From the Stacks

From the Stacks: Vee-Jay Records

Russ Morgan Vee Jay

I think this is the first “From the Stacks” piece I’ve written that isn’t about a specific record. I don’t really care about “Does Your Heart Beat For Me” by Russ Morgan & His Orchestra. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure it’s a fine cut, but the only reason I have it in my stacks is for the label.

beatles songs picturesAmong the records handed down from my aunt to my sisters and me was a copy of Songs, Pictures and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles. It wasn’t my favorite Beatles record, but I always liked its fan club-style packaging: the fake autographs, the gatefold sleeve, the inner sleeve with heart-shaped dotted lines for girls to paste their own photos next to their favorite Beatle. But what I really dug was that it didn’t match the rest of my aunt’s Beatles records.

The others all were on Capitol Records, but Songs, Pictures… was on Vee-Jay, and I was sure that made it rare and valuable. What the heck was Vee-Jay Records? It had to be something special.

Many years later my sister and I got into a custody battle over my aunt’s Beatles records. Her argument was that when we brought them home from my grandparents’ house, she got the Beatles and I got Elvis. My point was that I was four years-old and couldn’t have known any better. Fair is fair, though, so when we left home I took Elvis and she took the Beatles. I still miss that record.

And I still get loopy when I see the Vee-Jay label in a record bin. It’s not just Vee-Jay that makes me giddy, but any of those great ’50s and ’60s labels: Fury, Swan, Dot, Roulette, Chess, on and on. I’d probably pee my pants if I stumbled on a Sun Records label hiding in a bin.

Vee-Jay was one of those really cool, family-owned labels that focused mostly on R&B. The Pips recorded on Vee-Jay, as did Jerry Butler.  They had blues artists like John Lee Hooker, too. If you want to own original recordings of Jimi Hendrix back when he was playing for Little Richard, you’re looking for Vee-Jay.

So how did the Beatles end up on Vee-Jay? Well, UK label EMI’s American subsidiary was Capitol Records, and at first Capitol didn’t want to have anything to do with the Fab Four. This created a window of opportunity in which Vee-Jay was able to license Beatles rights from EMI, and when Beatlemania finally hit the US, the little label made out. Vee-Jay sold 2.5 million Beatles records.

The Beatles weren’t Vee-Jay’s only big seller: Around the same time, they had the Four Seasons. We’re talking “Big Girls Don’t Cry” Four Seasons, “Sherry” Four Seasons. One would think that the little label was rolling in dough, but by 1966 they declared bankruptcy.

The label still exists, but it’s not really the same Vee-Jay that I’ve been babbling about. The new company’s focus is licensing its back catalog for reissues, some of which are pretty tasty.

And now it’s time for me to go hit the auction sites and heal my childhood with my own copy of Songs, Pictures and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles. Wish me happy hunting.

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