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When I did the article, "The Rise and Fall of Ace Records: A Case Study in the Independent Record Business, " Business History Review 64 (Autumn 1990) 411-40, one source I used was the following interview with John Vincent Imbragulio on October 17, 1987. I had talked with Johnny many times but only taped once. The interview was done in the North Park Mall in Jackson, Mississippi, first in a Morrison's Cafeteria and then in a courtyard in the mall. Johnny and I ate lunch in the Morrison's Cafeteria. During lunch, I realized that we were never going to a quiet place to do the interview so I had better turn the tape recorder on. He agreed. The problem is that this meant a lot of background noise, making some of the words unintelligible. We eventually left the restaurant for a mall courtyard. Soon after we sat down, a fashion show began. I gave up, thinking that I would be able to finish the taped interview another day. It never happened. Instead, I used the tape as one source for my article and then put it aside. I had other things to do in my professional career. Johnny died in 2000. The taped interview, even with its problems, is a valuable historical document because it gives us insights into the mind of one of the early rock 'n roll entrepreneurs. Now that he has gone, it becomes more important.
To appreciate the interview fully, one has to understand that Johnny Vincent was rough around the edges, generous to a fault, unsophisticated, and, in his later years, living an unusual life. His speech was salty and, at times, ungrammatical. Each time I went to Jackson, Mississippi to talk with him I had to call various people. He did not live with his wife, but she had no hesitation in telling me where he was if I called her. Most of the time I would call Malaco Records and leave word that I was looking for him. He had helped Tommy Couch and Wolf Stephenson create Malaco so I guess they felt a special obligation to him. Someone at Malaco would call me or Johnny would. We met in a variety of places. I never understood why and was afraid to ask. After all, I was prying into his past life. He might clam up if I pried into his current one.
In the article, I provide details of his life and won't repeat all of that information here. His colorful life began on October 3, 1927 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and ended in the February 4, 2000 in Jackson, Mississippi. He got involved in the jukebox business when he left the merchant marine in 1945, at the end of World War II. A few years later, he became a salesman for Music Sales of New Orleans. He learned a lot about the music business and used that knowledge to run a record store he bought in Jackson, to which he had returned. He created his own record label, Champion, and had some modest success, enough to attract the attention of Art Rupe of Speciality Records, based in Los Angeles. In November, 1950, Rupe visited Johnny in Jackson.
For about ten years, he was a force in the music business, first as an Artist & Repertoire man for Speciality Records and then as the owner of Ace Records. His most famous work for Specialty Records was the Guitar Slim recording of "The Things I Used To Do." In the interview, he talks a little about that recording session. He recorded many other artists for Specialty, using Cosimo Matassa's studio in New Orleans. That studio was the locale for recording his many Billboard Top 100 and Rhythm & Blues hits. Joel Whitburn's Top 100, 1955-1982. (Menominee falls, WI, 1983 and Joel Whitburn's Bubbling Under the Top 100, 1959-81 (Menominee Falls, WI 1982) provide the following data on the pop hits and Joel Whitburn's Top Rhythm & Blues, 1949-1971, (Menominee Falls, WI, 1973) provides the data for the rhythm & Blues hits. Johnny Vincent was surprised when he saw these figures, for he thought there were a lot more hits. Perhaps there were, but not in the national markets that Billboard tracked.
|DATE CHARTED||ARTIST||SONG||HIGHEST RANK|
|8/12/57||Smith, Huey "Piano"||Rockin' Pneumonia & Boogie Woogie Flu||52|
|3/24/58||Smith, Huey "Piano"||Don't You Just Know It||9|
|4/14/58||Clanton, Jimmy||Just A Dream||4|
|10/20/58||Clanton, Jimmy||A Letter to An Angel||25|
|11/3/58||Clanton, Jimmy||A Part of Me||38|
|12/8/58||Smith, Huey "Piano"||Don't You Know Yockomo||56|
|2/9/59||Ford, Frankie||Sea Cruise||14|
|8/3/59||Clanton, Jimmy||My True Love||33|
|12/7/59||Clanton, Jimmy||Go, Jimmy, Go||5|
|1/18/60||Ford, Frankie||Time After Time||75|
|4/25/60||Clanton, Jimmy||Another Sleepless Night||22|
|5/23/60||Clanton, Ike||Down the Aisle||91|
|8/22/60||Clanton, Jimmy||Come Back||63|
|1/9/61||Clanton, Jimmy||What Am I Going To Do?||50|
|2/17/62||Smith, Huey "Piano"||Pop-Eye||51|
|8/18/62||Clanton, Jimmy||Venus in Blue Jeans||7|
|1/5/63||Clanton, Jimmy||Darkest Street in Town||77|
|12/31/60||Joe & Ann||Gee Baby||108|
|DATE CHARTED||ARTIST||SONG||HIGHEST RANK|
|7/6/57||Smith, Huey "Piano"||Rockin' Pneumonia & Boogie Woogie Flu||9|
|7/19/57||Clanton, Jimmy||Just A Dream||1|
|3/22/58||Smith, Huey "Piano"||Don't You Just Know It||4|
|11/11/58||Clanton, Jimmy||A Part of Me||28|
|4/12/59||Ford, Frankie||Sea Cruise||11|
|12/18/60||Joe & Ann||Gee Baby||14|
|1/17/60||Clanton, Jimmy||Go, Jimmy, Go||29|
The interview starts with Johnny's account of how Rupe approached him and then goes on to other subjects. He meandered. That was his style every time I talked to him. I have tried to preserve his conversational style.
JVI: He said could I have dinner with him.
"Well, I've gotta go home. My wife is probably cooking dinner for me and I'll probably have to go home."
[Rupe] "Will you come over and have dinner with us afterwards?"
JVI: "Well, I'll go home and then I'll meet ya'll. What time?"
That's when the Heidelberg was [unintelligible but he meant that it was an outstanding hotel].
[Rupe:]We're gonna check in at the Heidelberg, so why don't you have dinner with us about 8:00?
JVI: I said OK.
So, I went down and had dinner with them. And while we were talking, just like we doing now, you know, pitching and evidently the guy was throwing questions at me that he wanted me to answer and I didn't know that. You know. I told him "What do you think of the record business and what do you think of the kind of music that's coming on and what do you think of this and that?" And I was pitching, you know. Because I knew everything that a jukebox man wanted from country to rhythm and blues to low down blues and anything they wanted. I knew what they wanted. I knew what I could sell on and I said there is one phase of the business that nobody is even going into. Your majors is staying away from it, but I said, man, if you're going into blues you can't miss. Hell, I can't get enough blues on a Saturday. I'd buy five hundred of Big Boy Crudup and I wouldn't buy but say two hundred of everything else.
JVI: He said "I'll tell you; I like the way you talk. He said I'd like for my wife to meet you. How would you like to come to New Orleans on an all expenses paid this weekend? You and your wife. I'll pick up your whole tab. He said, all I want to do is just to see you."
So I shipped my wife on down there. So I got home that night and she said "Yeah, we'll go." So we went down there and checked in. And that weekend he said
[Rupe:] "What about I've got a session lined up at the studio. Why don't you come down and watch me? When he came down he put me and started telling me what's wrong."
He said [Rupe:] man I'm going to draw up book for you and let you look at it and see what you have. How would you like to come to work for me?
JVI: I said it depends.
[Rupe:] How much money do you want?
JVI: I didn't know what money was. He could have got me for a hundred dollars a month. Hell, I didn't know.
[Rupe:] "So I tell you what I'll do with you. I'll give you an unlimited expense account, which I wouldn't want you to abuse, and I'll pay you six hundred a month."
JVI: Man, when he said six hundred a month that sounded like a hundred and fifty thousand today.(1) This is in 1950, 49 or 50. I said, man, to myself "Can this be true?"
[Rupe:] said "I'll also buy you a new car. "
JVI: "I never seen [unintelligible] .I like to have went through the window, you know."
[Rupe:] I want you; I just wanted a man to be a representative with the distributors. I want you to represent us with a triple threat."
JVI: What do you mean by that?
