How a Black-Owned Label Brought the Beatles to America

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 10 2013 11:34 AM

How a Black Label Brought the Beatles to America

130128_BTB_pleasePleaseMe

Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. In our latest weekly installment, we check in with the group as they release their first No. 1 record, “ Please Please Me.”

50 years ago this week, the Beatles released their first No. 1 record in the U.K. In the U.S., it wouldn’t come out until the following month. Capitol, which put out British label EMI’s records stateside, declined to release it, thinking it wouldn’t play on this side of the pond. Instead it took the Chicago label Vee-Jay records to bring the Beatles to American ears.

Part of the reason that Capitol didn’t get the Beatles was their blunt Northern English sound and British sense of humor. When the Yankees at Capitol heard tracks like “Misery,” which were at least partially self-parodying, the sarcasm fell on deaf ears. The outfit initially turned down singles including “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You” before finally succumbing to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964.

Introducing the Beatles
The Beatles' first album on Vee-Jay.

But there was another problem with “Please Please Me.” While it may seem tame today, in January 1963 it seemed far too wild for a white group, both in its sound and in its lyrics. (The lyrics were sometimes thought to be about oral sex, or at least a plea for sexual satisfaction—though the Beatles pled innocent.)

Advertisement

Instead, it took a black-owned label to put out the Beatles’ first big hit. Vee-Jay records was founded by husband-and-wife team Vivian Carter and James Bracken in 1953—taking the label’s name from their first initials—with $500 they borrowed from a pawnbroker. Partly by signing artists deemed inappropriate for white audiences, the independent label quickly became one of the top imprints for soul, doo-wop, and jazz. Vee-Jay was the most successful black-run label before Motown, and one of the most important record companies of the period. Some of their biggest hits included classics like John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” the Four Seasons’ “Sherry,” and Gene Chandler’s “The Duke of Earl.” (Not that they always got it right: They also recorded and then failed to releaseThe Twist.”) When the label pursued EMI artist Frank Ifield for “I Remember You,” they agreed to take the unknown Beatles along with him.

Beattles_Please_Please_Me
Vee-Jay records' U.S. release of "Please Please Me."

Vee-Jay didn’t have much early success with the Beatles. Upon the initial release of “Please Please Me” in early 1963, the label sold only 5,650 copies. There may have been something to Capitol’s worries after all: Many of the Beatles’ subsequent singles would have similarly disappointing debuts on other independent labels. But these U.S. labels weren’t yet pushing the Beatles records very hard. The Beatles’ debut American single was such a small concern to Vee-Jay that they neglected to even notice that their packaging called them “The Beattles.” When Vee-Jay put out “From Me to You” in May, and DJs didn’t bother to play it, Capitol exec Dave Dexter declared the Beatles “stone-cold dead in the U.S. marketplace.”

In a final twist, Vee-Jay’s success would ultimlately lead to its demise. When records from artists like the Beatles and the Four Seasons took off, the independent label didn’t have the resources to move units in such large numbers, or to keep on top of all their fees, royalties, and obligations. Soon the label found itself in lawsuits from both the Four Seasons and Capitol Records—who  were suddenly more interested in the Beatles—and in 1966, Vee-Jay went bankrupt.

Previously in Blogging the Beatles
The Beatles Say Goodbye to Hamburg
The Beatles Hit the Airwaves
The Beatles Rise Up the Charts
The Beatles Record Their First No. 1

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. Email him at Forrest.Wickman@slate.com.