Friday, October 15, 2010

Vee-Jay and The Beatles

ARMS THAT LONG TO HOLD YOU: The Beatles and Vee-Jay Records: A Short Story.

It was early 1963. Capitol Records had shown no interest in The Beatles, and so Vee-Jay Records was given the right of first refusal on Beatles records in America for the next five years. On February 7, 1963, Vee-Jay proudly released the 45 “Please Please Me"/ "Ask Me Why” (VJ 498). They were promptly disappointed by a less-than-rousing US reception.

Back in England, The Beatles were one of 15 acts to play at “Swinging Sound ’63,” an all-star concert at Royal Albert Hall in London, on April 18, 1963. Included in this night’s set was “From Me to You.” Del Shannon was also on the bill, and, after the show, he indicated to John that he wanted to record “From Me to You” to give the group some exposure in America. “At that time no one had heard of the Beatles here (the U.S.), but I knew they were great writers so I just picked up on one of their songs”1. At first, John was flattered and (with Paul) agreed, but somewhere along the line (after the die was cast and the papers were signed) he changed his attitude, believing instead that a cover version might hurt The Beatles’ chances of having a hit in the States.


It’s not quite clear if a wary John influenced Vee-Jay in this regard, but the fact is that the record company issued the Beatles 45 “From Me to You”/ “Thank You Girl” (VJ 522) on May 7, 1963, before Del Shannon’s single was finished. Despite John’s intuition (or perhaps his paranoia), this 45 failed even more so than the previous one, selling less than 4000 copies through June of 1963.

Meanwhile, Shannon completed his recording, and released “From Me to You” (b/w “Two Silhouettes”) in June of 1963 (Big Top BG-1371). It turns out that Shannon was right after all, because his version was a minor hit, scoring to #77 on the Billboard charts in the summer of 1963. In fact, this made Shannon the first artist to chart a Lennon-McCartney composition in America, even before The Beatles!

When Del Shannon’s version began to get a little steam, Vee-Jay tried to capitalize by placing magazine ads for, and by sending out promotional copies of, VJ 522, stamped with the words “The Original Hit" (Billboard, June 8, 1963). Dick Biondi, a Los Angeles DJ, and a Beatles believer from the start of the year, received one of these promos, and convinced his bosses at radio station KLRA to add “From Me to You” to their playlist. It entered that station’s “Tune-Dex” on July 14, 1963, a momentous occasion. Suddenly, The Beatles were getting airplay and, due to this, an actual Beatles release for the first time cracked into the US charts. By August 10, “From Me to You” was #116 on Billboard's “Bubbling Under” list. But it was a small victory; sales of VJ 522 only increased to about 22,000 copies.

PAUL: “‘From Me To You’ was released - a flop in America 2.

JOHN: “The thing is, in America, it just seemed ridiculous - I mean, the idea of having a hit record over there. It was just something you could never do. That's what I thought, anyhow. But then I realised that kids everywhere all go for the same stuff; and, seeing we'd done it in England, there's no reason why we couldn't do it in America too. But the American disc jockeys didn't know about British records; they didn't play them, nobody promoted them, so you didn't have hits” 3.

2 The Beatles Anthology, p.115

3 Playboy interview, September 1980

Overseas, though, The Beatles remained white-hot. When With the Beatles shot straight to #1 in England on November 30, 1963 (unseating Please Please Me, which had held that top spot for the previous 30 weeks!), Capitol Records could no longer deny the band’s power, even as Vee-Jay releases, including the first issue of the LP Introducing the Beatles (VJLP 1062, distributed in late July 1963), failed to make any dent. As an arm of EMI, Capitol had the right to unseat Vee-Jay (as well as Swan and Tollie) for the American distributorship. Thus, in early December 1963, Capitol began to launch a huge campaign promoting The Beatles and a forthcoming Capitol release, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”/ “I Saw Her Standing There” (Capitol 5112, released December 26, 1963).

The management of Vee-Jay Records, exercising their own contract rights, continued to pump out product, and paired “Please Please Me” with “From Me to You” for a planned repackage single (VJ 581). This was pressed on or about January 3, 1964, shortly after footage of The Beatles appeared on the Jack Paar Show. Capitol, informed of Vee-Jay’s impending move, was not amused. On January 15, 1964, they hit Vee-Jay with an injunction against manufacturing, distributing, advertising, or otherwise disposing of records by The Beatles. Capitol contended that Vee-Jay’s rights to the Beatles had been canceled on August 8, 1963, for nonpayment of royalties. Although Vee-Jay’s management denied it, a restraining order was granted. Calvin Carter, one of the founders and management team for Vee-Jay, said, “They were trying to get us on something really minor, like failure to declare royalties on 500 records we shipped in 1963. But that was not true at all.” Unfortunately, Vee-Jay was also involved in no fewer than 64 legal actions at the time. Carter recalled, “It’s frightening to think about it even now.” Surprisingly, a few days later, Vee-Jay had the order removed, and they went on a pressing binge.