[Rupe:] "I want you to be my producer, I want you to find out what sells in stores; I also want you to go and cut the records, and I want you to line up all the distributors."
JVI: "Boy, when he said that, I said that's just what I want."
That's when I got started. Buddy, from 7:00 in the morning to generally about 5:00 the next morning I'd be up working , every night.
DJM : You listened to records over and over?
JVI: Oh man, I studied records, listened to records. I put more time on records than you have put in school, and hours on books. Hell, I used to listen to one record for two days. Any time a record was hit I'd study it, what made it go, and take it out. I'd play it for people. I'd have record player in the back of the car. I'd go in and find out from the artist what made the record go, was it the beat, the voice, was it the song? What was it? Was it a funny solo, a melody? This is what I did. I studied it.
I tell you what he did. He was to pay me one cent on every record I produced. That money was so big that is why I got fired. He wouldn't gonna pay me that one cent. He owed me on "Things I Used to Do."[Recorded by Guitar Slim in 1954 and a blues classic] First royalty statement was about seven hundred thousand , that was seven thousand. I cut Sam Cook with the Soul Stirrers; I cut Wynonie Harris; I cut Johnny Lee Hooker; I cut Frankie Lee Sims and sold about one hundred and eighty thousand. I cut Mercy Baby. Oh man, I had me some royalties coming. He [Rupe:] said he's working for six hundred dollars; and hell, his royalties for the six months is probably gonna be fifteen to twenty thousand dollars and hell, I ain't paying him that. That's what he said. He wrote me a letter saying that my auditors and my accountants have just analyzed and said we have got to cut expenses. Our expenses more right now on the road [than] is more than all our employees in the office was. See? He was counting that one set of records. He knew by letting me go when the royalty time came up, he had ninety days after 6 months. He knew by letting me go that he didn't have to pay that. Cause it was all verbal. Hell, I wasn't gonna sue him.
He claimed the reason he didn't want to pay me was that the knowledge I got in the record business was learned from him. He said you've copied my stationery and about that time I liked his stationery. It was real sharp, yellow on black on white. I had mine black on yellow but I had that logo Ace on white. You copy. He said everything you do is the way that I want it. You cut records like I cut them. What the hell can I say? Look man is there any way you can take the brains out of my head and I don't want 'em if it's going to cost me this money. If I got to pay you for what I'm out there working night and day to learn. He never paid me a nickel. He never paid me my royalties.
DJM: Did he tell you by phone how to do "The Things I Used to Do?" Broven says that.(2)
JVI: He was going to fire my ass. He was going to fire my ass over that session. I went in the studio at 6 o'clock. I got Ray Charles out of jail about 4:30. I said Ray, let's go get something to eat and we're going into the studio. We got into Cosimo's about 6 o'clock. The next morning about 5 or 6 o'clock we wind the session up. I never will forget it as long as I live.
I had to drive back to Jackson, but I went to the hotel. I was staying at the New Orleans hotel. I went into the lobby and didn't go up to the room and I phoned him. I said "Rupe, I've finished.
He said, "You have?"
I said, "Yeah, I'm sending it out air mail; pick it up tomorrow and let me know what you think about it. I'm gonna stay in New Orleans and phone you tomorrow. I'm gonna put it on, make sure it's on the plane tonight. You pick it up and play it and I want you to tell me what you think of it. That's the first one I had ever done for him, you know, and I was really proud.
The next day was on Sunday and I phoned him. He was in his office. I said, "You go to your office and I'll phone you." He went to his office and, remember, [unintelligible] that's the worse I've ever been felt.. I'd been breaking my balls. I phoned and said "What do ya think?"
[Rupe] "Johnny, I love you more than I do my brother. You're the best thing that ever happened to me. He said, "I hate to tell you this." I said,"What's that? Tell it, tell it." He said, "That is a piece of shit. He said that's a piece of shit, but I'm gonna put it out for you just to help you. Just to show you that I really believe in you. Don't look for it to sell."
I said, "Put it out. You get that thing out to me and I guarantee you I'll start on the road and I won't come back until I know what it is."
In about a week and a half he sent me a test pressing . I left here on like a Monday morning. I went from here to Memphis . I was just pressing. I started getting people to play that record.
I got to Cleveland, Alan Freed. I went up there to Freed. He didn't play that kind of bluesey record. He kind of played the Roy Milton and that kind. I went in and give my old sad story on that session.
He said, "Yeah, What did he do?"
I said, "Man, he was [unintelligible]." We got [to be] buddies, buddies.
He says, "Johnny, I know it just means a lot to you." I said, "It sure does. Boy if you would play this one." He said, "Don't worry about it. We're gonna play it. We don't know what it's gonna sell but we're gonna play it."
Boy, like that sonofabitch [unintelligible]
He said, "Will you stay around here for about 4 days to see what .... "
He was like God. When he played a record, everybody in town listened. He put that record on that night. He'd start popping his hands. He'd sing with that record. Boy, the first night that damned board lit up. I saw it and I said, "Wow look at that!" He'd started playing it every night. We'd go out after he got off about 11:30 or 12:00. "Watch it, Johnny, I think you're going to have a big record."
We went down and saw the distributor. I think it was Len Smith. It was Art Freeman.
Art Freeman said, "You got a record called by, a record called "Guitar Slim? He said, "Man, these stores are calling it in like crazy. We need 5,000.
These were 45s. They didn't have LP's in those days.
"We need 5,000."
I said, "I'm gonna phone it in."
I phoned it in. I said, "Rupe, I want 5,000 of "Guitar Slim."
He said, "Johnny, I ain't near about going to send 5,000 records. I will send 2,000."
I said, "Rupe, they're getting orders for it.
He told me. He said, "No, he's just doing that to help you, Johnny. He'll send them records back to me if they don't sell."
I said, no, he won't either. He wants them."
He said, "I'm going to send him 2,000."
I said, "Ok, send him 2,000."
Before I left there that following, I stayed there about 3 days. Shit, he had done reordered 20,000. One Stop had come through for about 2,000 and jukebox operators were wanting it in Cleveland; everybody.
By the time I got back to Chicago, Al Benson was playing it. Al Benson and a guy called Sid McCoy had every station. We only had one Black station. In those days you didn't have Black stations. You only had one Black station in a town. Al Benson's playing it.
"You gotta hit, boy."
He was originally from Mississippi and Benson was the biggest thing in Chicago, black jockey. He'd tell you to go down and bust a window they'd bust a window.
He said "You're gonna have a big record, boy; black people love this record. This is a black people's record."
My distributor there was United One Stop, the Lehman Brothers. I went down and [Sammy?] said "you got a record by Guitar Slim?"
I said "Yeah"
They said needed fifteen thousand.
And I phoned that damned Rupe, man, and he said "Johnny, boy I don't know what you've done to these people but you're the greatest motivator I've ever seen."
I didn't do shit. [Rupe said] "This record is selling, boy. They called this an instant hit."
Man I've been to Detroit, with Ernie Boone, Ernie Gibb, popular in Detroit. They had about a hundred thousand the first lick. After then it was history.
DJM: What do you suppose it finally sold all told?
JVI: Oh, it probably sold two million records. Back in those days, the biggest blues that has ever been cut. Blues record.
DJM: Of all the stuff that you have cut which do you like better the blues stuff or the northern rhythm & blues?
JVI: Depends. I love it all.
Now I notice a lot of times and lay in bed and think about Alzheimer's disease. Maybe I'm losing it and getting old and forgetting words, and can't remember words when you're talking. Maybe I'm losing that feel. That's when I was laying there last night and I said to myself I want to cut new stuff, then I go to a movie and I can hear something. Last night I did research. I don't even stay with my wife. She stays in her own apartment and we [unintelligible] and I watch Night Tracks or maybe MTV and stuff like that. If I go to a movie and hear a sound track.
I noticed the other day I went to a movie and Tommy [Couch, co-owner of Malaco Records] when we were having lunch yesterday we went to a strip mall. I noticed that Stewart [Madison of Malaco Records] was [unintelligible]. I don't like to have dinner with Stewart. I like to have dinner with Tommie. Like today, he phoned and got pissed off with me. After he called me, I went to my old lady's house because her brothers and all were there. They wanted me to be with them, so Tommy had phoned Bobby and told Bobby to call me just as soon as I got here at the studio. Well I phoned him.
