Vivian Carter and James Bracken formed Vee-Jay Records in 1953 to produce the “good music” that listeners of Vivian’s radio broadcasts and customers of her record store in Gary, Indiana, wanted to hear. By “good music,” her audience—largely southern-born African American migrants to the Chicago region—didn’t mean classical or pop. They hungered for electric blues, R&B, and gospel. At the time, neither Vivian (Vee) nor Jimmy (Jay) could have imagined that their enterprise would become one of the era’s most successful African American-owned record companies and a major contributor to rock ’n’ roll. 

During its 13-year run, Vee-Jay helped launch the careers of icons as musically diverse as Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Dee Clark, Betty Everett, the Beatles, the Four Seasons, and the Staple Singers. By the mid-60s, a who’s who of popular artists had appeared on the label’s roster, including Jimi Hendrix, Gladys Knight, Billy Preston, Cass Elliott of the Mamas & the Papas, David Gates of Bread, and songwriters Mac Davis and Hoyt Axton. Many Vee-Jay singles—the Four Seasons’ “Sherry,” the Dells’ “Oh What a Night,” Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart,” the Spaniels’ “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite”—are permanently part of pop culture.

Vee-Jay ran before it could crawl. Two of its earliest releases, the Spaniels’ crooning “Baby It’s You” and Jimmy Reed’s loping “High and Lonesome,” became local hits during the label’s first year. Unsure how to capitalize on this unexpected success, Vivian and Jimmy called Art Sheridan, the head of the Michigan Avenue pressing plant they were using. Sheridan began distributing the Spaniels and Reed discs nationally on his Chance Records imprint, making certain that record distributors and DJs took notice. They did: “Baby It’s You” reached number ten on Billboard’s R&B charts

Vivian and Jimmy ended 1953 by exchanging marriage vows in, of all places, the offices of a Chicago record distributor. The new year opened with a surprise national smash. “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite”—with its iconic “doo-doo-do-doo-doo” vocal riff by Spaniels basso Gerald Gregory—landed on Variety’s national pop chart. As sales rose, Vee-Jay accumulated the cash and credibility to sign and record additional artists and move the operation to Chicago’s Record Row in 1959, settling in at 1449 S. Michigan.

“Goodnite Sweetheart, Goodnite,” by the Spaniels charted nationally in early 1954.

In March 1955, Ewart Abner Jr. became Vee-Jay’s general manager. Abner (or “Ab”) almost single-handedly transformed Vee-Jay into a powerhouse independent label. While the company continued issuing the blues, gospel, and small-combo jazz records on which it was founded, the Spaniels’ early success suggested the label could also break R&B groups into the lucrative rock ’n’ roll market.

With Jimmy signing the contracts; Vivian’s brother, Calvin Carter, producing sessions at Chicago’s Universal Recording Studios; Vivian spinning the singles on the radio; and Ab promoting them everywhere, Vee-Jay turned local talent into national stars. Their hits included “At My Front Door” by the El Dorados (1955), “Oh What a Nite” by the Dells (1956), “Up on the Mountain” by the Magnificents (1956), and “For Your Precious Love” by Jerry Butler & the Impressions (1958)—widely considered the first Chicago soul record. Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker influenced young English rockers such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who fueled the 1960s British Invasion.

By 1959, Vee-Jay was promoting two attractions for the price of one by grooming some of the lead singers of their vocal groups into solo acts, equipping the crooners with sophisticated pop material in order to attract an older adult audience. Butler covered Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” (1961), for instance, and Dee Clark of the Kool Gents landed hits with “Hey Little Girl” (1959) and “Raindrops” (1961). From a 1962 production deal with Chicago promoter Bill “Bunky” Sheppard, Vee-Jay scored its first national number one pop smash: “Duke of Earl” by the Dukays, credited to lead singer Eugene Dixon, aka Gene Chandler, who became the next Vee-Jay solo star.

In 1962, Vee-Jay entered another fortuitous production deal, when New Jersey producer and songwriter Bob Crewe brought the Four Seasons to the label. Featuring Frankie Valli’s flights of falsetto, the Four Seasons gave Vee-Jay three more number one pop hits: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.” By the end of the year, Vee-Jay was competing head-to-head with the industry’s biggest players. Could the Chicago company become the next major label?

“Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler became Vee-Jay’s first national number one hit in 1962.

That certainly seemed possible when Vee-Jay acquired from EMI the rights to 16 songs by a young English foursome called the Beatles. In February 1963, Vee-Jay released “Please Please Me,” becoming the first American record company to issue a single bearing the Beatles name (inadvertently spelled “Beattles”). Though the single garnered scant attention at first, “Please Please Me” exploded in early 1964 after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (on stateside EMI affiliate Capitol Records) ignited Beatlemania. Vee-Jay was sitting on a gold mine but bungled the EMI agreement by allegedly failing to pay royalties in a timely manner. After October 1964, Vee-Jay lost all rights to manufacture and distribute Beatles records.

Making matters worse, a dispute with Crewe over unpaid royalties left Vee-Jay without the ability to release future material by the Four Seasons. The company sank into financial distress, and Vivian and Jimmy dismissed Ab and his executive team (Ab went on to form Constellation Records in August 1963, taking Chandler and Clark with him). Vee-Jay’s new team, with Randy Wood as president, opened a Los Angeles office in 1964 and began a frenzy of marketing and signings, recording artists in every style under the sun. It distributed several other independent labels, launched new imprints, and even considered forming a classical-music line.

“Baby What You Want Me to Do” by Jimmy Reed

At the same time, the wheels were coming off. Rapid growth and a slower-than-expected financial recovery from the Beatles and Four Seasons debacles meant that creditor demands exceeded available cash. The executive team was fired again; Wood resigned. Ab returned as president, but he was later accused of dipping into a much-needed portion of his cash investment in the company to pay off his gambling debts.

In early 1967, Vee-Jay shuttered. Wood and former company comptroller Betty Chiappetta purchased the assets after they were auctioned at a bankruptcy auction, then licensed the catalog and released new music using the name VJ International. Berry Gordy nabbed Abner for an executive position with Motown (Ab also spent a decade as Stevie Wonder’s manager in the 70s and 80s). Calvin became an independent producer. Vivian and Jimmy divorced. Jimmy died in 1972, and Vivian went back to radio. She passed away in a Gary nursing home in 1989. 

Thanks to Craft Recordings, a Concord subsidiary that owns Vee-Jay’s catalog of memorable songs, the music lives on in films, radio, television, and reissue packages. The label’s lasting influence can also be seen in the local independent labels spawned by Vee-Jay artists and producers, beginning in the 60s with Curtom (Curtis Mayfield and Eddie Thomas), Constellation (Ewart Abner and Art Sheridan), and Torrid (Al Smith). Like Vee-Jay, these imprints introduced a national audience to local gospel, R&B, and soul artists—Donny Hathaway, the Steelers, Holle Thee Maxwell, the Five Stairsteps, and many more. Rising current labels such as Sooper and Classick Studios continue that legacy to this day.

Summoning the ghosts of Record Row

For two decades, a short stretch of Michigan Avenue hosted a concentration of creative entrepreneurship whose influence on Black popular music is still felt today.

Jerry Butler: Soul Survivor

Jerry “Iceman” Butler was an A-list soul singer, playing with Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding. Today, he mulls taxes and health care as the longest-serving member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.