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Friday, March 27, 2015

Vee-Jay takes a gamble

Based in Chicago, the small American outfit Vee-Jay Records specialized in jazz, blues and R&B artists, but their biggest act in 1962-63 was a white vocal group called the Four Seasons, whose first three singles for the label - Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like a Man - had all gone to number one on the charts.  Though the powers that be at Vee-Jay could not possibly have realized it at the time, they scored a major coup in early '63 when they obtained the rights to a single by an obscure British rock and roll act called the Beatles.

Thus, the single Please Please Me b/w Ask Me Why was released in America on February 25th of that year, only a few days after it had hit number one in England.  Though this was the Beatles' second single in their native land, it marked their first test of the waters across the pond.  But the US was a vast market and despite Vee-Jay's success with the Four Seasons, the label did not have the necessary clout to get more than limited airplay for a song by a group that most had never even heard of in this country.  Nor did they have the resources or the desire to mount a promotional campaign on behalf of the record.  As a result, it went virtually unnoticed by both the American music industry and the general public.

A few months later, the Beatles had an even bigger hit in the UK with the single From Me to You b/w Thank You Girl.  Once again, the US rights were granted to Vee-Jay and it was duly issued on May 27th.  And once again, with no promotion and little or no airplay, the results were the same - initially.

Ironically, the Beatles were actually competing against themselves, as Del Shannon had also recorded From Me to You and released it on Bigtop Records shortly afterwards in early June.  He had appeared with the Fab Four at the Royal Albert Hall in April and was impressed by the songwriting ability of Lennon and McCartney, so much so that he thought he would be doing them a favor by giving one of their tunes an airing in the US market.  According to Beatles expert Bruce Spizer, Shannon's version finally spurred Vee-Jay into sending out some promotional copies of the single stamped "The Original Hit."

A disc jockey in Los Angeles named Dick Biondi had recently relocated from Chicago, where he had been the first DJ in the US to play Please Please Me on the air.  He now treated his listeners in L.A. to the Beatles' version of From Me to You.  The interest he sparked helped to push the song to number 116 on the Billboard chart - the first real blip on the American radar for the Beatles.   

It was around this time that a significant event in the fortunes of Vee-Jay Records took place.  Ewart Abner had held several positions at the label, working his way up from manager to vice-president and, eventually, president.  The story goes that Mr. Abner spent some time in Las Vegas, ran up some considerable gambling debts and decided to tap into the company till in order to pay them off.  Naturally, such recklessness had serious repercussions not only for the label, but for all of its acts, as well, including the Four Seasons and, for the short term at least, the Beatles, as we shall see in our next installment.  

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