Record executive Ewart Abner has the distinction of having been president of two pioneering, highly successful black-owned record labels, Vee-Jay Records and Motown Records. He was a key player in the careers of Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, the Four Seasons, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Eddie Kendricks, and the Beatles. Born Ewart Abner Jr. on May 11, 1923, in Chicago, IL, Abner attended Washington, D.C.,'s Howard University and Chicago's DePaul University earning an accounting degree in 1949. Initially hired by businessman Art Sheridan to be his accountant for his record pressing plant and distributorship, Abner eventually took over the day-to-day operation of Sheridan's pressing plant. In 1950, Abner assisted Sheridan with his label, Chance Records, which was an early recording home for the Flamingos, the Moonglows, and several R&B, jazz, doo wop, pop, gospel, and blues artists. In 1954, Chance folded, and the following year, Abner moved over to another Chicago label, Vee-Jay Records. He was hired as the label's general manager by owners Jimmy and Vivian Bracken ('Vee' for Vivian, 'Jay' for Jimmy). Abner was appointed president of Vee-Jay in 1961. The label had built up an impressive sales record with hits by the Spaniels and Jimmy Reed. Abner wanted to expand upon that with his "full line" label concept, stretching the label's sales base beyond doo wop, blues, gospel, and jazz to the emerging and more lucrative R&B, rock & roll, and pop music markets. Under his leadership, Vee-Jay became a major-selling independent label with hits by Jerry Butler ("He Will Break Your Heart," "Find Another Girl"), Dee Clark ("Raindrops"), Gene Chandler (the gold single "Duke of Earl"), Betty Everett ("The Shoop Shoop Song [It's in His Kiss]"), and the Four Seasons (the two gold singles "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry"); they also put out the first U.S. releases by the Beatles ("Please Please Me," "From Me to You," "Twist and Shout," "Taste of Honey," "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"). In tribute to the super-shrewd executive whom they'd hired, the Brackens started the Abner label. Released on the imprint were albums by Dee Clark and Jerry Butler. Abner shares songwriting credit on the El Dorados' "At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)," which went to number one R&B in fall 1955. In 1963, after a business disagreement, Abner was fired by Vee-Jay. He then formed Constellation Records, scoring hits with Gene Chandler ("Just Be True," "God Bless Our Love" b/w "London Town").
A couple of years later, Abner reunited with the Brackens in an effort to save the now foundering Vee-Jay. But the label succumbed to bankruptcy in 1966, the same year his Constellation label folded. In 1967, Motown president Berry Gordy brought Abner to the firm to direct the label's artist management division. In 1973, Gordy resigned as president of Motown Records to become chairman of the board of Motown Industries, his newly created record/movie/TV and publishing division (the movies Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross, Bingo Long..., the 1971-1973 ABC Saturday morning cartoon based on the Jackson 5). After a six-year stint as a Motown vice president, Abner became the label's president. Motown had five number one pop singles the year Abner joined: Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," Eddie Kendricks' "Keep on Truckin' (Part 1)," Diana Ross' "Touch Me in the Morning," and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."
An active proponent of civil rights and minority education, Abner co-founded the Black Museum Association, serving as executive vice president in 1978. Abner appeared in the PBS special Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues. Produced in association with WTTW-TV Chicago, the hour-long documentary that aired in 1997 celebrated Chicago's famed Record Row, the conglomeration of record labels, record stores, and distributors that lined South Michigan avenue during the '50s and '60s. At the time of his death, Abner was executive assistant to Berry Gordy for the Gordy Company in Los Angeles, executive president of Jobete Music Co., Inc. and Stone Diamond Music Corp., and vice chairman of the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit. Ewart Abner died on December 27, 1997, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.