He said, "I want you to come around here and we're going to the ball game and then have lunch together.
Well, when I picked up I noticed Stewart picked it up.
He said,"Stewart wants to talk."
Yesterday when we were coming back from lunch, they were wanting to know why they hadn't had a hit. Malaco. Everything he cuts is just alike. He's cutting the same groove with the same idea on every record. You've got to change.
[To Mabry] I said "I'm gonna get some time to show you just how dumb I am. [I gave up ] About another 15 or 20 grand like a jackass. I didn't do it because they wouldn't give me two-hundred dollars up front. When the movie came out called "Big Easy," I had a soundtrack in that but I didn't get nothing for it. I thought it was just gonna be; they told me it was just gonna be a "B" rated movie. I said it's not gonna do anything. [Marshall] Sehorn(3) called me from New Orleans. He said just get a thousand and give me half of it. I said, "Well, if it's not gonna be anything I'll give you that."
So they put a record of mine in it. They phoned me and wanted to put in out on a soundtrack. I said, "Tell us who is putting it out." I wanted to put the soundtrack out. I knew the people didn't know what they were doing. I said, "I want to put it out." They said, "You ain't big enough." Island Records. I said, "Well how much money are you gonna advance?" He don't want to advance nothing. He just wants to pay straight royalty. He said, "They'll give you a nickel a record and they'll give you so much of video, and so much for ..." I said, "If they can't give me a thousand or fifteen hundred dollars in advance for the record, I don't want to do it. Instead of a nickel a record, I want seven cents because I have to give the artist half of it." OK. They must have phoned ten times.
Last week, about two weeks ago, I was out having dinner with Stewart and Tommy. Tommy was phoned me up, the other day. I have lunch with him everyday.
He said, "You know the hottest album out right now?"
I said, "What's that?"
He said, "The Big Easy Album."
Boy, when he told me that, I said, "Big Easy?" Shit! Well, I hadn't been to the movie but we had a little baby, our little niece with us. They used such foul words she didn't want to sit in it. She wanted to get up and get out. So hell, I didn't see the movie. I just got up and walked back out. She wanted to get out of the movie the kid wouldn't pick them words up. I didn't think it was gonna be that good anyway.
He said that's the hottest album the Big States(4) got. He's gone through thirty-five thousand. If I would have had my record I would have been getting a nickel plus I would have been getting the publishing. That's how dumb I was. So I said, "I'd better go back and see this movie. This movie must be doing something." I'm reading the USA. and I'm watching the top 10 movies. This movie is staying in the top three every week. Last week it was at 2. This was ahead of Fatal Attraction. I don't know whether you've seen it.
DJM: Yeh, I saw it.
JVI: It's a great damn movie, boy.
DJM: That was scary.
JVI: Scary, hell! I said, goddamn, if that movie is up there, I better go see this movie. Stewart said this boy Quaid must be another [unintelligible].
I said, "Let me go see. I didn't know he was a good actor."
So I went to see him. While I'm sitting in the movie, they come up with this cajun beat record. Man, it is tough. He's singing in cajun. I said, "I'm gonna get that soundtrack and write me a song off of that." So yesterday I told Tommy.
He said, "You know something? That's the damned new sound."
So now when I'm watching it; for months I've been catching Night Tracks and all these records with this reggae and boogalee sounding stuff like Steve Winwood and that sound that Paul Simon has on that damned "Graceland"-- that sounds [unintelligible]. Dr. John was doing the same old New Orleans Rock'n'Roll. I said, "He could do the same thing--putting it on the same beat on the piano. The way he plays the piano he could rock that stuff." Paul Simon he used a dialect out of South Africa on that damned, whatever that song was. I forgot the name of that song. It's a bitch of a beat. I said, "Look. What I'm gonna do is just get him and me get together for about a week and take him down, and write a song like Steve Winwood. Everytime I hear one of these sonofabitches, I write it down. I'm buying the records and just writing right off of it. I'm getting the idea of the beat from it. Follow me? I'm coming with some of that reggae. I'm coming with that Steve Winwood sound and putting a little cajun sound in there. I'm taking like the Thunderbirds and putting that beat in there. "Tough Enough." I'll come up with a good album.
DJM: Do they have one of your songs in "The Big Easy?"
DJM: Which one was it?
JVI: "Don't You Just Know it."
DJM: That's right. Yeah.
JVI: I gave it to them, man. Because that sonofabitch you know wasn't going [unintelligible]. That movie was at number two yesterday.
DJM: Obviously, the lesson to learn is that whenever someone is making a movie, charge them for it.
JVI: They were making another movie down there and they wanted me to give them one of [unintelligible]. A guy wanted to know if Johnny Vincent was still alive. He was going to do a book.. BBC. He was doing a biography of New Orleans. It was going to be about a 10, 12, 15 hour series for BBC. I was the only producer he was looking for. He was looking for artists like Ernie K. Doe, Fats Domino, but he knew Fats. He wanted to know. He said, "I also wanted to know this and I wanted to do a story on this guy. Is he still living? A girl from New Orleans, from the union, Allen Toussaint's daughter, she called me and said, "They are looking for you." She gave me the letter to write them. I didn't write them. I forgot to. This was several months ago. Two months ago.
DJM: The problem of not having a secretary to help you keep track of things.
JVI: Yeh, I'd come back and I'd forget it. That's why I told you I'm beginning to wonder what the hell is happening.
DJM: We all do that.
JVI: When you get old. Sometimes I've got the word right on the end of my tongue and I can't throw it out. I know what I'm wanting to say. It's in my mind and I just can't figure it out.
DJM: Everybody does that. Do you ever see Earl King(5) when you down there?
JVI: Oh, yeah. In fact I went looking for Earl King the other night. I blew about sixty dollars looking for him. He always goes to Tipitina's.(6) So I had these people with me, and I said, "Look." I thought it would probably be about three dollars to get in, you know. When we went, they wanted six dollars a piece. I was taking about eight people with me. So we go and have a beer. Just a beer cost me six dollars a piece for eight of them. The beer cost me 2 or 3 dollars a piece. I was really looking for Earl, because the man has a label out now called Black Top. He came up here a few weeks looking for him. I went out to lunch with him. A nice guy. You'd really enjoy meeting him.
DJM: I've read stuff like Broven's stuff and an interview that Earl did in Living Blues and he says things like he produced "Just A Dream" and ....
JVI: He didn't produce shit. He came up here and played on the thing. If he was all that damn big of a producer, he's come out with stuff he's never made a damn record of his. Like I told a guy down there, "If it weren't for Johnny Vincent, you'd still be washing damn dishes." He's a good writer. I won't take that away from him, but producing wise, they don't know shit from Shinola.
DJM: I guess over the years he has learned to play the guitar better.
JVI: He hasn't learned to play it no better.
DJM: Is he the one that used to go on the road for Guitar Slim? Because Guitar Slim didn't like to travel.
JVI: They all didn't like to travel.
DJM: Huey didn't like to travel either.
JVI: No, hell no. Booker(7) went out for Huey. They don't mean nothing. When Earl writes stuff like that, there's something about it that they're writing. Right now I owe him some money.
I told this boy Almost Slim, tell Earl that I got him a little check, you know?. From a movie that one of his songs was in. But they don't know. If he knew, he would have never let that song go out like it was, "Lonely, Lonely Nights."(8) He played such bad notes in the guitar solo; he was falling flat and everything else. So I don't understand. Plus, he was also singing flat and that was one of my first sessions. I cut that before I cut Guitar Slim.
DJM: Is that the one that they cut out in Los Angeles with Guitar Watson?
JVI: Yeah. It beat my brains out. Earl's always thought I should have sold a million of them. I bet I must have give him 50 grand. The record didn't sell but 50,000. It was always "I never got my royalties." What record did he ever have to sell anything? He never had a record to sell over 5000. That wouldn't even pay for the sessions at three cents a record.
DJM: Were any people, like the guy that wrote the interview in Living Blues and, I think ,Broven and one of those other guys, they played Earl King up.
