Today is an obscure, but important anniversary in the annals of pop music. You see, on this day, 50 years ago, The Beatles' first single, "Please Please Me," was released in the United States.
The song got a little bit of airplay in February and March of 1963, but not much, and it sold about a little more than 5,000 copies. Remember, this was 1963, the whole Beatlemania thing — the appearance on "Ed Sullivan," the screaming teenage girls — none of that happened until 1964.
In early 1963, The Beatles British record label, EMI sent a recording of "Please Please Me" to its U.S. affiliate, Capitol Records, but the executives at Capitol passed on it.
The rights to the record were shopped around to other labels, and one called Vee-Jay picked them up. At the time, Indiana-based Vee-Jay was the biggest black-owned record label in the country — this was long before Motown really got started — and they were primarily an R&B label. They had artists like Leadbelly, the Staples Singers, and the great Jimmy Reed.
Might seem strange, for an R&B label to release British rock and roll, but by 1963 Vee-Jay had begun to venture beyond R&B.
"Vee-Jay had put out 'I Remember You' by Frank Ifield after Capitol had turned that down, and [it] became a number-five hit," said Bruce Spizer, author of the book "Beatles' Records on Vee-Jay. "Also at this time, The Four Seasons "Big Girls Don't Cry," so the idea wasn't that absurd when you think about it."
Not only did Vee-Jay sign a deal for the rights to "Please Please Me," they also signed a contract for the right to license all the recordings made by this unknown group, The Beatles, and the right to release them in the United States for a period of five years.
"If Vee-Jay had played their cards right, "Sgt. Pepper" would have been on Vee-Jay," said Spizer. But, sadly, Vee-Jay didn't play their cards right, or perhaps they were dealt a bad hand. Oh, and by the way, that deal? It was signed on April Fool's day.
Hindsight Is Always 20-20
There was no way to predict that the then-unknown Beatles were going to be the biggest thing ever. Capitol Records didn't know it, Vee-Jay didn't know, maybe even The Beatles didn't know it. But by the end of 1963, it's clear that The Beatles are big. Elvis big, and maybe even bigger.
They schedule a tour of the States, and Capitol Records, realizing it made a monumental mistake, mounts a campaign to get back the record rights.
Vee-Jay notices an opportunity and decide to re-release "Please Please Me" in early January of '64. The new release gets to number three on the charts and sells more than a million copies. Meanwhile, just after Christmas in 1963, Capitol violates the licensing agreement and releases "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," The Beatles single that really launches the group in the U.S.
Capitol's executives, and its fleet of lawyers decide to be aggressive, especially since they know Vee-Jay has a problem. Turns out Vee-Jay's president had spent most of the company's reserve funds to pay his personal gambling debts. Plus, it failed to pay some royalties, meaning it may have voided the contract.
Desperate for cash and short on legal talent, Vee-Jay renegotiates the deal. It holds on to the rights to release 16 Beatles songs, but only for about a year. Capitol executives breathe a sigh of relief, and start preparing for the January, 1964 release of their album "Meet The Beatles," which will officially introduce America to the Fab Four.
The album is subtitled as "the first album by England's phenomenal pop combo," but, in fact it wasn't the first. Because, in spite of their financial problems, and their lack of legal talent, Vee-Jay managed to release an album, "Introducing the Beatles," ten days before Capitol got their record out.
Vee-Jay does very well with Introducing The Beatles. It quickly sells more than a million copies, even though Capitol fought against the release at every turn. But ultimately the financial problems and the legal problems were just too much, and Vee-Jay was pretty much out of business by the end of 1964. Two years later Vee-Jay Records filed for bankruptcy.
Today, Capitol Records is still headquartered in that cylindrical, stack-of-records-like tower on Vine that you can see from the Hollywood freeway. On this day, fifty years ago, when "Please Please Me" was first released, The Beatles were, for practical purposes, unknown. But exactly one year later, on February 7th, 1964 they were superstars.
A Producer's Own Missed Opportunity
Here's where I need to reveal my own missed opportunity, and also the fact that I am pretty old and creaky. You see, as an 11-year-old kid, I owned a copy of that Vee-Jay album, "Introducing The Beatles." It was among the first albums I'd ever bought — I think I had a Ray Charles record, and maybe one by the Beach Boys. Not only that. I had the single, "Please Please Me," too.
Sadly, they're long gone, but according to our Beatles expert, the album could be worth as much as $15,000 and a near-mint copy of the single could command up to 4,000. That's for a record that cost 69 cents in 1964.
Oh, well. Thanks to Bruce Spizer, who you can find at Beatle.net. He expects to re-release his history of Vee-Jay as an e-book later this year. And next year, about this time, there will be a lot of stories about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles conquering America, but now we know that, at least in some measure, that anniversary is really...today.