Motown is the black-owned Great Lakes R&B label synonymous with the '60s but before their reign was Chicago's Vee-Jay Records, ruling the charts for nearly a decade prior to the rise of the Detroit imprint. The tale of Vee-Jay has been told before in a variety of compilations, but Charly's 2014 box set Chicago Hit Factory: The Vee-Jay Story 1953-1966 is easily the most comprehensive chronicle, lasting ten discs and encompassing all of the chapters in the label's wild history. This includes singles Vee-Jay licensed from a variety of different sources, including blues sides by Elmore James on Fury and, notably, the first Beatles singles to be released in America, "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You." Charly takes advantage of the shifting licensing rules of the new millennium to include both of these singles along with the Four Seasons hits that often haven't shown up on other Vee-Jay anthologies but, really, that's just the tip of the iceberg on this exhaustive set. Every sound and style the label issued is here, divided into three discs of big hits and then a disc apiece for doo wop, blues, R&B, soul, regional hits, gospel, and jazz. Sequencing the ten discs like this helps put Vee-Jay's diversity into perspective as well as emphasizing who their true hitmakers were: the laconic bluesman Jimmy Reed, the ebullient Dee Clark, the smooth assured Jerry Butler, genial Gene Chandler, and exuberant Betty Everett. All have almost all of their hits featured and there is plenty of room for doo wop groups like the Spaniels and the Dells, lots of space for soul and John Lee Hooker, and other music that sold better on LP than 45. Charly's presentation perhaps leaves a little to be desired -- these masters maybe could sound better and the whole package feels as if it was constructed on a budget -- but there is a wealth of important music that is tremendously compelling and entertaining in this box. That it's available at a good price is just a nice bonus -- it'd be worthwhile at twice the retail.
Chicago Hit Factory: The Vee-Jay Story 1958-1966 Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine