Record company executive
Ewart Abner never played music, yet his efforts contributed to both the R&B boom of the 1950s and the soul music explosion of the 1960s. A visionary and an entrepreneur, Abner successfully challenged the hierarchy of the predominantly white record industry and carved a lucrative niche for African American music. Although his reigns were marred by internal politics, the charismatic pioneer had the distinction of being president of the two most successful black-owned labels in America: Vee-Jay and Motown.
Abner, the son of a minister, attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and graduated with a degree in accounting from DePaul University in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago area was teaming with post-WWII blues and R&B talent, especially on Michigan Avenue, which came to be known as Record Row. One of the many labels on that street belonged to Art Sheridan, whose Chance label and subsidiaries were constantly in financial hot water. After a dormant period in 1952, Sheridan reactivated the label and gave Abner his start in the music industry.
Sheridan told Robert Pruter at the Chance Label website, "At the time I met Abner, he had graduated from college as an accountant. In those years a black man had a hell of a job trying to get a position as an accountant. He became our accountant in the distributing business and in the record plant, and ultimately for a while ran the pressing plant. After we closed the pressing plant, Abner became very much involved in Chance Abner was basically the finance man, in the sense of being the accountant guy, bookkeeping and so forth."
Abner, a quick study, gained a lot of practical experience from his days at Chance, which was on the cusp of the R&B-fed rock 'n' roll revolution. Chance helped introduce such groundbreaking artists as the Flamingos, the Moonglows, the Spaniels, and Jimmy Reed. Despite several records that sold well nationally, the label's shaky finances forced its closure in 1954. Chance had leased some of its most popular sides from a new local outfit called Vee-Jay Records, an organization that would figure prominently in Abner's future.
Earned Industry Prominence
The Vee-Jay label was started in 1953 by disc jockey Vivian Carter Bracken and her husband Jimmy Brackenheir first names provided the initials for the company name. Vivian's younger brother, Calvin Carter, produced most of the acts. The music was artistically successful, but the label struggled financially. In the 1997 documentary Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues, Abner explained the label's chemistry and his own role: "Calvin knew talent and Vivian understood what was happening and could play it, but they didn't have the knowledge of the industry or the background to take it beyond where they were and Jimmy was smart and knew that. So they kind of brought me in and immediately made me general manager of the company, and two years later made me president."
Although Abner seldom stepped inside the studio, his abilities as merchandiser, deal maker, and promoter transformed Vee-Jay from a struggling independent into the most successful black-owned record label in the days before Motown. With a roster of top talent including Jimmy Reed, the Spaniels, the Eldorados, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Butler & The Impressions, and the Dells, it might seem that Abner had an easy job. However, making great records and getting them played on the radio were two different things. At the time, "payola"aying disc jockeys to play certain recordsasn't illegal. In fact, it was a standard industry practice.
As he explained in Record Row, Abner was one of payola's most astute practitioners: "I was the bag man for the company. By that I mean I take the bag outashash type money out. Because even though you sent the jocks the checks on a regular basis, this was sort of like a retainer. See? This was a retainer to keep the relationship cool, OK? So that your records could at least be considered to be played. Now when you want serious play, that's a whole escalation to another level. See? Now you gotta go out there and put the green on 'em. OK? And you've got to be a friend to do that. You got to breakfast lunch and dinner, get wasted with 'em, party with 'em, play cards with 'em."
The Brackens so appreciated their general manager's efforts that they named two of their subsidiary labels after himbner and Gladstone. Yet Abner had even bigger dreams: he wanted to make Vee-Jay a full-line major label that released R&B, pop, country, jazz, and gospel music.
Mainstream hits by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons gave Vee-Jay a strong toehold in white pop music, but a leasing deal with British EMI nearly made them a dominant force. As a throw-in to the deal for Frank Ifield's recordings, Abner secured the rights to an un-known group called the Beatles. Capitol, a large cog in EMI, had initially refused to issue the Fab Four's discs stateside, and Abner felt he had scored a major coup. However, the timing wasn't right, and the Vee-Jayissued Beatles material sank without a trace in 1963. When the Beatles became huge sellers for Capitol the following year, Vee-Jay tried to cash in by rereleasing their own Beatles material. A lawsuit followed. Unable to afford a protracted legal battle, Vee-Jay agreed to stop selling Beatles records by the end of 1964. Sales of 2.6 million albums was probably a soothing balm for such a painful loss, but it would be the last such windfall Vee-Jay would enjoy.