JVI: Pay him off?
DJM: Play him up.
JVI: Because the artists tells them that.
DJM: He's one of the few who left around.
JVI: All artists will do that. You want me to tell you something? Earl's got twenty lawsuits out there. Here's a guy who was just as religious [unintelligible]. They're going to sue you. Every artist thinks their record sells a million. Earl used to think that "Lonely, Lonely Nights" sold 5 million records. We didn't sell but 60,000. At three cents a record it wouldn't have been but $1800. What the hell did I have to beat him out of? I bought him a damn down payment on a damn car. I bought him his whole damn wardrobe. Every week we sent him a check for three and four hundred dollars. What the hell did we have to beat him for? He owed the company plus the sessions probably cost, back in those days, cost a thousand or $1200.
DJM: In those files you loaned me...
JVI: And they were supposed to pay for the sessions. How the hell can they say that?
DJM: There were some telegrams in there, money orders you sent out.
JVI: Every day, every week. Hell, on Huey? He couldn't go to a damned engagement unless we sent him four or five hundred dollars. This is what they don't tell. We bought him a brand new station wagon. We had him in Atlanta. From Atlanta he was supposed to go from Atlanta to Tampa, Florida. He was going to Tampa Florida and he turns over. You know what he does with the car? Now the station wagon ...
DJM: Walks off; right?
JVI: That's right. He walks off and sells the station wagon to the guy. It was his. We couldn't take it away from him. The first week. He sells it to the guy for seven hundred dollars. We done give him the car, paid, and the title. His car. I phoned him and said, "Huey, what did you do with the car?" He said, "I give [unintelligible] it wasn't no good. It was completely demolished." I said, "Young man I don't care what it was. You didn't have no right to sell that sonofabitch for $700 and I paid $2800 or $3000 for it. First week. See if that guy will sell you that car. I'll send you the money." I sent the man the money and got the car back. Because I got the car back he feels like he paid me the whole three grand. He said, "You got the car back." I said, "Hell, I got the car back because you sold it to the guy; I bought it from the guy." I bought him fifteen cars. I bought him a house. I gave $7000 down payment on it. I kept it up. I kept it up every month. I told Bobby, "Send him the money for the thing. Plus we were sending him money to eat on, sleep on and everything else. He goes with Imperial and Imperial says we'll advance you some money if you'll come with us under contract. He's under contract to me.
DJM: That's why he has that suit.
JVI: Did you ever see that?
DJM: I've seen your deposition and his deposition.
JVI: Nah, I can tell about that sometime about all that. But, anyway, I've gotta get those papers. I must have bought him twenty cars. I bought him a house. I paid it up. If he leaves me to go with Imperial, there is no need for me to pay the notes. If he's with Imperial Records, let Imperial Records pay them. Barbara quit sending him money to pay the note. He ain't talked to me; won't talk to me. I said quit paying the notes. You know he had the house after I quit paying the payments? 90 days. He lost the house. I had about $12,000. He said that didn't come from his royalties. I wouldn't take that out of his royalties. I said, "Huey, what's it's supposed to come out of?" He said, "That was for me working for you." Tommy Couch. They don't do like us. Tommy Couch, he makes them pay for the studio; he makes them pay for the engineers; he makes them pay for himself; he makes you pay for the covers and the jackets on the album.
DJM: Isn't that standard procedure?
JVI: Yeah. The rest of the companies do, too. Victor and all of them. I never did that. Do you know Jimmy Clanton sent auditors in here one time?
They said, "We noticed that you've overpaid him on about 30,000 albums and you've overpaid on a quarter of a million records. Evidently you must be doing something else."
I used to go to Barbara and say, "Barbara, how many albums have we sold?" She said "We haven't sold but 8,000." I said, man, if Jimmy finds out that we aren't selling his album, he's going to move on. Victor was trying to get him; MGM was trying to get him; Mercury was trying to get him. They were offering him big guarantees and all this money and all I said, "We're going to lose the artist if we show we can't sell his albums and only can sell his singles. Give him 25,000 albums."
She said, "As if he sold them?"
I said, "Yeah, as if he sold 'em."
When his auditors come in and caught all of that and saw that we had overpaid him, they said, "How did you do it?"
I said, "I'll tell you how I did it."
He said, "Well as long as overpay him we don't care."
Then the sonofabitch signed a contract with us when I merged with Vee-Jay.(9) I gave him a $10,000 advance, about 75 acres of land, like I told Cosimo last week, down in Baton Rouge, probably worth 5 million dollars today. Right there when you're going into Baton Rouge on the Airline. I give him a $10,000 advance to sign another contract, but I merged with Vee-Jay. Well he comes out with a monster.
DJM: "Venus in Blue Jeans"
JVI: "Venus in Blue Jeans." Right. They ought to pay me for that commission. The first royalty statement I got was $300,000. So I send him a statement that he was to get ten cents a record.
DJM: Three hundred thousand.
JVI: It was just selling. Three hundred thousand records. I make a photostatic payment and I show him that I am paying him over $30,000. Sales of 300,000. The damned sucker leaves me and goes with Mercury. When he does that, I said, "Well, let's don't send him any more money. Whatever he owes the company now for sessions. We never charged him for a session. We're going to go back and make him pay for what the contract stipulates. You're going to pay for the sessions; you're going to pay for everything that is stipulated in that contract. If you're going to jump up and leave us when we have four and a half years on the contract; well ,we're going to charge you for your sessions. I never charged them. You know why? Because we were making so much money I considered these guys my partners. I didn't consider them artists. I considered Huey and these guys my partners. That's why I sent them money. They said spending money like that was like working for you. Unbelievable!
DJM: You would do it differently now wouldn't you?
JVI: I'd do it like Malaco. Like if an artist goes out there, like Johnny Taylor needs $5,000, I'd say, "I'm sorry you'd better go to the bank. We don't loan you money." He said, "I want to borrow on my royalty." "I can't do it, Johnny." I can't do that. If an artist got money coming... Now Rupe, Rupe's dishonest. He's a thief. What he does is see when you're hungry, he'd say ok "You own "Slippin and Sliding", you own "Jenny", you own this song and that song. I tell you what I'll do. You want fifteen thousand dollars. I'll give you fifteen if you sell me the writer's royalty on those five songs. And that's what Little Richard did; he didn't get no money. When he sued about a year ago, he lost that lawsuit. He sold his songs.
DJM: I guess my view is that most of these people were adults. Of legal age
JVI: When they need money they'll take anything you give them.
DJM: If you're an adult and you sign a contract you need to know what the hell you are doing.
JVI: If you ever look on Rupe's records.. I'll tell you something. There was an artist in Dallas called Guitar Slim, not Guitar Slim but Frankie Lee Sims. Sims, he would sell eighty or a hundred thousand records, but he always needed money. So he had phoned Rupe. Rupe wasn't paying him but about half a cent a record; he wouldn't never get no money that way. Which was nothing. Him and Sam Phillips wouldn't pay royalties. They always said you can't make money paying royalties to the artist. Sims would always need money; three or four or five hundred dollars. He wrote about five songs. He had one song selling called "What will Lucy Mae do?" [actually, "Lucy Mae Blues"] Hit about 70,000. So I phoned Slim in Dallas.
DJM: Not Slim but Sims
JVI: I phoned Sims in Dallas. I said, "Frankie I'm coming in there. Why don't you meet me and I'll take you out to dinner and buy suit of clothes." By then, I began to save my money. I'll buy you supper. I felt sorry for him.
He said, "Mr. Rupe gave me some money."
I said, "What did he give it to you for?"
He said "he bought my songs. I didn't own them anyway."
He bought all the songs he ever wrote. Every time you'd need the money, he would buy the song. Instead of calling himself Art Rupe or Arthur Goldberg, which was his real name. He called himself W-e-b-u-y-e-m. Who is that? What does that spell? W-E-B-U-Y-E-M. Nobody's ever never caught it. William Everett Buyem. We buy them is what it stands for. He's probably got 500 songs with that name on 'em.
