Various Artists

Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection

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Vee-Jay Records was the most successful black-owned independent record label in the pre-Motown era (Berry Gordy actually used Vee-Jay as a template in many ways when he set up Motown), placing records in the charts in an amazing diversity of styles, from blues and urban R&B to doo wop, straight pop, jazz, and gospel. Formed in Gary, IN, in 1953 (the label moved its base to Chicago soon after) by the husband-and-wife team of Vivian Carter and James Bracken (the company name was an extension of the pair's first initials), and blessed with the assistance of Vivian's brother, Calvin Carter, a gifted and visionary A&R man, Vee-Jay had an aggressive recording, licensing, and marketing approach that saw them selling records to black and white audiences alike, and it worked so well that the label frequently had difficulty meeting the demands of its distributors, which meant that Vee-Jay was often facing cash-flow problems. Still, when the label finally closed its doors in 1966, it had outlasted most of the other black-owned record companies of the era, a list that included Exclusive, Excelsior, Duke-Peacock, and JVB. This four-disc, 85-track box set chronologically reveals the Vee-Jay story, and it is an astounding mix of genres and styles. One of the label's first big finds was the laconic blues songwriter Jimmy Reed, and several of his biggest hits are here, including "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby" from 1955, "Baby What You Want Me to Do" from 1959, "Big Boss Man" from 1960, and "Bright Lights, Big City" from 1961. Also here are tracks by the Staple Singers ("Uncloudy Day" from 1956 and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" from 1960), Gene Chandler (the timeless "Duke of Earl" from 1961), John Lee Hooker ("Boom Boom," also from 1961), the Four Seasons ("Sherry" from 1962), and the Honeycombs' "Have I the Right," which was recorded and produced by the eccentric Joe Meek in his home studio in 1964. There's even an early cut from a young Billy Preston, the hard charging instrumental "Billy's Bag" from 1964. What isn't here, unfortunately, no doubt due to licensing restrictions, are the two Beatles singles, "Please, Please Me" and "From Me to You," that Vee-Jay released in 1963, thus introducing Beatlemania to the U.S. at a time when even Capitol Records, EMI's American arm and thus first in line for the Beatles, failed to recognize the group's potential. Vee-Jay took risks and chances with its catalog, and that fearlessness in the face of the music marketplace kept the company constantly overextended financially and contributed mightily to the label's eventual demise, but the music that resulted was wonderfully diverse and vital, a central part of the sound of pop music in the 1950s and early '60s. After all, this is a label that gave the world (at least the U.S. part of it) both Jimmy Reed and the Beatles (not to mention the immortal "Duke of Earl"), and paved the way for Motown Records. That's not a bad legacy. Not bad at all. And it's only the tip of the iceberg.

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