This weekend, the Beatles were the center of attention as CBS celebrated the 50th anniversary of the famed British band’s first appearance on American television, specifically the iconic The Ed Sullivan Show, back in 1964. With tributes going on all of last week; with it all leading up to The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To the Beatles, the big show that featured performances from Alicia Keys, John Mayer, Pharrell Williams and a briefly-reunited Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
However, in all of the celebration, an important part of the Beatles history has been grossly overlooked. For all of the attention that the Ed Sullivan appearance garnered, it wasn’t America’s very first introduction to the Beatles. It was their first appearance on American television, but the fervor had been building for months. The group’s early singles had been making waves on the charts, but what many don’t know is that the first singles by the Beatles were virtually ignored by most major record labels and radio stations.
The first American record label to jump on the group’s potential was a small, black-owned label based in Chicago.
Vee Jay Records had made a name for itself releasing everything from the blues hits of Jimmy Reed to early pop singles by The Four Seasons. Founded by husband-and-wife Vivian Carter-Bracken and James Bracken, Vee Jay gained distribution on early Fab Four songs that had been major hits in Britain. Singles like “From Me To You” and “Please Please Me” were issued in America by Vee Jay and provided American fans with their first taste of what would soon turn into “Beatlemania.” The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein and their producer George Martin decided to partner with Vee Jay for distribution because major labels didn’t think the Beatles would find an audience in America.
Of course, that would soon prove very, very wrong. As those early Beatle songs began to generate buzz via local Chicago radio stations and other markets like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, the major labels began to take the group more seriously. As a result, towards the end of 1963, with Beatlemania in full swing in Europe, Capitol Records decided to pick up distribution of the Beatles material. Despite the fact that Vee Jay had released those early singles and even compiled an album (the now-rare Introducing the Beatles), Capitol hit Vee Jay with an injunction against manufacturing, distributing, advertising, or “otherwise disposing’ of records by the Beatles in January 1964.
The independent label found itself at the center of numerous lawsuits now that the industry heavyweights had discovered the Beatles and staked their claim to their music. As the legal battle continued between Capitol and Vee Jay, the small label was able to release compilation albums of the early Beatles material that had been released by Vee Jay, but were shut out of any new recordings by the band. Capitol now controlled any new Beatles releases in America.
By the end of 1964, Capitol had completely pushed Vee Jay out and had gained complete control of all Beatles’ recordings, including the early music. Vee Jay would forfeit all rights to the early songs they had distributed by 1965, after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Capitol.
The company eventually shut down in 1966, due to disagreements in management and financial difficulties. It resurfaced as Vee Jay International in 1979, and re-released the only Beatles album that Capitol could not control, Hear The Beatles Tell All, a collection of early Beatle interviews. After a brief stint as a disco label in the very early 1980s, it shut down again; before re-opening in the late 1990s and re-releasing most of the Vee Jay catalog as reissues on CD and in digital formats.