First, promotional copies of VJ 581 were mailed to various outlets with a special picture sleeve that declared “The Record That Started Beatlemania” and advertised The Beatles’ upcoming appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The official 45 was released on January 30, 1964. Coinciding with world-smashing events, and riding the crest with everyone else, the single rocketed to #3 on the Billboard chart, March 14, 1964.

Vee-Jay followed with a blitz of reissues and re-packages. In late January, 1964, the second version of Introducing the Beatles saw daylight. For this release, "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You" were replaced (over a dispute with EMI-affiliated publisher Ardmore and Beechwood) with "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why."

On February 26, 1964, Vee-Jay packaged "Please Please Me," "From Me to You," "Ask Me Why," and "Thank You Girl" on the hybrid LP Jolly What! The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage (VJLP 1085). In fact, to capitalize on Beatlemania's urge to collect everything, this album was issued with two different covers, and the LP edged as high as #104 on the Billboard album chart.

The marketing continued as Tollie (a Vee-Jay subsidiary) paired two songs from the album, "Twist and Shout" and "There's a Place," onto a single (catalog #9001). This was delivered on March 2, 1964, and rose to #2 on the April 11 Billboard chart.

Riding on these coattails, Vee-Jay extracted "Do You Want to Know A Secret" from the album and issued it as a single with "Thank You Girl" (VJ 587), March 23, 1964. The A-side peaked at #2 on May 9, and the B-side crept up to #37 by April 25.

Also on March 23, "Misery," "A Taste of Honey," "Ask Me Why," and "Anna" were released on a repackage EP, entitled The Beatles: Souvenir of Their Visit to America (VJEP 1-903).

Not letting the grass grow under them, Vee-Jay impressed "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You" (now permitted for use due to an April 1964 settlement with Ardmore and Beechwood), as another subsidiary 45 (Tollie 9008), released April 27, 1964. "Love Me Do" made everyone proud by hitting #1 on the Billboard chart on May 30.

Vee-Jay actually planned to issue yet another EP (more like a single) in June or July 1964, but it was not to be, as the court case was re-opened. Nevertheless, a promotional disc (VJ 8, aka "Spec. DJ No. 8") was pressed in a short run, and this rarity is now considered one of the most valuable records of all time. A near-mint copy, presently in the hands of a collector, is worth at least $15,000. An excellent article detailing the discovery of VJ 8 can be found: here.

Vee-Jay's aggressiveness and extraordinary success caused Capitol to press their case swiftly. But, on July 23, 1964, Judge Mervyn A. Aggeler announced, “The court finds in favor of Vee-Jay Records on all the issues raised in their cross complaint. Vee-Jay Records has the unqualified right to advertise and promote the covered masters in any cover, jacket or package which Vee-Jay Records, Inc., deems appropriate.” The verdict, however, wasn’t global or permanent. Vee-Jay would only be allowed to release Beatles recordings for which they had already received masters, and only until October 15, 1964, after which they would retain no right to issue any Beatles product.

In a last-ditch effort, Vee-Jay mercilessly milked what they had. On August 10, 1964, they re-released four previous singles on the misleading “Oldies 45” subsidiary label. On September 4, having secured interview tapes from Jim Steck and Dave Hull, recorded August 24 and 25, 1964, Vee-Jay issued the LP Hear the Beatles Tell All (PRO-202, originally intended as a promotional-only issue). On October 1 came the double-album The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons (VJ DX 30), The Beatles' half of which merely included a copy of Introducing the Beatles (second version). Only 11 days later (October 12), Vee-Jay issued Songs, Pictures, and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles (VJLP 1092), yet another repackaging of Introducing the Beatles.

EPILOGUE: Thus ended the short and lively association between Vee-Jay and The Beatles. Vee-Jay’s fortunes dwindled over the years, as their legal and personal problems dogged them to the end.



To see the masters, mothers, and stampers for many of these discs, go: here.

Castleman & Podrazik, All Together Now

Lewisohn, The Beatles Live!

Spizer, The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America

Spizer & Livingston, The Beatles’ Story on Capitol Records Part 1

Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2008


Tom Wise

Although I use quotes from sources, or cited fact, much of the material on this and other pages of my blog is original, from my own pen. This is not cut-and-paste, it is a work of art. Copyright © 2010 Tom Wise.

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