Vee-Jay Records: Most Successful Black Owned Label Before Motown
by Bayer Mack
Born on March 25th 1921 in Tunica, Mississippi, Vivian Carter was raised in Gary, Indiana before moving to Chicago in 1944, where she met her future husband, fledgling songwriter James Bracken.
With encouragement from James, Vivian began a career as a popular radio deejay, hosting shows at radio stations in Chicago and northern Indiana while developing her talent for spotting hits.
Carter was mentored by Chicago’s “godfather of black radio”, Al Benson, who was reportedly the first African-American radio deejay to earn of $100,000.
In 1950, Carter and Bracken opened Vivian’s Record Shop in Gary and in 1953 took $3000 – their entire earnings from the record store – and started Vee-Jay Record Company.
The addition of record executive Edward Abner in 1954 would turn the label into a powerhouse.
Within seven years, Vee-Jay Records would grow into the top selling independent label in the country, with artists spanning a wide range of genres, including Little Richard, the Staples Singers and Four Seasons.
In 1962, Vee-Jay Records purchased white-owned Ace Records for half a million dollars, which was the largest deal ever negotiated by an independent music company at the time
In 1963, Vee-Jay Records secured distribution rights to the Beatles first single and gave the group its American
After a protracted legal battle with Capitol Records, Vee-Jay Records would lose the Beatles.
At its peak, Vee-Jay Records grossed over $3 million annually, with an integrated staff of 22 employees, making it the most successful black-owned label before Motown.
FYI: In August of 1985, Gary, Indiana’s most famous resident, Michael Jackson, acquired ATV Music Publishing (which includes rights to all of the Beatles songs) for $47.5 million.
Mr. Jackson’s estate would later sell the Sony/ATV catalog for three-quarters of a billion dollars.