”

Vee Jay soon started going after white acts. Among the ones they signed, The Four Seasons, Frank Ifield and the Beatles. It was the brainchild of Vee Jay’s president, Ewart Abner.

“I didn’t see any reason why Vee Jay shouldn’t be what we call a full line label… jazz, blues, spiritual, country and western, pop. I thought we could do it and we set about doing it,” Abner said in an interview with WTTW.

But by the summer of 1963, Vee Jay ran into money problems. According to Bruce Spizer, a Beatles historian, Vee Jay’s president Ewart Abner had a gambling problem.

“He owed the boys in Vegas hundreds of thousands of dollars and took money out of Vee Jay to pay off his gambling debts,” Spizer said.

Abner denied this accusation.

“I didn’t gamble with company funds. So what people don’t know is that I owned a third of the company and I’m gambling, if I gamble with money, it’s my money so we did, I will say I did help integrate the crap tables in Las Vegas at the Dunes, not that that’s a worthy achievement or anything but it’s a fact,” Abner said.

With no way to pay royalties, lawsuits started coming in and the acts started leaving — including the Beatles and the Four Seasons.

Vee Jay tried to make another go of it in Los Angeles, but when that failed the company came back to Chicago, but it was too late. Vee Jay field for bankruptcy and eventually went under in 1966 leaving behind an incredibly diverse talent roster from Jimmy Reed and Jerry Butler to The Staple Singers and The Dells.

“Jimi Hendrix was the guitarist for Little Richard when little Richard was on Vee Jay, Cass Elliot from the Mamas and the Papas, she was part of a group called the Big Trio and they were on Vee Jay for a minute,” Marovich recalls.

It was an amazing feat for the small, store front record label that got its start during a racially turbulent time in this country’s history.

“We were certainly aware we were black… and just a handful of us were competing in a highly charged new industry. Because the independent record industry was a new industry and the major didn’t even want this music and when they did put it out they had race labels for it and they put them on race labels and they had separate charts for it, they just didn’t deal with it at the time… I guess we didn’t care,” Abner said.

“Vee Jay would have been bigger than Motown if they had money in the summer of 63, that’s the tragedy of it all,” said Spizer.

“The music is still around and we can enjoy it for generations to come,” Marovich said.