They've got to say something, you know? They've got to say something. Like I tole ya. Earl and all of them. Earl, he'd still be washing dishes. He put an album out on this guy's label I just told you about. It sold 15,000. I guarantee you if it comes home, I guarantee it's going to sell 34,000.
DJM: Have you ever had any dealings with Frankie Ford?
JVI: I just ...
DJM: He still performs, doesn't he?
JVI: Yes. About two weeks ago, three weeks ago. I've been studying this country network. I watched a show called "You Can Be a Star." I'm watching the show and Frankie is one of the judges. Last week when I went to New Orleans, I phoned his manager. I said, tell Frankie that if he's interested, I can't guarantee him right now because my next artist that I'm gonna produce is probably Dr. John. I'd rather go with Dr. John than anybody." Then I said, "Tell him that I would like to maybe do another session on him." He said, "Yeah, let us know." That's basically it, you know. I think, I don't really believe, if I really want to get an artist, I believe that I can go back to him and get any artist that I had.
DJM: Huey is a Jehovah's Witness now, right?
JVI: Yeah, but I wouldn't get him away from that. If I got him away from it,. If I got him away from that. If I got him away from that, because Huey's mixed up mentally. If I did something like Huey you can make it by doing this or doing that, I wouldn't do it.
There are a lot of people in here. [Says let's go outside and mildly argues over the check. We go out into the Mall]
DJM: What I was asking about was the problem of collecting from distributors. That's a problem all record companies have.
JVI: Big problem. Big problem. They don't want to pay unless they sell them, which is only logical. Follow? Why you gonna take 2,000 records and don't sell them and then you're stuck with 'em. unless You [...] the label for six or seven months, on a little chicken shit label. Of course, if you got merchandise moving they will keep em a while. Still, it gotta be your product. If you ever pull your labels you gotta take all those records back anyway. So, there's no use in even worrying about collection. Collections is a problem that every manufacturer faces today. That's why all these guys like Columbia, Atlantic, and Warner Brothers have their own super distributors. You don't have no more independent distributors. You ain't go that many more independent distributors. In New Orleans there used to be five or six distributors. Now I don't know.
DJM: Isn't that the problem with Vee-Jay? The distributors quit collecting ...
JVI: No, Vee Jay was ...
DJM: Badly managed, right?
JVI: ...badly managed and the guy that ran the company was Abner [Ewart, Jr.] . He spent money coming out his butt. If he went somewhere. He was a black boy and a good boy. He thought that if you didn't spend money, you didn't make money. So any time you went to a convention, Vee Jay was the big spender. He gave big parties, had plenty of women; I'm just telling you about the things [that went on.]
[DJM: I know].
JVI: Everybody would just charge stuff to him, distributors and all and they just threw away money like it was water. They had people on the payroll who were out of control, you know, out of sight. Really what happened to Vee-Jay was, they were always undercapital[ized]. Vivian Carter and James Bracken owned it. Vivian Carter and James who were man and wife. They would let Abner run it. Abner ran it and he ran it good. He was a good developer and a good record man, but he loved to spend money; he loved to ball; and he loved to blow your money. He'd pay jockeys. He knew how to. If it was $50,000 in the bank, by Monday morning Abner would spend it.
What had happened is that we had been to a convention and he had just consummated a deal with Ace. He had just consummated a deal with the Four Seasons, with that Bob Crewe with the "Big Girls Don't Cry." He had just consummated a deal with EMI who had the Beatles. And he had that money. Things looked good for him. He had wrote up a lot of business at the convention. He was going back to Chicago.
Instead of going back to Chicago, I heard he went to back to Las Vegas and he dropped about three or four hundred thousand. He loved to gamble. He went back and he dropped three or four hundred thousand dollars cash money. Well, hell, he didn't have the cash. You follow? So the gamblers looked for him. That's what I always heard.
I know right after that; it wasn't five months, four or five months later before Vee-Jay went into bankruptcy. Maybe a year later or something. They booted Abner out and got Jay Lasker who is the president now of Motown. Jay Lasker took it over and then Randy Wood came in there for a short while, not the white Randy Wood, but the black Randy Wood who died. He was a good cat too. Abner took over Motown maybe ten years ago and lasted about a month or two because, like I said, he was a hell of promoter; he knew how to get things but we he wasn't a good administrator.
DJM: But how did they hurt you though?
JVI: Well, here's how they did me. They signed a contract with me in '62, '62 or '64.
DJM: '62 was when "Venus in Blue Jeans" came out.
JVI: '62. It was that deal that I told you that he went from that convention. They never paid no money. They were to pay me $15,000 a month. They never paid the $15,000. They didn't have it. They said take back all the records from your distributors. Well, you've got distributors. We want ACE to be with our distributors. In return let us know how much dollars and cents wise it is and we will allot you that money over a twelve-month period; if you take back $400,000 dollars, show us what you did over a twelve months and we'll divide it in, give you credit of maybe $25,000 a month. So that's what I did, but they never lived up to the agreement. They never paid it out. So, in turn, I had no money to operate. I had gone out there and gotten my distributors to send back the records. They got mad at me. They said, "Hell, Johnny's going out of business. He's going with Vee-Jay. He's changing distributors. We went out there and built him into a big man. We're not going to pay him now. The money that I had on the books that they sent back $10,000 for records back and owe me twenty. Piss on him. We're going to charge him the other ten for what we've done for him over the years, promoting his label. They said he was broke as hell anyway when he started. That's basically what happened.
DJM: Somewhere I read that Ruffino, Corona, and Cosimo were partners in Ace?
DJM: I think that it was Broven that said something like that.
JVI: Joe Ruffino, Joe Corona, and me went into the distribution business.
DJM: OK. Record Sales.
JVI: Record Sales. I owned 70 percent, Joe Corona 10% and Joe Ruffino 20%. I made Joe Ruffino the manager. Joe Corrona was supposed to be the salesman. It was so much shortage in the company that I had to demote Joe Ruffino. I said Joe, someone has to be responsible for the merchandise. We were like 25,000 records short the first six months of operation. I said, "Somebody's got to be responsible so I can pinpoint them. I can't keep buying records. I can't keep sending Ace Records in there and never getting a dime out of 'em. Every time we go to check up on inventory, we are 15,000 records short. We're this short. At that time I know what was happening to the records. [unintelligible]
But Joe Ruffino and them never had anything to do with ACE . Then I went to relieve Joe altogether from record sales Joe Corona was going to take the responsibility. He knew what was happening too. He said I won't be responsible as long as Joe Ruffino is there. I said, "Joe, why don't you start the label and I'll back you. I'll give you merchandise to put out. If you haven't got the money to cut the sessions, I'll pay for the sessions." So that's where Mercy Baby came; that's where Frankie Lee Sims came; that's where Edgar Blanshard came and a lot of those artists. I would pay for the sessions and then in turn a lot of times he wouldn't have good distribution so he said you can have it that way. That's basically how we got associated. As far as Cosimo, he's never been connected with any of it. The only thing Cosimos did ...When I was starting in the record business, I went in and cut these sessions in the studio and I said , "What do I owe you?" He said, "Whatever you want to give me is alright with me, Johnny. I want you to make it." I could never remember that. I cut for Eddie Bo, I cut for Albert Collins, and [Cosimo said} When you get money, you pay me."
JVI: So I remembered that. When I got it swanging pretty good I walk in and I said, "Cosimo, I'm going to make you some money." He said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I hear now you're trying to be a manager. I hear you got youan artist. Who is he?" He said, "Jimmy Clanton." I said, I tell you what you do. "Tell him to come in here Sunday. We're going to cut him. He was going to LSU, I think. Tell him to come in here Sunday. We're going to cut him. Play some of the songs you have." He played the songs. I picked up the songs and I said, "We're going to do these. Call the sessions. I will be in Sunday." I left there the following week with that tape and went to Dick Clark and got Dick to give me an allotment and he was going to play it. The rest is history. I made Cosimo a lot of money. I paid Cosimo a couple of hundred thousand dollars just in, one cent, paying one cent a record, not counting giving him what Clanton was getting. So, that was the split.
DJM: Did you? Did Ace have to. This is an awkward question. I read the payola testimony. There was something on there about ACE.
