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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Vee-Jay goes all in

The ongoing legal wrangling with Capitol Records did little to discourage the decision-makers at Vee-Jay.  Instead, their feeling seemed to be that the Beatles were such a sensation in the US that there was plenty of money to go around to keep everyone happy.  Vee-Jay's Introducing...the Beatles was the second-best selling album in the land, and the singles Please Please Me and Twist and Shout on the Tollie label were rising to the number three and number two spots on the chart.  As litigation passed the two month mark, Vee-Jay prepared two more records for release on the same day - March 23rd, 1964.

One of them was the single Do You Want to Know a Secret b/w Thank You Girl.  The latter song had already served as the B-side to From Me to You about a year earlier, but the real story was the new A-side.  A full four years before ever getting a B-side on one of the group's singles in the UK, George Harrison had his first lead vocal on a Beatles' record released as an A-side in America, and it would go all the way to number two on the Billboard chart.

The other release on this date was a four song extended play single, or EP, entitled Souvenir of Their Visit to America.  In the early days of rock and roll, it was not uncommon for performers such as Elvis or Carl Perkins to have a good portion of their catalog issued on EPs.  The format was still popular in England in the first half of the 1960's, but it was falling out of favor in the US.  Still, Vee-Jay assembled one using four of the ten tracks they had not yet repackaged, as follows:

Side A

Misery
A Taste of Honey

Side B

Ask Me Why
Anna (Go to Him)

Note that A Taste of Honey is incorrectly listed as Taste of Honey on both the sleeve (pictured above) and label, and Anna lacks the subtitle (Go to Him).  The Wikipedia entry for this release states that it sold very well (just how well, it does not say), but it did not qualify for the charts due to the fact that part of its sales were of the mail-order variety.

On April 9th, Vee-Jay's gamble paid off when a settlement was finally reached with Capitol Records.  Perhaps surprisingly, Vee-Jay was allowed to maintain control over the same sixteen tracks it had been issuing for a period of six more months, at which point the rights to those titles would revert to Capitol.  The tenacious little label may have lost the ultimate battle (remember that it had originally had a five-year deal before the unpaid royalties scandal), but the Beatles' gravy train would keep it afloat for the immediate future.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dominating the charts

On March 16th, 1964, the single Can't Buy Me Love b/w You Can't Do That, the first real new material from the Beatles since I Want to Hold Your Hand, was issued in America by Capitol Records, four days ahead of its release in the UK.  In the span of only a few months, the fans in the much-larger US market were already getting preferential treatment.

At that time Capitol's I Want to Hold Your Hand was about to be replaced in the number one spot on the charts by Swan's She Loves You which, in turn, would be replaced by this newest single.  A few weeks later, on April 4th, these records, combined with Vee-Jay's Please Please Me and Twist and Shout on the Tollie label, aligned perfectly to take the top five spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart as pictured above.

As incredible as this feat is, it gets even better.  Not only did the Beatles occupy the top five spots, they had seven more songs in the Hot 100 that same week, as follows:

31. I Saw Her Standing There
41. From Me to You
46. Do You Want to Know a Secret
58. All My Loving
65. You Can't Do That
68. Roll Over Beethoven
79. Thank You Girl

Note that four B-sides make the list, as well as one A-side released after Can't Buy Me Love (I will cover it in my next entry) and two imports.  All My Loving b/w This Boy and Roll Over Beethoven b/w Please Mister Postman were singles released by Capitol of Canada which actually received enough airplay, listener requests and sales to make the chart in the US.   (In the oddity department, number forty-two was a song entitled We Love You Beatles by the Carefrees and number eighty-five was A Letter to the Beatles by the Four Preps.)

And, of course, the top two albums that week were Meet the Beatles! and Introducing...the Beatles.

A week later, the Beatles actually added two songs (There's a Place and Love Me Do - the latter being another Capitol of Canada import at this point), giving them a total of fourteen of the Hot 100, in addition to the top two albums.  The major difference this week was that they merely held three of the top five spots.

Naturally, this would not have been possible without the large backlog of material from 1963 and the multiple releases on various labels all coinciding at just the right time, but there is no question that it remains a remarkable achievement.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Swan and Vee-Jay cash in

Once the Capitol Records single I Want to Hold Your Hand began taking America by storm, it was only a matter of time before Swan Records re-released its one and only Beatles' single.  She Loves You, which you will recall had done next to nothing on its initial US release, quickly rose to the number two spot behind the Fab Four's first American hit, eventually replacing it and becoming the group's second US number one.  The executives at Swan must have been overjoyed at their sudden and unexpected good fortune.

Meanwhile, their counterparts over at Vee-Jay began their next series of moves as litigation with Capitol Records continued.  They found new and inventive ways to repackage the sixteen titles to which they believed they still held the rights.  First up was a new single combining their two former A-sides, with Please Please Me remaining in that position and From Me to You relegated to the B-side.  Had they foreseen the staying power of Beatlemania in America, perhaps they would have held on to From Me to You and kept it as an A-side for a later single.  As it was, this record was released on January 30th, 1964, and was soon following She Loves You up the charts.  Please Please Me peaked at number three, but From Me to You stalled just outside the top forty at number forty-one.


