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Bracken, Vivian Carterlocked

(25 Mar. 1921–12 June 1989), pioneering radio disc jockey, record store owner, and record label founder,

Bracken, Vivian Carterlocked

(25 Mar. 1921–12 June 1989), pioneering radio disc jockey, record store owner, and record label founder,
  • Shennette Garrett-Scott

was born Vivian Carter in Tunica, Mississippi, to Ludalia and Minnie Carter. Her parents’ occupations are not known. She had one brother, Calvin.

Bracken’s family moved to Gary, Indiana, in the late 1920s. In 1939 she graduated from the city’s Roosevelt High School, then worked a number of odd jobs, including a stint with the U.S. Signal Corps during World War II. It was in the corps that she met her future husband James Bracken in 1944. She got her big break in radio in 1948; that year she won a talent search contest sponsored by popular WGES DJ Al Benson who was looking for a male and female DJ duo team. Bracken and Sid McCoy, the future announcer for the TV show Soul Train, prevailed over nearly a thousand contestants and debuted on WGES with a fifteen-minute show. After three months at WGES, she started working for the AM station WWCA; she was one of the earliest black women with their own radio show. She debuted Livin’ with Vivian late nights on WWCA. She later moved to WGRY. In 1950 she and James Bracken founded Vivian’s Record Shop at 1640 Broadway in Gary.

In the spring of 1953 a group of teenagers formed a doo-wop group and sought out Bracken. Bracken and James borrowed five hundred dollars from a pawnbroker in Gary, Indiana, to record the boys who now called themselves the Spaniels. With encouragement from McCoy and money in hand, the Brackens used the first initials of both of their first names to create Vee-Jay Records. Vee-Jay met with immediate success. As sales of the Spaniels’ singles took off, Bracken leased part of the rights to the Spaniels’ first release, “Baby, It’s You,” which reached the regional Top 10 charts, to another label, Chance Records, owned by a white businessman Art Sheridan. Sheridan was able to press and release the singles for the cash-strapped Vee-Jay label. (In the early 1990s Sheridan revealed that he was part owner of Vee-Jay, but stressed that the company should be seen as “black-owned.”) In 1954 Vee-Jay scored with the addition of bassist Al Smith as leader of the house band. That same year the label was on firmer financial footing when the Spaniels delivered a regional Top 10 crossover hit, “Goodnite Sweetheart, Goodnite.”

The talent literally walked in the door. Blues singer Jimmy Reed, then working in a slaughterhouse, had been turned down by Chess Records. Reed walked into the record store later in the spring of 1953 and auditioned for the Brackens. They eagerly signed the newcomer. His second record, “Baby, You Don’t Have to Go,” became a Top 10 R&B hit. With the success of the Spaniels and Reed, Bracken and James decided to get married, on 16 December 1953. They did not have any children. Success also meant that Vee-Jay recorded other groups, including popular blues, jazz, and gospel singers and groups. In 1955 the label recorded the Highway Q.C.’s, which featured future blues and disco singer Johnny Taylor, who had replaced Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke before him, and it released “Uncloudy Day” by the Staples Singers, featuring a lead solo by a young Mavis Staples. Other gospel acts included the Maceo Woods’ Singers, the Swan Silvertones, and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Some of the jazz acts included Tommy Dean, Stuart “Turk” Kincheloe, Julian Dash, and Wellington Blakey. Women artists included pianist Camille Howard and singers Sarah McLawler and Jo Ann Raven.

In 1954 the Brackens moved to Chicago and opened shop in a converted garage at 412 East 47th Street; several months later the company moved to tonier accommodations at 4747 South Cottage Grove. At one time the highly successful Chess Records had offices right across the street. Bracken recruited one of Chicago’s top promoters, Ewart Abner Jr., whom she had worked with previously through Chance Records and Art Sheridan’s distribution company. She also hired her brother Calvin Carter as the label’s main producer and A&R Manager. Vee-Jay continued recording and charting with gospel groups and choirs and with doo-wop groups like the El Dorados, the Sheriff and the Ravels, and Gene Chandler, but the label also experimented with an emerging soul-inflected, rhythm-and-blues sound. In 1958 Vee-Jay recorded “Oh, What a Night” by the Dells and “Precious Love” by the Impressions. Forerunners of the new soul music, both groups climbed the national charts. “Precious Love” sold nearly a million singles.

By the early 1960s Vee-Jay was the top, independent, black-owned record labels in the country. It had top-charting gospel and jazz artists and a lineup of R&B and soul artists that included Jerry Butler, who remained with Vee-Jay when Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions moved to another label; Jimmy Reed; John Lee Hooker; and Betty Everett. It continued to produce iconic doo-wop hits like “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler and the irreverent cult favorite “Shambolor” by the Sheriffs and the Ravels. However, persistent manufacturing and distribution problems still dogged the label. These problems were a portent of its future legal troubles. For example, the label recorded but was not able to release a record by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters: “The Twist,” which Chubby Checker covered in 1960 and rode to multi-platinum fame and pop music history. Part of the reason for its manufacturing and distribution problems lay with its poor financial management. In 1961 Abner became president of the company and played a key role in attracting unconventional but profitable recording deals, but he was also known for being overly generous during the era of payola, or pay-for-play at radio stations. He regularly gambled the label’s entire payroll in Las Vegas casinos.

In 1962 Vee-Jay had its hugest success with “Sherry” by the Four Seasons, its first non-black group. Vee-Jay was the first black-owned label to record and promote white groups. The record was a smash hit, but Bracken did not have the money to press enough records to meet the overwhelming demand. Following on the heels of the Four Seasons’ international success, Bracken scored a coup when British EMI offered her distribution rights to the Beatles’ first two singles (“Please Please Me” and “From Me to You”) and then its debut album after Capitol Records passed on an option to record the group. Vee-Jay sold more than 2 million Beatles records in one month, but it was unable to get enough records pressed or pay the artist royalties. After a legal battle Capitol eventually won the rights to the Beatles’ recordings.

Bracken fired Abner in 1963, but the writing was on the wall for the struggling label. The Four Seasons also sued the company for its failure to press records and pay royalties. Vee-Jay moved its headquarters to Los Angeles in 1964. In 1965 James assumed presidency of the company, rehired Abner, and moved the company back to Chicago. Despite Abner’s desperate sale of Vee-Jay’s most profitable properties, including the Beatles’ masters, by 1965 the label was millions of dollars in debt, and shut its doors. It filed for bankruptcy in 1966 and its remaining assets were sold to satisfy creditors in 1967. After the failure of Vee-Jay Records, Bracken worked as a DJ on a Chicago radio station. Much more than a footnote in the Beatles’ history, Vee-Jay’s catalog continues to shape and inspire popular music. In addition, Bracken was one of the few women, black or white, to have wielded significant power in the music industry in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bracken divorced James sometime in the late 1960s after the failure of Vee-Jay Records. Bracken moved back to Gary and continued to perform as a DJ on a local Gary station for several years. She died of complications from diabetes in a nursing home on 12 June 1989.

Further Reading

  • Butler, Jerry. Only the Strong Survive: Memoirs of a Soul Survivor (2004).
  • “Ludalia Carter.” United States Census, 1930.
  • “The Rise and Fall of Vee-Jay Records.” Fresh Air from WHYY, National Public Radio, 15 January 2008.
  • “The Success and Undoing of Vee-Jay Records.” Day to Day, National Public Radio, 21 August 2007.
  • Obituaries: Chicago Sun-Times, 15 June 1989; Jet, 3 July 1989.