ILLINOIS LABELS THAT CHANGED AMERICA.
One of the most important streets in American music history is the seven-block stretch between the 1400 and the 2100 blocks of South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. During the late 1950s and 60s, the South Loop energy was combustible and the sound was liberating.
Chess Records at 2120 S. Michigan was the north star for cultural avatars like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf and so many more. It wasn’t uncommon for session musicians to network along South Michigan Avenue, so the area became known as “Record Row.”
Between 1960 and 1965 Vee-Jay Records had offices and a studio at 1449 S. Michigan. Vee- Jay was founded by the husband-wife team of Vivian Carter and James Bracken, who deployed their initials for the label name. Vee-Jay was once the largest Black-owned label in the United States. The Vee-Jay catalog includes more than four hundred Jazz, Gospel, and Soul songs by John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Eddie Harris, and the Staple Singers.
The Beatles first American release was in February 1963 on Vee-Jay. Their ’45 “Please Please Me/Ask Me Why” sold just over 5,000 copies and flopped. Vee-Jay went bankrupt in 1965.
The Vee-Jay building was sold to Brunswick Records, headed by the savvy Carl Davis. Davis produced the 1962 Gene Chandler smash “Duke of Earl” for Vee-Jay. Brunswick recorded the Chi-Lites. Jackie Wilson and R&B singer Tyrone Davis. Brunswick left the building in 1976 for the north side of Chicago and the label went under in 1981. Today a coffee and art shop at 1449 S. Michigan pays historic homage to its previous tenants.
The Black-owned One-Derful! Records thrived at 1827 S. Michigan Founder George Leaner opened up shop on “Record Row” in 1963 and before dissolving in 1968, One-Derful! had recorded the Chicago soul legend Otis Clay, Betty Everett, and Alvin “Twine Time” Cash. The Jackson 5’s first recording was “Big Boy,” released in 1967 on Steeltown Records, a Gary, Ind. Based label co-owned by one time One-derful! vocalist Gordon Keith.
The small town of Jacksonville in central Illinois didn’t have a “Record Row” but they had a Capitol Records factory that opened on July 12, 1965. The factory was built to meet the demand for pressing Beatles albums. Some say a Capitol Records executive detoured to Jacksonville on a Route 66 road trip through Springfield, 35 miles to the east.
The Capitol recording group the Lettermen appeared before 15,000 people in a street dance to commemorate the grand opening in Jacksonville. By the end of 1966, the factory was pressing 50,000 albums a day. The factory became known as “The House the Beatles Built.” And much of America’s rock and soul foundation is found in Illinois.