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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: In 1953, a couple from Gary, Indiana decided to start a record company. Vivian and James Bracken borrowed $500 from a pawnbroker and created Vee-Jay Records. It soon became the country's biggest independent black-owned record label. For a time it was even bigger than Motown.

But by the mid-1960s the company had folded, leaving behind millions of dollars in debts, along with a slew of hits. Those hits are now part of a new box set called "Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection."

Producer Derek Rath has more.

(Soundbite of song, "High and Lonesome")

Mr. JIMMY REED (Musician): (Singing) High and lonesome.

DEREK RATH: The story of Vee-Jay is littered with irony. The Brackens spent the whole $500 on their first recordings, including "High and Lonesome" from Jimmy Reed. They had no cash to actually distribute the records. Michael Ribas, a long-time fan who put together the Vee-Jay box set, explains their predicament.

Mr. MICHAEL RIBAS (Producer): They had so little money that they actually weren't even able to put them out on their own label, Vee-Jay. They had to put them out on another little label called Chance Records, that a guy named Art Sheridan, a white guy named Art Sheridan had. And those two records happened to do very well regionally.

(Soundbite of song, "High and Lonesome")

RATH: Catering to the big blues and gospel market in nearby Chicago was a wise choice. Jimmy Reed was Vee-Jay's first star and helped the label take on local blues giant Chess Records.

(Soundbite of song, "High and Lonesome")

Mr. REED: (Singing) Oh, baby, you don't have to go.

RATH: Pretty soon, artists were flocking to Vee-Jay. Gospel was a mainstay. The Highway Q.C.'s, where Sam Cooke got his start, scored in 1955 with "Somewhere to Lay my Head."

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere to Lay my Head")

Mr. SAM COOKE (Musician): (Singing) I want somewhere to lay my head.

RATH: Again, Michael Ribas.

Mr. RIBAS: They really kept their toe in the gospel market all the way through the very end, which was basically their bread and butter.

RATH: A year later they released "Uncloudy Day" by the Staple Singers, with 12-year-old Mavis on lead vocals.

(Soundbite of song, "Uncloudy Day")

RATH: The Staples went on to international fame with Stax Records. Vee-Jay was doing well with regional hits but had yet to crack the mainstream. That changed in 1958 with this song, "For Your Precious Love."

(Soundbite of song, "For Your Precious Love")

Mr. JERRY BUTLER (Musician): (Singing) Your precious love means more to me than any love could ever be.

RATH: Jerry Butler and the Impressions soared on the charts, selling nearly a million copies. The Impressions, including Butler's childhood friend Curtis Mayfield, took umbrage at the billing, and they soon disbanded, only to resurface later big-time at Motown Records.

This is where the storm clouds began gathering. Its records were crossing over into the pop charts, but the label couldn't seem to capitalize on its success. Vee-Jay had recorded a novelty song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters but never released it. You might recognize it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Twist")

Mr. HANK BALLARD (Musician): (Singing) Everybody is doing the twist. Everybody is doing the twist.

RATH: A missed opportunity, perhaps, but Vee-Jay was still doing fine. That year, label-hopping John Lee Hooker had a big hit with "I Love You Honey."

(Soundbite of song, "I Love You Honey")

Mr. JOHN LEE HOOKER (Singer): (Singing) I love you honey, well, won't you fall in love with me.

RATH: In 1961, Vee-Jay hit pay dirt again with an across-the-board chart topper from Gene Chandler.

(Soundbite of song, "Rainbow")

Mr. GENE CHANDLER (Singer): (Singing) As I walk through this world, nothing can stop...

RATH: Despite growing success and trendsetting artists, Vee-Jay was still having money problems. Even in an era of payola, the label was known in the industry as being very generous, and not much attention was focused on the bottom line. Plus, business manager Ewart Abner had some unusual practices of his home. Michael Ribas...

Mr. RIBAS: As they got bigger, he came up with crazy, crazy schemes, like he would take the payroll, and he'll fly to Las Vegas and gamble it all. And you know, luckily he won a few times. And that kind of got to his head and made him think that he could help run the company by gambling.

Another crazy stunt that he pulled was there was a big convention for black deejays. He flew in like I think 15 Scandinavian prostitutes fresh from Scandinavia directly to the convention. And so you can understand why he was having pop hits because he was doing things like that. He knew exactly how to get his records played.

RATH: Vee-Jay was now in the big leagues and decided to do what no other black-owned label had dared to do. It began signing white acts, amongst them Hoyt Axton and under license the Four Seasons.

(Soundbite of song, "Sherry")

THE FOUR SEASONS (Music Group): (Singing) Sherry, Sherry baby. Sherry, Sherry baby. Sherry baby.

RATH: In 1962, "Sherry" was just the first of several global smashes from the group. In 1963, British label EMI offered Vee-Jay a group that had been turned down by Capitol Records.

(Soundbite of song, "Please, Please Me")

THE BEATLES (Band): (Singing) Come on, come on, come on, come on. Please, please me, oh yeah, like I please you.

RATH: They sold 2.5 million records in one month, but Vee-Jay couldn't keep the records pressed and on the shelves or pay the artist royalties. Then came lawsuits from both the Four Seasons and Capitol Records, now regretting passing on the Beatles. Michael Ribas explains.

Mr. RIBAS: As soon as Capitol sort of realized their mistake, they immediately tried to scramble and reclaim the rights that they had given up for those initial records and just a bunch of other things sort of keep crashing down. And that eventually causes the demise of the label.

RATH: Vee-Jay shut its doors in 1964. In the end, Vee-Jay's success was also its undoing, and it's easy to view the label as just a footnote in the career of the Beatles. But more important is the enormous influence of its catalog, particularly the blues of Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker. The sound of pop music would be very different if it were not for the likes of Vee-Jay Records. Ask the Rolling Stones. Ask the Beatles.

RATH: For NPR News, this is Derek Rath.

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