Founder of Vee Jay Records
This is a project by John Reed: Feature Film, Musical, and Documentary coming soon!
Vivian Carter (March 25, 1921 – June 12, 1989) was one of the first black female radio disc jockey’s and the co-founder and owner of Vee-Jay Records company. During the 1950s and early 1960s Vee-Jay grew to become a major independent record label with acts including The Spaniels, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, The Four Seasons and yes, The Beatles.
She was born in Tunica, Mississippi and moved to Gary, Indiana as a child. She met Jimmy Bracken, later her husband, in 1944, and in 1948 won a talent contest conducted by Al Benson for new radio deejays in Chicago. She worked first at WGES in Chicago, and then WJOB in Hammond, Indiana. In 1950, Carter and Bracken founded Vivian’s Record Shop in Gary.
In 1953, the couple decided to set up a new record company, Vee-Jay Records, taking its name from their initials. Later, they brought in her brother Calvin Carter as the company’s A&R man.
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, The Impressions with Curtis Mayfield and The 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, notably the Four Seasons (their first non-black act) and the Beatles. Vee-Jay acquired the rights to some of the early Beatles recordings in a licensing deal with EMI, in which the main attraction at the time was another EMI performer, Frank Ifield. In the mid-1960s, Vee-Jay signed former successful child singer Jimmy Boyd of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus fame; 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, 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.
Original US 45 with the Beatles name misspelled 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.
Vee-Jay moved back to Chicago in 1965 after a year in Los Angeles. Liens were placed on Vee-Jay assets still in Los Angeles after legal action by Pye Records due to non-payment of royalties.
Vee-Jay Records filed for bankruptcy in August 1966. The assets were subsequently purchased by label executives Betty Chiapetta and Randy Wood, 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 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.Meanwhile, Vivian Carter Bracken continued to work in radio. This was undoubtedly a significant factor in attracting talent to their label. However, the company folded in 1966.
After her husband’s death in 1972, she returned from California to Gary, where she was active in radio well into the 1980s. Following a stroke she died in a nursing home in 1989.