Surely one of the strangest and most obscure compilations appeared on February 26th - an album entitled Jolly What! The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage.  Ifield was another British star who had sued Vee-Jay for unpaid royalties in 1963, then signed with Capitol Records.  Vee-Jay assembled an LP featuring eight of Ifield's tracks and both sides of the Beatles' singles it had previously released - Please Please Me, Ask Me Why, From Me to You and Thank You Girl.  That makes this collector's item the only album to include the track From Me to You in the 1960's.  (It's still bewildering to think that Capitol never issued this song in any format during the group's career.)

As the legal wrangling with Capitol dragged on, Vee-Jay handed off the next release to its own subsidiary label Tollie Records.  It took two album tracks from Introducing...the Beatles and created the single Twist and Shout b/w There's a Place, issuing it on March 2nd.  In the wake of the group's three consecutive weekly appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, so all-consuming was the desire of American fans for anything by the Beatles that Twist and Shout would go all the way to number two.

In fact, this outpouring of releases (with more to come in short order) combined with the seemingly-endless appetite of the newly-minted American Beatles' fans would lead to an absolutely unprecedented event in the first weeks of April - one which has not been repeated since and, due to this unique set of circumstances, likely never will.

Monday, April 13, 2015

MEET THE BEATLES!

Unaware that Vee-Jay Records was about to release an album of its own, Capitol Records put together a package of the Beatles' most up-to-date recordings, taken primarily from their second UK album.  No American album would be considered complete, however, without the inclusion of the latest hit single.  And so, I Want to Hold Your Hand, the song currently sweeping the nation, was automatically placed at the top of side one.  Also included were that single's American B-side I Saw Her Standing There (note that Capitol did not make the mistake that Vee-Jay had and left Paul's "1, 2, 3, Faw!" count-in intact), as well as its British B-side This Boy.

The other nine songs (this initial album was one of Capitol's generous ones, offering us twelve tracks - most of subsequent albums only featured eleven) came from the November 1963 release With the Beatles.  These songs were all of the original compositions from the British album - seven attributed to Lennon/McCartney and one by Harrison - plus the Broadway standard Till There Was You from The Music Man.  The remaining five tracks from With the Beatles not appearing on this LP were covers of tunes by American rock and roll acts, and some writers speculate that the decision-makers at Capitol may have felt that the Beatles' versions might not go over well with American record buyers.  In their defense, perhaps they also wanted to present the Beatles as true originals, since it was unusual for any group to write most of its own material at that time.  

SIDE ONE

I Want to Hold Your Hand
I Saw Her Standing There
This Boy
It Won't Be Long
All I've Got to Do
All My Loving

SIDE TWO

Don't Bother Me
Little Child
Till There Was You
Hold Me Tight
I Wanna Be Your Man
Not a Second Time

Whereas the cover of Vee-Jay's album was barebones, Capitol pulled out all the stops.  First of all, it used Robert Freeman's soon-to-be-iconic front cover photograph from With the Beatles, yet chose to give it a blue tint.  The back cover contained extensive liner notes, detailing several of the most striking events of Beatlemania in Britain from the past year.  The notes even hyped the group's three upcoming performances on the Ed Sullivan Show and revealed that they were about to begin filming a feature for United Artists.

The reasoning behind the excessive hype was that, like most acts in the music business, the Beatles were expected to soon be forgotten, no matter how huge they were at the moment, so it was best to make a quick buck off of them and move on to the next big thing.  No one could foresee that not only would the LP jump to number one on the charts, it would start to change the perception of the album as a unit of commerce in an industry that was currently dominated by the single.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

INTRODUCING...THE BEATLES - part two

Back cover of version two
Following the resignation of company president Ewart Abner after his gambling scandal, and the lawsuits by the Four Seasons and other acts for loss of royalties, Vee-Jay Records found itself in dire financial straits.  But a glimmer of hope presented itself when I Want to Hold Your Hand burst upon the scene at the end of 1963 and the Beatles instantly became the hottest property in show business.  The master copy of the album Introducing...the Beatles had been gathering dust in Vee-Jay's vaults since July and, despite the fact that manager Brian Epstein had severed ties with the US label, its board of directors opted to take a chance - a second gamble, if you will.

When Capitol Records announced that it was going to release an album entitled Meet the Beatles! on January 20th, 1964, Vee-Jay seized the opportunity and rush-released its own album first, issuing Introducing...the Beatles on January 10th (at least one source says January 6th).  Capitol was seemingly taken by surprise, but its response was quick and logical - Capitol owned Beechwood Music, which held the US publishing rights to the songs from the group's first UK single, Love Me Do and P.S. I Love You.  An injunction was issued against Vee-Jay Records, ordering it to stop distribution of its album after only about one week on the market.

Vee-Jay barely missed a beat, simply reconfiguring the album as pictured above by removing the two contested tracks and replacing them with Please Please Me and Ask Me Why.  New copies were pressed and it was back in record shops within a matter of weeks (again, some sources say as early as January 27th, others put it at February 10th).  Litigation continued for a few months, yet Introducing...the Beatles climbed the album charts and settled in the number two spot, right behind Meet the Beatles!  It had taken a full year, but Vee-Jay was finally seeing a return on its investment.

