50 Years Ago: The Beatles’ Forgotten, Semi-Illegal First Album Hits U.S. Stores
Of all the confusion that surrounded the Beatles’ early U.S. releases, perhaps nothing compares with the story of their first album, ‘Introducing … the Beatles.’ It was released by Vee-Jay Records on Jan. 10, 1964, 10 days before Capitol issued ‘Meet the Beatles!’
The story of how and why this happened began about a year earlier. When the group’s second single, ‘Please Please Me’, was released in the U.K., EMI, the parent company of its label Parlophone, offered the song to Capitol, its U.S. label. But Capitol turned it down. Another EMI property called Transglobal was brought in to find an American home. So the record was picked up by Vee-Jay, a Chicago R&B label that had hits with Betty Everett, the Impressions, Jerry Reed and the Staple Singers. The company released the song on Feb. 7, 1963.
While it didn’t become a national hit, ‘Please Please Me’ performed respectably in a few major markets, and plans were made to release the Beatles’ debut album in the U.S., albeit with a modification. At the time, albums in the U.S. didn’t usually have more than 12 songs, two fewer than ‘Please Please Me.’ So the title track was removed along with the single’s B-side, ‘Ask Me Why,’ and the album was renamed ‘Introducing … the Beatles.’
Vee-Jay intended to have the record in stores by the end of July, but a major financial crisis at the label, which saw the resignation of its president, postponed the release date. Citing nonpayment of royalties from the single, Transglobal voided its contract with Vee-Jay.
By late fall, word about the group started to spread nationwide, and Capitol agreed to release the band’s new single, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ As it climbed the charts, Vee-Jay, which still had the earlier masters and most of the artwork ready to go, decided to put out the album, beating Capitol to the punch and figuring that the much-needed cash was worth any legal troubles.
But the label quickly discovered a different legal issue. A week after the record’s release, Vee-Jay was slapped with a restraining order by Beechwood Music, which owned the rights to ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘P.S. I Love You.’ So the label replaced the two songs with the pair they initially removed, and reissued the LP in early February. It rose to No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200, where it was kept from the top spot by Capitol’s ‘Meet the Beatles!’
Then came the matter of the Transglobal issue. Over the next two months, Vee-Jay and Capitol fought in the courts, with Vee-Jay releasing a new version of ‘Introducing … the Beatles’ every time one of Capitol’s injunctions was lifted. In April, an agreement was reached whereby Vee-Jay had six months to market the songs it controlled, and then Capitol would own them. By the time the changeover took place in October, 1.3 million copies of ‘Introducing … the Beatles’ had been sold. Possibly because of all the myriad versions, the album has long been a target for counterfeiters looking to prey on unsuspecting consumers.