Fired and Rehired by Vee-Jay
Due to the rapid expansion Abner put into motion, Vee-Jay was cash strapped. The ambitious label head wanted to secure a line of credit to keep the company going, but the Brackens, afraid to sink further into debt, refused. Rumors circulated that Abner had gambled the label's fortunes away.
"No, it wasn't true," Abner responded in Record Row. "I didn't gamble with company funds. What people don't know is that I owned a third of the company. If I gamble with money, it's my money. I will say that I believe I helped integrate the crap tables in Las Vegas at the Dunesot that that's a worthy achievement or anything, but it's a fact."
However, their confidence shaken, the Brackens fired Abner in 1963, replacing him with former promotion man Randy Wood (not to be confused with the Randy Wood of Dot Records fame). Abner quickly formed his own label, Constellation, hitting the charts with former Vee-Jay artists Dee Clark and Gene Chandler. By 1966, things got worse for Vee-Jay, and Jimmy Bracken personally asked Abner to return as head of the company and straighten things out. It was too late, however, and Vee-Jay's assets went on the auction block in 1967.
Rebounded at Motown
Abner was immediately hired by Berry Gordy to head up Motown's talent management division, ITMI; Gordy eventually made him vice-president in charge of sales and marketing as well. Besides working closely with Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Smokey Robinson, Abner infused the label with his passionate brand of African American pride and social activism. An advocate of minority education, a founding member of the Black Music Association, a member of the NAACP and the Urban League, and the organizer of two marches to Washington, Abner used his position to heighten awareness of minority issues, for which Gordy admired him tremendously.
In 1973, after Gordy made his big leap into movies with Lady Sings the Blues, he resigned as Motown's president, promoting Abner to fill the vacancy. Although the label racked up five number-one pop hits that year, Motown was starting to fray at the ends. The label's move to the West Coast and its founder's expansion into film and television production weakened the company's grip on the charts. With Motown's fortunes sagging, Gordy fired Abner in 1975.
Years later, Gordy analyzed the situation in his autobiography To Be Loved. "For the past couple of years he had done a good job, but by 1975 I was no longer happy with his performance. Productivity was down and I held him responsible. In retrospect, I realized the situation was more complicated than that. Suzanne [dePasse] was running the Creative Division, which was the key to our company's success and survival, and whenever Ab disagreed with her and tried to override her decisions, she knew she could come directly to me."
Gordy sweetened Abner's dismissal by signing him to a three-year consulting deal. Still respected by performers and industry bigwigs, the former label president spent the better part of the next decade as manager for Motown icon Stevie Wonder. Long after Motown went dormant, Gordy rehired him as his Gordy Company executive assistant, and as the executive president of Jobette and Stone Diamond Music. Always mindful of the music's history, Abner also served as vice chairman of the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit.
Before Abner died in 1997, he spoke proudly and philosophically in the Record Row documentary about his contributions to the music industry: "A record is your footprint in time, it's your footprint in sand and these artists have left some magnificent ones. That's a piece of a guy or girl's life and that's their best effort, that's their best effort, and we were able to put it out there. Make it available to those who wanted itpread it out there, and that's a good feeling."
George, Nelson, The Death of Rhythm & Blues, Pantheon Books, 1988.
George, Nelson, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Gordy, Berry, Berry Gordy: To Be LovedThe Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, Time Warner, 1994.
Hildebrand, Lee, Stars of Soul and Rhythm & BluesTop Recording Artists and Showstopping Performers, from Memphis and Motown to Now, Billboard Books, 1994.
Pruter, Robert, editor, The Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings, Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
Smith, Suzanne E., Dancing in the StreetMotown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, Harvard University Press, 1999.
Talveski, Nick, Tombstone Blues: The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries, Omnibus Press, 1999.
Entertainment Weekly, January 23, 1998, p. 14.
Jet, January 26, 1998, p. 18.
Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1997, p. 6.
"The Chance Label," Red Saunders Research Foundation, http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/chance.html (January 21, 2003).
"Ewart Abner," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 21, 2003).
"Songs, Pictures, and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles Records on Vee-Jay," rarebeatles.com, http://www.rarebeatles.com/mainmenu.htm (February 13, 2003).
Vee-Jay Records, (January 21, 2003).
"The Vee-Jay Story," Both Sides Now Publications, (January 21, 2003).
Ewart Abner quotations drawn from the 1997 documentary Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues.
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