JVI: Did you read the one that was in Washington?
JVI: The one when they were trying Dick Clark?
DJM: He was one of the ones...
JVI: Where did you read that?
DJM: We had it on microfilm, microfiche
JVI: The whole case?
DJM: It was not a trial. It was a Congressional hearing.
JVI: In Washington
DJM: ... like sixteen-hundred pages of it.
JVI: Well, I would like to see it, because I was in that.(10)
DJM: I can tell you when ...
JVI: Dick Clark was [...] and they had found a check. The Internal Revenue was investigating me. They had found a check with Dick's name on it. If I'm not mistaken his name was R. W. Clark. I had sent the check in for "Don't You Just Know It", one of the records that I thought I was giving to him as publisher. That's why I said it might not even have been him. They erased the R. W. out, which you can still see, and they put whoever it was. Anyway, the Internal Revenue found that out and got in touch with Washington. [Senator] Owens and [Senator] McCullum and all the guys that had that hearing; they phoned me up and said they wanted me to come up and testify against Dick Clark. I said, no, I can't do that. They said yeah you are going to do it. I said, no, I can't do that. I said the Internal Revenue is in here right now and they are investigating us. They said we don't give a shit about the Internal Revenue or nobody else. Monday morning we want you to be on the plane headed to Washington D. C. where Senator McClain will pick you up. They sent a plane out to the airport at that time at Thompson Air Base. I got on a plane out there for Washington, D.C. They sent a plane down there to pick me up and brought me to Washington and met me at the plane and took me to dinner.
They said now here is what we want you to do. We want to stick this guy. They wanted to stick the guy. I said you can't stick that guy. You might stick some other guy but that is one straight guy. That is one straight guy. That guy and I. I said that guy now he has got bums around him that ain't straight but as far as Dick Clark, Dick Clark is straight. You ain't got to worry about him. I said he may have guys around him phoning you and asking you for these songs but they are asking for them for themselves. They're trying to get some of the meat off the bones themselves.
That's the way it was. I got up and testified. They got pissed off. Dick was sitting out there. I remember like he and his wife were sitting down. He came up to the podium. I said it's nothing I could get by. Shit, I didn't want to be here, man. I'm scared as hell up here. They had John Bell Williams. They had eight or nine Congressmen up there. That's the way it was. I'd like to see that. When I do the movie, I'd like to put that in the movie.
DJM: The stuff I find is a House hearing. .That guy from Arkansas, Harris.
JVI: Harris? Oren Harris?
DJM: The stuff that I saw I never saw any stuff by either--all kinds of people testifying.
JVI: I sat up there with them. Elevated chairs. I looked down on them. I thought I was a wheel, man. But I wouldn't testify. I testified behind doors. I told them; in fact, I am the one who got his ass off the hook. When Owens [Oren] and John Bell and all of them came out; we had lunch together and all; I said look, ya'll got the wrong guy. That's the only guy that's decent out there. That sonofabitch does everything in the world for poor people and the kids love him. How do you think a record gets so high? He can tell the kids to buy a record and they'll go buy it.
DJM: Which is what they objected to.
JVI: They were trying to make it appear that it was payola. I said that kid; he's legit. Let me tell you something. He works for ABC. ABC threatened me and said if I didn't sell my damned record to them, they were gonna cover it and guarantee it wouldn't be played on ABC network, which was Dick Clark's network, WFIL. They said we're gonna cover your ass and you ain't gonna get no play anyway. That's why I signed that publishing over. That one song which has cost me half a million dollars. Because I said, well, shit, I've got to stay on the good side with them because they own the network. They said we own the network and we're going to make Dick Clark play our version. When I told Dick, Dick said go tell them to go fuck themselves. I wouldn't play their record. I don't give a fuck if they covered it with Elvis Presley . They covered me and Dick Clark used to get on the Fiestas and some more people. They were going to cover with Lloyd Price.. Dick said don't buy the other version. This is the version, the ACE version. This is where it's breaking, right here, here, here. That's the story.
DJM: So you testified behind closed doors?
DJM: So what I have is the public testimony.
JVI: I wanted that to be in that movie. That movie is going to be so glamorous to see guys like. I told you about Freed a while ago. I stayed at his house. He wanted me to go to his ball in Akron, Ohio. He wanted to show me how big he was. He was wanting a distributing company. He wanted me to show him how to get into it. I said I'd teach you; don't worry about it. That's when he opened up the distributing company and named it after his kid, Lance, who is the president of [Irvine] Urban Publishing Company something A&M Publishing Company. A big guy today. We opened up Lance Distributing Company and old Art Sheridan who owned Chance went to Cleveland with me and Chicago. Freed had been married to his second wife. His first wife lived down there in [unintelligible]. I think in Florida. She married him down there. Freed married Jackie. She had a daughter called Toni. Old Freed, not Freed, but ole Sheridan was wanting to make her in every way possible. That night we went to Akron. Freed was; we were all in Freed's car. [unintelligible] . Jackie said "you going to stay over the weekend?" I said yeah. But I said Art Sheridan wants to go, too. Man, I can go with him. We will go the ball game. You and Freed are going tomorrow. Alan's going tomorrow. We went to the Brown's game and the Bears. It was cold as a sonofabitch. I didn't have a coat on. Ole Freed gave me a topcoat. And I stayed to watch it. But I was living out in Shaker Heights where they lived. I stayed out there a week. Freed had that label called Chance. But I put it into distributing . I told Luke, Luke, you can't pick a better distributor, Luke. Freed wanted to get into something for his brother. His brother was I think ... He was going to set up a distributing company in Cleveland; we called it Lance. I got him the label and all.
DJM: Was it fairly common, obviously people did take payola.
JVI: Oh, yea. Shit! Like I said, there's a few good guys and a lot of bad guys. There is going to be a lot of good guys and a lot of bad guys. Sure we had payola. Hell, I could name; we had rows of them. Dick Clark wasn't one of them.. Freed was. Freed wouldn't take but he could give all day long. Shit, man, just to pay for one of his nights out on the town is going to cost you $2000. He goes into a joint; he drinks all night. He sets everybody up. The damn tab is going to be four or five hundred dollars. Hell, back in those days four or five hundred dollars looked like a ten thousand dollar bill!
DJM: Oh yeah. Sure.
JVI: That sonofabitch. I used to sit there and say, oh man, I bet I get fired. I couldn't turn the expenses in. Shit, when I'd go to Cleveland, I'd save my money. I couldn't afford to turn in to the company. He'd fire me. Because Rupe didn't want you to go out at night. He wanted you to have lunch with him but he didn't want you to have dinner with him.
DJM: How'd you handle foreign distribution?
JVI: That's was a weak thing back in those days. I didn't associate myself with ever trying to be a label big in the foreign countries. So, we [hooked up] with a company. Later on in the years a company come out and they were going to set up the world on a certain standard. Back in the old days, in Europe you couldn't get established because one or two labels had all the record companies--which is basically like that today. In England there was a company setting up called Top Rank which was going to be run by J. Arthur Rank and he was coming to the States to set up a record company. What he said was I'm going to organize the world on the Top Rank. All of them were going to be under Top Rank, which makes motion pictures. You see that guy swinging that hammer? That's Rank International. He said we're going to develop into record companies like MGM. All the motion picture companies wanted record companies--MGM, UA, Twentieth Century, [Coldpick] , all of them had record companies. Warner Brothers. Columbia. All of them had..Well, anyway... Top Rank was going to do that so they said we'll get all the American labels that's big. We'll get all the big companies in Europe. We'll get all the big companies in France; we'll get all the big companies Australia, Japan and we'll have a worldwide conference. That's when we begin to get interested. They called me up and said we'll give you a $25,000 a year guarantee. I said, well shit, man, I'm going to get interested in Europe then... A $25,000 guarantee. Me, Abner, and all of us went over there. Hell, I didn't worry about that. I said, well maybe hell, I ... They had all these people from Japan, England, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, they had the whole world. They had about two or three or four hundred of us. I said ,shit, I'd better get into this. This could be a big market. They said every American is going to have a twenty minute speech to make. We said when we get up there we want to show them why ACE is going to be the following sounds of the world. That's what we did. I got a thing from J. Arthur Rank as a Sir Knight. You don't get that all that easy. For him to come to that ball that night, you had to go down to the middle of the thing and bow down to him. You wear a tux and you bow down. Well, he had heard about that speech that I'd made. He sent me a special letter. I wish I had saved that letter. He said that was the best speech he had ever heard in his life. I was telling about the beats our kids would eventually pick up on and I would play them. I said this is the way they will learn to dance. As far as beating, you're fixing to see how the kids, I start popping the hands, shaking like they do today. Letters. I got one from Japan, got one from Australia. These guys wrote me after that. In fact Abner got up and said I'll never go behind Johnny Vincent again. They gave us a twenty minute talk on each country. I can remember that like it was yesterday. J. Arthur Rank wrote me a letter and said that was the greatest thing...