Mainly because of the legal hassles, there are many variations of both the cover and the label of Introducing...the Beatles, due to the fact that production of the album was halted and resumed numerous times.  Bruce Spizer's outstanding Songs, Pictures and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles Records on Vee-Jay has page upon page of photos depicting the multiple variations.  Furthermore, his book is a major source of information concerning Vee-Jay's complex involvement with the catalog of the Fab Four during this confusing period.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Capitol sees the light

For me, and for most Americans of a certain age, this is where it started - with this record.  Cultural historians point out that the nation was still in a state of shock following the assassination of President Kennedy in November of 1963.  The ideals of many a youth had been shattered by that fateful event and an overall sense of gloom threatened to persist throughout the winter when, seemingly out of nowhere, a song of joy and innocence and irrepressible exuberance exploded over the airwaves.  How had this happened?

The convergence with JFK's death was mere coincidence, of course, but the groundwork for the Beatles finally breaking through in America had been laid weeks earlier in what was arguably the greatest series of moves of manager Brian Epstein's career.  In late October, he finalized a deal with United Artists for the boys' first feature film.  On November 5th, the day after the famous Royal Command Performance, he flew to the US to meet with Ed Sullivan, who had witnessed the group's Heathrow Airport reception only days earlier.  After securing three appearances for the Beatles (as headliners!) on Sullivan's show, he met with Brown Meggs of Capitol Records and played the newly-recorded single I Want to Hold Your Hand.  Capitol could no longer argue with the band's incredible success and it was agreed that they would release the single on January 13th, 1964, though there were still serious doubts as to whether it would perform well on the US charts.

Those doubts were crushed when a radio station in Washington, DC, at the request of a fan who had seen a clip of the Beatles on the Jack Paar Show, managed to obtain a copy of the UK single via the British Overseas Airways and it became an exclusive hit on the station.  Copies soon made their way to stations in Chicago and St. Louis, and a groundswell was underway.  Capitol quickly decided to move up the US release date to December 26th and contracted the pressing plants of RCA and Columbia in addition to their own to keep up with the sudden and unexpected demand.  It is reported that in the first few days after its release, the record was selling at a rate of 10,000 copies an hour in New York City.

The single as it appeared in the US was not the same as that issued in the UK, however.  Right from the start, the bigwigs at Capitol made sure that things were done their way.  For some reason, they did not want to initially present the group as balladeers and so Lennon's superb three-part harmony B-side This Boy was replaced by McCartney's rocker I Saw Her Standing There (still unissued in the US on the Vee-Jay album Introducing ...the Beatles).  This was easily accomplished since Capitol, through its parent company EMI, now had the rights to the group's entire back catalog.

The record hit number one on February 1st, more than a week before the Beatles even set foot in America.  It was merely the first of twenty chart-topping singles for the Fab Four in this country.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Swan Records dives in

As I stated at the end of my last entry, the Four Seasons had sued Vee-Jay Records because they were owed a substantial amount of back royalties for their string of hit records on the label.  Though the amount involved was considerably smaller, the Beatles were also owed royalties for sales of their singles Please Please Me and From Me to You.  Unhappy with the group's lack of success in the American market, manager Brian Epstein took this opportunity to declare the contract with Vee-Jay null and void, cancelling a five-year agreement and leaving the album Introducing...the Beatles in limbo.

At the same time, anticipation of the group's next single was so great in the UK that advance orders reached 500,000 before it was even released - an astonishing feat.  Feeling that the time was ripe, Epstein and producer George Martin once again approached Capitol Records to see if it was now willing to issue She Loves You in the US, but Capitol could simply point to the failure of the Vee-Jay singles to reaffirm the belief that the Beatles would never appeal to an American audience.

And so it was that Epstein wound up striking an agreement with Swan Records, a Philadelphia-based label that was even smaller than Vee-Jay.  But Brian had learned from experience not to enter into a broad-based long-term deal, so he specifically limited Swan to the rights for the two songs on the single for a period of only two years.

Swan issued She Loves You b/w I'll Get You on September 16th, 1963, almost a month after its British release.  Like Vee-Jay, Swan had little clout, and so the record received scant airplay and promotion, although Dick Clark's relationship with the Philadelphia label did manage to get it played on American Bandstand, where it got a rather low rating from the youngsters judging new releases on the show.  All in all, it initially sold only about a thousand copies, much less than the two previous singles, even further confirming Capitol's assessment of the band's chances in the US.

At the same time, the single was proving to be an unprecedented runaway success in Great Britain.  The Beatles were also becoming known beyond their native land and starting to gain a following in parts of Europe.  American impresario Ed Sullivan witnessed the phenomenon known as Beatlemania first-hand at London's Heathrow Airport when the group returned from a short visit to Sweden and received a tumultuous reception worthy of a national hero's welcome.  He was savvy enough to recognize that something truly remarkable was taking place, and it would now not be long before America would be caught up in the frenzy, as well.