Historic Brunswick and Vee Jay building may house museum, working studio
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org May 19, 2011 6:12PM
The old Vee-Jay Records Building at 1449 s. Michigan ave. is for sale and there's going to be an effort to make it a historic landmark. Gene "Duke of Earl" Chandler (left) and record producer Willie Henderson were among those who toured the building Thursday, May 19, 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: August 28, 2011 12:22AM
The sound of history is precious.
That’s what alumni of the Brunswick and Vee Jay record labels said Thursday when they walked through the former Vee Jay/Brunswick offices and studio, 1449 S. Michigan Ave. The historic building is for sale. Gene “The Duke of Earl” Chandler — who recorded for Vee Jay and Brunswick, Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites and Brunswick producer-arranger Willie Henderson were among those who toured the property. They had not been in the building in more than 25 years.
Thompson walked into a dark northeast corner of second floor. The exposed brick space used to be the Brunswick studio. He began singing the Chi-Lites 1972 smash “Oh Girl.”
The room lit up.
Vee Jay Records began operations on this site in 1960.
The Beatles’ first American release was on Vee Jay. Their Vee Jay ’45 “Please Please Me/Ask Me Why” was released in February 1963 as the Beattles.
The Four Seasons hits “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” were with Vee Jay. The Staple Singers recorded their first gospel hit “Uncloudy Day” in 1962 with Vee Jay. The first album ever certified in a Gold jazz category was recorded at Vee Jay: “Exodus to Jazz” by Eddie Harris.
Vee Jay went bankrupt in 1966 and the building was sold to Brunswick Records, headed by Chicago producer Carl Davis. Brunswick recorded The Chi-Lites, Jackie Wilson, Tyrone Davis and the Young-Holt Trio. Brunswick left the building in 1976 for the North Side and the label went under in 1981.
The musician’s group wants to make the site a museum and working studio, similar to the Stax Museum in Memphis, Tenn.
The Carl Davis Music Foundation will attempt to buy the building. It is listed at $925,000. The group is working with Chicago attorney Linda Mensch to establish non-for-profit status. The foundation group was the first to see the building since the asking price was cut a month ago. Baum Realty’s Andrew Watson said the 8,074-square foot, two story building dates back to 1920. He estimated it would take about $100 a foot to restore. Watson said the current owner was “excited about the potential” of the foundation project.
The building is in the neighborhood of Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who not only supports the project but sees it as impetus for a new entertainment district.
“That is one of the few remaining record houses and the beginning of record and auto row,” said Fioretti, who has met with the foundation group. “A couple microbreweries and a couple of name rock ‘n’ roll bands are looking to buy buildings in the district. The bands would use them as studios and restaurants. We reinstituted the TIF there and are looking to build three hotels in that area. The Brunswick-Vee Jay building could be a destination area.”
“This is so important to Chicago,” Chandler said as he peered out a dusty front window near his former second-floor office. “So many great artists started here. Jerry Butler. John Lee Hooker. Jimmy Reed. Vee Jay was the first black record company to record good white artists.” Vee Jay was founded in 1953 in Gary by Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken, a married couple who used their first initials for the label’s name.
Vee Jay was the most successful black-owned record company before Motown.
Davis is ill in South Carolina with emphysema and could not attend the preview of the building that has been vacant since the early 1990s. His autobiography, The Man Behind the Music (The Legendary Carl Davis), (CarlDavisStory.com; $19.95) was also released Thursday. Davis was the first African-American A&R Director who launched his career by producing hits for the Columbia Records subsidiary Okeh Records. Davis produced Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” 1962 hit for Vee Jay. It was the label’s first million seller. Davis produced the 1967 Jackie Wilson smash “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” for Brunswick. “That building was magic,” Davis said from Somerville, S.C. “Everything we did there turned gold. Brunswick sold more records than Leonard Chess. It certainly should be remembered in some way.”
Mensch has been a Chicago entertainment lawyer since the mid-1970s. She said, “There’s a sense of love and honor among people in the Chicago music business. The problem is that most people who aren’t in the music business don’t have the awareness this is here. I was on the failed mission to bring the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame to Navy Pier before it became Navy Pier. We made our pitch, but Cleveland came in with such a great proposal we missed a chance. Now we still have a chance to do something on a smaller scale.”
Will a new mayoral administration make a difference?
“Rahm is a lover of the arts,” Mensch answered. “Any man who went to Sarah Lawrence [College] to dance must love music and must love rhythm.”
Tom Washington (whose first Brunswick arranging-producing gig resulted in the 1968 Tyrone Davis hit “Can I Change My Mind”) walked through the former main floor, which held master tapes. He smiled and said, “If you look over there and dig about six feet, you might see somebody.”
He might be right.
In his 1992 book Chicago Soul, music historian Robert Pruter wrote that “Brunswick had been the subject of a lot of nasty stories over the years, many of which related to presumed links with the mob.”
During Brunswick’s hey-day, Chess Records was still firing away down the street at 2120 S. Michigan.
“The Dells would be over at Chess,” Washington said. “We’d be here every day. It was like a regular job.” Henderson added, “We were rehearsing Betty Everett’s ‘You’re No Good’ for Vee Jay (the 1963 single that became a 1975 hit for Linda Ronstadt) and people from Chess came in on our rehearsal and said they wanted a band. They took our whole rhythm section. Me. Gerald Sims, Maurice White (who went on to form Earth, Wind & Fire). So we went over there and did ‘Rescue Me’ (that became a 1965 hit for Fontella Bass on Chess’ Checker label).
Henderson remembers producing Little Richard’s 1968 “Soul Train” on the site.
“We rehearsed here, we even went to rehearse in his hotel over on 11th Avenue and recorded at Universal,” Henderson said. Strings and horns were generally added at Universal on the near north side.
Henderson even recorded the Brunswick single “Break Your Back/Tom Jones (Push & Pull)” with comedian Soupy Sales. “They’d audition in the studio in the back,” Henderson said. “Bruce Swedien was our engineer.” Sweiden became a five-time Grammy winner who recorded, mixed and co-produced the Michael Jackson smash “Thriller.”
“So many artists came through here,” Henderson said standing with one foot in the past and another foot pointed toward the future.