DJM: Whatever happened to Top Rank and that deal?
JVI: I don't know. We should get their masters. They have that Jack Scott stuff. They have a lot of big stuff. I'd like to get...It's a lot of little labels that I don't know , that I'd have to look into.
DJM: Did they ever sell your stuff in England?
JVI: Oh yeah. They sold a lot. Never did have a ...In fact, we have some big stuff in England. I signed the publishing over, but we only get $25,000 a year. I found out later on that some of them artists over ?seas_. Those artists never sold over here. None of ours ever sold...Most of all, we did have artists hit but they didn't buy any of our black artists. They would buy white artists. They would buy Fabian, Avalon, Sands. They'd buy some of that. They didn't buy stuff on Motown. They didn't buy nothing on Vee-Jay. They didn't buy none of those.
DJM: Did you own "Chinese Bandits?" I saw something in the files about "Chinese Bandits."
JVI: That was on a label that when Joe left me, me and Joe formed a label called Spinnet; wasn't it? . Chinese Bandits was one that we produced. I brought it out. That was Mac Rebennack and Frankie Ford. I got that on an album now. They've got it in New Orleans. Back in those days Chinese Bandits was LSU football. That's back when they beat Ole Miss.
DJM: Somebody wrote you a letter about it. It may have been Hazel; I'm not sure.
JVI: It might have been.
DJM: Someone wanted something to do with that and Vinnie told her to get in contact with you.
JVI: Nah. That was Joe's wife. He had divorced her and Joe died. She told her kid whatever Johnny says do, do, just go ahead and do it. You don't have to worry about whatever he says, he'll do it. See, when Joe had his heart attack, he was still married and he couldn't work. He had a bad heart attack. Monstrous. I paid him for about a year. I sent his two hundred a dollars a week to his house. He saved about twenty thousand dollars. That's why she never forgot that. So she said whatever he says ... I wrote him and told him I don't want no royalties. If it's any royalties, give it to her and him.
DJM: Let me ask you about the song "Roberta" and the two different versions of it.
JVI: One of them was the "Loberta" done by Huey and "Roberta" was done by Frankie Ford. And Loberta was done by Huey. Loberta is what Huey called it and Roberta was what Frankie called it.
DJM: Obviously you pressed Roberta because you could sell it.
JVI: Roberta was an easier way to say it and Loberta was kind of [black sounding] and we were trying to git the white crowd.
DJM: There was something else I was going to ask you. We've been through why Jimmy left. Why did Frankie Ford leave ACE?
JVI: Frankie Ford ... Me and Joe had a dispute. We got to the point after Joe came back from his heart attack. He would stay on the golf course night and day. I would phone there. He would never be there. When I'd get him, he would say .... They were stealing me blind. I went down there one time and caught a guy with about six thousand albums in his house. I went back down there maybe a month later and found a guy with about 400 albums in the back of his car. It was just a joke. I said Joe, you've got to start watching the clients better. They are stealing us blind, man. We are about two hundred and something thousand dollars short. I sent my auditors down there to take inventory. I had C.P.A. firm. He said, man, if Johnny don't get rid of that damn distributing company, it's going to bust him. He's throwing money in that son of a bitch., which I was. They said we need twenty five thousand for Record Sales and we need forty. I said take it out of ACE. ACE has money coming in advance? [unintelligible]. It was drained out. You can't just keep giving thirty thousand. Every we pull a label , it'd take 30,000, so I took it from Ace. So, I said Joe you've got to start watching. You've got everything in the world for you to make big damned decision coming [unintelligible] if you don't watch it. You're on the golf course or you're telling me you're out promoting at night which I don't believe. You're out having a good time. You're out looking for them broads. I said it ain't gonna work. So I had to let Joe go. Joe got mad. I was only giving Joe one cent a record. He said, well, I'll take Frankie with me too. I said take him wherever you want.
DJM: Did you close the distributorship?
JVI: Yeah, eventually. I closed it when I got a hold of Jimmy Sacket. The guy I hired, a guy called Lloyd Linley, I caught him stealing about sixty thousand dollars worth of records. He moved back to Memphis on me. I went in and he opened four record shops. I went up there and said, shit, Lloyd, these are my records. He said nah. I said hell there's my damn writing up there on some of them. You could tell.When we'd run specials. I had three record shops here and a lot of times I would go up there and my mother-in-law would run one of them and I had somebody else running. I'd say "Hazel, tell your mother I'll be up there to work tonight and show her how to do them. I'd go up there and put "Special" on them. I would erase $3.98 and put a $1.98 because I wanted them to do good. I would go up there for three or four hours at night helping. I said, hell, that's my name. That's my writing up there. He eventually said yes I did. He said you can put me in jail but give me a chance. I got five kids, Johnny. He said, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll make an inventory of what I've got of yours and show you what it is and pay you over a period of two years. I said good. I'd give him a break. I didn't want to put his ass in jail. As it wound up, he made one payment and that's all I ever saw.
DJM: Yeah. Let me ask you a question. How many records would you have to sell, say, in '58, '59 to be in the Top 100?We know that it is easier to identify a million hits.
JVI: They become more labels than artists. An artist like Frankie Ford and Jimmy Clinton could come out with a record and we'd hit the top 100 probably within three or four weeks after it was out because we would ship out 60,000. We'd hit the charts and they would always give us a pick. We'd send it and they'd give us a pick. So you are looking at 60 or 70 thousand that fast. Two hundred thousand records would put you in the top 50. Easy. Then from there on it depends on who you knew. We knew the people. We knew the guys that picked 'em and put 'em on the charts, and we knew the guys that owned the magazines. We knew George Allen that owned Cash Box. We knew Jerry [Ship?] Shepherd and all the guys at Billboard.
DJM: Is Angle your office manager?
JVI: No, Angle was our promotion officer. I would come in and I'd tell John [unintelligible] we were coming out with four records and he'd write up .... He'd say Jimmy Clanton's next record is going to be a great dance song. Dick Clark's already playing it. Alan Freed says it's a monster. He'd be the help man.
DJM: I was wondering how you promote records.
JVI: We knew when we had a label. We was "automatical." I got so strong with distributors that I could do anything with them. What we'd do then. We knew the jockeys that could break the records. We go in and say look, man, play these records. We wouldn't demand them but they liked us so well that we get them to play it. They would say Johnny I'm going to give you some good play. Don't worry about it. We'd try to break them in New Orleans. Black records would try to break at WLAC in Nashville. We used guys like New York Freed. We knew Scott King. We knew Jack Lacey. We knew these guys. I'd fly in and have dinner with them. If they needed something, I'd give it to them. Whatever they needed. If they needed for a record hop an artist to fly in, I'd fly up that night to see em. Jimmy Clanton could be in New York. I would fly him up. I'd say I'll pay your way up and give you five hundred or two hundred dollars. It wouldn't be against his royalty. It would be on me. This is what I'd do. If they couldn't stand on their own, I wouldn't bail them out every time they got grounded, ya know? I'd make every artist stand on their own. We'd advance big money or guarantees and all. We wouldn't sell shit and then I'd come up and give another $5000. I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't do it no more. Plus the fact I wouldn't have as much trust as I did on people. I trusted everybody. It didn't make a shit. If a guy wanted to take me for $20,000, he could take that that in thirty days or ninety days. I was that stupid. I wasn't that stupid. I just believed that everybody should have a break in life. I knew a lot of times what it was gonna be. Like this Lloyd Linville, he was working with UA. They let him go. I felt sorry for him. He had worked us in New Orleans and I gave him a job doing promotion. I knew he lived in Memphis. I said don't worry. I'll keep you eating with your kids and all. Then I hired him to run that and he said I'll never steal from you. He was a bigger thief than all of them. He wanted to set up a record company. He wanted to borrow my... I had a Steinway piano that would be worth 15 grand today. I loaned it to him and lost it. I thought about it night before last. I seen a guy play somewhere on a piano that said Steinway and had one that made it look sick.. Twelve foot. Beautiful piano. I bought it in Memphis. I gave I think about six or seven thousand for it then. It was second hand.
