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Vee-Jay Records & Ace Records

by Donald J. Mabry

Independents such as Ace Records prospered and survived because they had developed a market in which the majors had little interest, but, once the majors recognized how lucrative that market could be and moved into it, the independents began to go under or sell off their assets. The majors had the financial resources to buy artists and catalogs from independents or lease songs from them. Moreover, they also had extensive distribution systems. Aladdin folded in the late 1950s. Specialty had effectively quit releasing new records by 1960 and Art Rupe first began leasing his masters and then sold his catalog. Sam Phillips of Sun switched his attention to the newly-founded Holiday Inn motel chain after his major artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash either switched labels or temporarily retired from recording. Atlantic Records, perhaps the strongest of the independents, survived until about 1976, when it was purchased by Warner Brothers.

In 1962, Johnny Vincent of Ace Records tied the fortunes of Ace to Vee-Jay Records. Founded in 1953 in Chicago, Vee-Jay appeared to be a very strong company. It had consistently had hits by black artists such as Jerry Butler, and, by 1962, was also having hits with the Four Seasons, a white group. Vee-Jay's black owners wanted to expand into the white market, and believed that an alliance with a white company would help. Ace, headed by the white Johnny Vincent, had successfully sold records by the white teen idols, Frankie Ford and Jimmy Clanton. Clanton had just had a major hit. The first Ace record to be released after the Ace-Vee-Jay arrangement would be "Venus in Blue Jeans," also a major hit. Under the arrangement, all of Ace's sales, promotion, and distribution would be done by Vee-Jay, thus relieving Vincent of the most troublesome aspect of the record business and giving him more time to develop new artists and to produce. So, Ace pulled its records from its network of distributors, most of whom owed Ace money, and placed them with Vee-Jay distributors. [Broven, 131-132; Vincent to Donald J. Mabry]

Vincent believes that allying Ace with Vee-Jay Records of Chicago in 1962 brought the demise of Ace, for it cost him one million dollars in one year. Vee-Jay was being badly mismanaged and would go bankrupt in 196?. Its successes with the Four Seasons and, in late 1963 and early 1964, with the Beatles (it was the first company to release a Beatles record in the United States) demonstrated that it was undercapitalized. It did not have the funds with which to press records fast enough, the achilles heel of the independent record company. Vincent asserts that "Venus in Blue Jeans" sold one and one-half million copies but Vee-Jay denied that it was that successful and paid full royalties to Ace. Vee-Jay never paid Ace for switching distributors, and the old Ace distributors, believing that Ace was going out of business, also refused to pay Ace. Lacking money, Vincent could not operate. Effectively, Ace was dead. The Vee-Jay bankruptcy in 1966 ended all hope of recouping an appreciable amount of money from Vee-Jay.