Imagine the Blues

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: December 7, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — December 8th, 1980 was just another Monday in New York City. If you were inside that evening, you were probably propped in front of the television, watching Miami vs. New England on Monday Night Football. If you were outside, you could’ve been taking in some city nightlife or an evening stroll.

But sometime after 10 p.m., everything came to a standstill.

Monday Night Football co-anchor Howard Cosell announced (in that definitive staccato delivery of his) that John Lennon singer, songwriter, activist and founding member of the Beatles, had been shot outside of his home, the Dakota Apartments on Central Park West and 72nd Street.

To many around the world, it was the day the music died.

Brayton Fogarty was on the road with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus as a marketing director when he heard the news. “I was shocked, like everyone else,” said Fogarty, who, in his present position at Vee-Jay International, handles reissues of previously released music. “That so many people were moved by (Lennon’s) death was what hit home hardest.”

In Chicago, the mood had to be as somber as a piano’s minor one/four/five chord progression, as the wings of The Almighty Hawk carried a message of pain, blues and agony from north side to south side.

As another kindred spirit wafts toward the crossroads, the accents disconsolate wail like the inhale of a harmonica.

While Chicago is known as the “Second City,” it was second to none when it came to blues — and for that matter, popular music as well. Long before Motown and TSOP, Chicago had their own thang: Vee-Jay Records.

Black-owned and homegrown at 1449 S. Michigan Avenue along “Record Row,”Vee-Jay was originally founded in 1953 by Vivian (Vee) Carter and her husband, James (Jay) Bracken in Gary, Indiana.

Through the hiring of Ewart Abner as president of the label upon moving to Chicago in 1955, Vee-Jay became a major player in popular music. With a stable of blues talent that included the likes of John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor, Billy Boy Arnold, Elmore James and Big Joe Williams , Vee-Jayhad also built a roster of R&B, jazz and doo-wop acts: the Dells, Spaniels, El Dorados, Gene Chandler, Dee Clark, Eddie Harris, Wayne Shorter, Jerry Butler & the Impressions and Betty Everett.

Vee-Jay was also a major player in gospel music, as well, with the Staples Singers, Harmonizing Four, Caravans, Gospel Harmonettes, Swan Silvertones and the Original Five Blind Boys from Alabama. Future stars Hoyt Axton, David Gates and Jimi Hendrix also stopped at Vee-Jay before moving on to what would be bigger and better things.

But Vee-Jay’s popularity would take a leap forward in 1962, with the Four Seasons’ release of “Sherry.”

“Sherry” would become the first of 10 hit records the group would release on Vee-Jay until issues over royalties forced them to leave the label.

With millions in sales and artists that were consistently charting in the top 40 through the early part of the 1960s, Vee-Jay stood at the top of the independent label heap.

As a member of the Dells, who signed with Vee-Jay in 1955, bass vocalist Chuck Barksdale says the sky was the limit. “It seemed in those early days of the 1960s that anything, musically, at least, was possible. As a record executive, Ewart Abner was tailor – made for the business. That cat could sell iceboxes to Eskimoes.”

But Abner had some major failings, according to Barksdale. “Abner was a gambler and a drinker. Looking back now, as slick as he was, his motives were obvious. There was a concerted effort to separate the Black acts from the white ones; and, sadly create an additional rift among just Black performers.

“When the Beatles came to Vee-Jay, they were an afterthought. Calvin Carter, who was Vee-Jay’s artists & repertoire man, got a line on a British artist named Frank Ifield, who had a number one hit over there. Vee-Jay scooped up the record and it was later found out the Beatles picked up a deal as part of signing Ifield.”


It wasn’t soon after the Beatles were officially part of Vee-Jay that they recorded their first single, “Love Me Do” in September of 1962, with writing credits by what would be a familiar tandem in music history: John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Spring of 1963 should’ve come up roses for Vee-Jay, but some thorny issues were surfacing, according to Barksdale. “Abner’s fast-talking and gambling was starting to catch up with the label. Rumors started spreading that the label was having financial problems, and the books weren’t showing otherwise.

“The Four Seasons started to speak up about royalties, and it eventually snowballed so bad that they eventually got rid of Abner later that year. But many of the Black acts had questions, too.

“Abner never addressed our concerns the same as the Beatles or Four Seasons. He came from another label before Vee-Jay hired him, but there was always this tendency to ‘divide and conquer.’ Much of how he treated us (Black acts) seemed as if it was taken straight out of the Willie Lynch playbook,” said Barksdale.

The Four Seasons would eventually leave, along with Ifield, but the Beatles remained under contract.

Because of their success in the United Kingdom and America, Capitol Records, who questioned the contract’s validity (in large part due to non-payment of royalties), laid a claim to the Beatles and spent hundreds of thousands on a promotional campaign.

“You would never have seen that kind of financial push done on our behalf,” said Barksdale. And Vee-Jay was up to their behinds in lawsuits.”

After hiring a new management team at the label, they had the Beatles’ contract looked over to confirm that they still held the rights. Having already recorded an album — Introducing the Beatles — that had been sitting in the can due to the legal wrangling, Vee-Jay began releasing singles from the album, prompting a “cease and desist”order from Capitol.

The court ruled in favor of Vee-Jay regarding existing material held up, and Introducing the Beatles was re-released in January of 1964. The album shot to #1 on the Record World chart and #2 on Cash Box and Billboard’s charts.

But Capitol wanted to get their hands on all the Beatles’ stuff. They continued to pursue the matter until Vee-Jay finally acquiesced and settled. The two labels agreed to a licensing deal, with Vee-Jay forfeiting all Beatle material by 1965.

All this which, to Barksdale, meant nothing had changed. “The new management team fell over backwards for Lennon and the rest of the Beatles. They were making money for them, but all the acts that had kept the label afloat were just set aside, like we didn’t exist.

“We knew they (Beatles) were there, but they were just shuttling them in, back and forth like it was some state secret.

“The Dells and all the blues and gospel acts made millions for Vee-Jay;but no one could tell us where it went.”

What became the final straw for Barksdale and the rest of the Dells started just another day in 1966. “Bobby Miller, Wade Fleamons, Barrett Strong and I had gone across the street from Vee-Jay to the B&G restaurant to eat and talk about what music we would be going over that day.

“We had no sooner had the coffee to our lips when the IRS agents rolled up and padlocked the building. No one could get in or out. Just like that, it was over.”

Vee-Jay went off the charts due to bankruptcy in 1966, but resurfaced again in 1979 as Vee-Jay International.

Fogarty says most of what they now deal in isn’t Beatle material, “but this time of year, we get a lot of responses to this.”

The Dells would eventually sign with Chess Records, down the street from Vee-Jay. They would continue to sing, and later gained national and international recognition through the semi-autobiographical film, The Five Heartbeats and their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

They still perform as a group, and have been intact and sounding sweet for 59 years.

Sadly, Barksdale relates how things could’ve been sweeter. “In ‘The Five Heartbeats’ you had the character, ‘Big Red’, who was a caricature of the unscrupulous record people back then. They did more than just ruin the music.

“John Lennon, the man, had more respect for Black music than the record executives that sought to exploit and pillage talent.

“Imagine how great Vee-Jay could have been if all the talent had been treated properly.”

Author’s note: On the same day in 2004, Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, speed metal guitarist extraordinaire and founding member of the bands Damageplan and Pantera (The Cowboys From Hell), was also shot and killed by a crazed fan…

May there be better days for them both.