DJM: Why did you incorporate?
JVI: We incorporated because we were desolate. Things that got us in trouble. We had so much money coming in. I said, well shit, I'm going to go to the pen. I was sitting there with six or seven hundred dollars in the bank. I'd have money hid all over the building and checks, I wouldn't cash them. I had never made a hundred dollars a week in my life and all of a sudden I've got a hundred thousand dollars and the mailman coming with a hundred thousand dollars worth of checks. Where in the hell am I going to put that? I ain't never made over $250 a month in my life. They're going think that I've been making this money all of my life. They're going to put me in the pen. I got scared. I said shit, let me incorporate so I incorporated. That's when I hired a C.P.A. firm full time, not no damn few hours. I hired John Morgan. These are the guys that took me. They made yo yo's out of me. They said man you can't keep all that money. You got to diversify. They made me buy property that wasn't worth a shit. I bought that building downtown. That belonged to Millsaps and they never made money the whole time they had it. I bought it. I gave them $200,000 for it cash down plus the rest of the money. They said you have to get rid of that cash money in the bank. I had 60, 70 or 80 thousand in the bank. And I didn't owe a soul, but those royalties. So this is why I incorporated. Then I began to have so many companies. I opened up Vin. I opened up Hazel. I opened all these publishing companies and all. I started setting up corporations. Record Sales Incorporated, United One Stops. I started almost 14 different conglomerates. Vincent, Inc. I set up a record chain, of record shops. I just got so many things. That's when the Internal Revenue come and said they were all married to one another. Hell, this guy needs to be put in the pen, you know. It's all the same cash register. Which it wasn't. We had to prove all this. That's why we went to prove that we had to have different corporations for producing records and distributing. Distributing records was an entirely different business from ACE records. We set up an ACE Record Sales. We had a lot of companies that could have been marriage. We had reasons for all of them.
DJM: What does Ace record sell?
JVI: On a yearly basis?
JVI: In 1950 [Fifties?], I think our was about two and a half million, which was a hell of a lot. The whole record business wasn't but 180 million. All the record companies. All of 'em. I think that in 1950 [Fifties?], I think the record business was about 180 million dollar business. Now today it's about a 10 billion dollar business.
DJM: Vin is a union company. Ace is not.
JVI: I emphasize that because there is a lawsuit pending on that right now on that "La Bamba." Back in those days a union got one set of records. We didn't know that when we started. It was a nonunion company, so we couldn't get Ace in the union. So we set up Vin to sign the artist so we could get him. If an artist wasn't under union contract, they weren't legally an artist. That's how I lost Huey. He said hell he wasn't under contract to Ace. He could go to Imperial. Imperial was a union company. We had Vin. That's when I jumped on a plane and went up there. We were supposed to pay him like one cent a record on every record. I brought him a check for twelve thousand dollars, twelve thousand and something dollars, because I was supposed to pay him one cent record. I said, shit, Earl, we have to pay him. I lost Joe Tex like that. I sent Joe's contracts. They didn't honor Joe's contracts. By that time Lew Chudd got a hold to him and said, not Lew Chudd but Leonard Chess got a hold of him and said, look man, Johnny's contract ain't no good. Come with me. I am in the union. So he got him in that way.
DJM: So one of the reasons you had Vin was to have a union company.
JVI: Right. Then I said "well shit, we might as well let that be the producing company and we'd lease it from them." For the lawsuit.
The interview ended without any resolution. He had to go somewhere and it was clear that I had learned all possible for that session. I saw Johnny at least one more time and sent him a copy of the article. My scholarship took a different turn, so I never went back to music history.
I liked him and was very sad when I learned of his death.
1. The median income for white workers in 1950 was $248.50 a month.
2. John Broven, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans (Gretna, LA, 1983), pp. 50-53.
3. Marshall Sehorn was probably the greatest New Orleans record producer.
4. Record distributors
5. A recording star for Ace Records.
6. A famous night club or bar in New Orleans.
7. Eddie Booker.
8. Lots of writers make note of Earl King's recording of "Lonely, Lonely Nights" and assert that it was a big hit. Joel Whitburn's listing of both rhythm and blues and pop songs shows that they are mistaken.
9. Independents such as Ace prospered and survived because they had developed a market in which the majors had little interest, but, once the majors recognized how lucrative that market could be and moved into it, the independents began to go under or sell off their assets. The majors had the financial resources to buy artists and catalogs from independents or lease songs from them. Moreover, they also had extensive distribution systems. Aladdin folded in the late 1950s. Specialty had effectively quit releasing new records by 1960 and Rupe first began leasing his masters and then sold his catalog. Sam Phillips of Sun and Phillips, switched his attention to the newly-founded Holiday Inn motel chain after his major artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash either switched labels or temporarily retired from recording. Atlantic, perhaps the strongest of the independents, survived until 1976, when it was purchased by Warner Brothers.
In 1962, Vincent tied the fortunes of Ace to Vee-Jay Records. Founded in 1953 in Chicago, Vee-Jay appeared to be a very strong company. It had consistently had hits by black artists such as Jerry Butler, and, by 1962, was also having hits with the Four Seasons, a white group. Vee-Jay's black owners wanted to expand into the white market, and believed that an alliance with a white company would help. Ace, headed by the white Johnny Vincent, had successfully sold records by the white teen idols, Frankie Ford and Jimmy Clanton. Clanton had just had a major hit. The first Ace record to be released after the Ace-Vee-Jay arrangement would be "Venus in Blue Jeans," also a major hit. Under the arrangement, all of Ace's sales, promotion, and distribution would be done by Vee-Jay, thus relieving Vincent of the most troublesome aspect of the record business and giving him more time to develop new artists and to produce. So, Ace pulled its records from its network of distributors, most of whom owed Ace money, and placed them with Vee-Jay distributors. [Broven, 131-132; Vincent to DJM]
Vincent believes that allying Ace with Vee-Jay Records of Chicago in 1962 brought the demise of Ace, for it cost him one million dollars in one year. Vee-Jay was being badly mismanaged and would go bankrupt in 1966. Its successes with the Four Seasons and, in late 1963 and early 1964, with the Beatles (it was the first company to release a Beatles record in the United States) demonstrated that it was undercapitalized. It did not have the funds with which to press records fast enough, the achilles heel of the independent record company. Vincent asserts that "Venus in Blue Jeans" sold one and one-half million copies but Vee-Jay denied that it was that successful and paid full royalties to Ace. Vee-Jay never paid Ace for switching distributors, and the old Ace distributors, believing that Ace was going out of business, also refused to pay Ace. Lacking money, Vincent could not operate. Effectively, Ace was dead. The Vee-Jay bankruptcy in 1966 ended all hope of recouping an appreciable amount of money from Vee-Jay.
10. I never could find evidence that he participated. If his testimony were secret, which I think it was, it was not available. I have no doubt that Johnny Vincent testified to a house of Congress.
There are several Web sites that speak to who Johnny Vincent was.
This piece, written much later in Vincent's career, helps give flavor to the man. See Larry Benicewicz, Remembering Johnny Vincent (1925-2000).
Frankie Ford, The New Orleans Dynamo Home Web Page.
Jeff Hannusch, Obituary of Bobby Marchan, lead singer of Huey "Piano" Smith & The Clowns.