Berry Gordy formed Tamla, soon to be Motown, in 1959. Stax was born under the Satellite moniker in ‘57. Before either of those juggernauts, Vee-Jay came to life in Gary, Indiana. Founded way back in 1953, by the soon-to-be-husband-and-wife team of Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken, Vee-Jay was practically present at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. By 1964, despite their long history in genres like R&B and blues, they were at the forefront of the British Invasion. If Vee-Jay was remembered only for Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”, the Four Seasons’ “Sherry”, the Spaniels’ “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite”, and its brief connection to the Beatles, the label would at least be a very interesting footnote in music history.
But Vee-Jay was always more ambitious than that. Thanks to golden-eared people like A&R man Calvin Carter, Vee-Jay went where the listening was good. The label’s stable included rock and doo-wop legends, but also made a mark in soul, jazz, blues, and gospel. Jimmy Reed emerged from the stockyards to find a highly influential home on Vee-Jay. The Staple Singers got their start there before moving on to their legendary years at Stax. John Lee Hooker was so raw when he arrived at Vee-Jay that no one could play along with his odd timing—so they got a drum sound by having Hooker stomp on a piece of plywood while he played. Despite Vee-Jay eventually forming its own house band, there was never a “Vee-Jay” sound like there was a “Stax Sound” or a “Motown Sound”, but in those booming years, practically everything that came out was fresh and new. It’s a testament to the label’s vision and taste that so much of its catalog still sounds that way.
It became the United States’ most successful black-owned label, and 1964 saw Vee-Jay sell 2.6 million Beatles singles in one month. Improbably, Vee-Jay went out of business two years later. In its thirteen years in business, though, Vee-Jay made invaluable contributions to music history, and definitely seems to linger in some people’s memories as a classic case of “oh, but what could have been.”
Looming large in Vee-Jay’s story is the label’s second signing, Jimmy Reed, who went on to become the best-selling blues artist of the ‘50s and ‘60s. So it’s only appropriate that Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection, a four-CD, 86-track box set spanning the label’s existence, starts with Reed’s “High and Lonesome” (and revisits him throughout the set for a total of seven songs). The Brackens discovered Jimmy Reed while they were checking out another artist. Life around Reed was apparently never boring. According to interviews with Calvin Carter, they would have a policeman arrest Reed on the night before a session so that he would have time to sober up. On all of Reed’s sessions, his wife would sit beside him and whisper upcoming lyrics for him to sing. Live, he reportedly got drunk during shows via a hidden tube running up through his harmonica rack. Despite his fondness for the bottle, though, Reed’s country blues spawned a number of standards, including “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby”, “Big Boss Man”, “Bright Lights, Big City”, and “You Don’t Have to Go”.
Vee-Jay didn’t get all of the great blues artists, of course. There was the small matter of Chess and its formidable roster of artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and just about anyone else you can name. But Vee-Jay managed to work with the likes of Pee Wee Crayton, Elmore James, J.B. Lenoir, and others.
Doo-wop played just as big a part in Vee-Jay’s early years. Their first single, “Baby, It’s You”, by the Spaniels (who would go on to record the doo-wop classic “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite”) reached #10 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Not bad for a label’s debut single, especially one that was financed by a $500 pawn shop loan. By the late ‘50s, Vee-Jay’s records were so prevalent on the radio that they found it necessary to form subsidiary labels like Falcon, Abner, and Tollie, so that they could get even more airplay from DJs who might be tired of the Vee-Jay name. As the label moved into the ‘60s, it was an easy transition into soul and gospel, with acts like the Swan Silvertones, the Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Betty Everett, the Five Royales, and the Pips with Gladys Knight. The label’s success continued with numerous hits, including Eddie Harris’ Exodus to Jazz album hitting #2 on the LP charts, “Duke of Earl” becoming Vee-Jay’s first million seller, as well as the Four Seasons and the Beatles starting their respective rises to chart dominance.
Vee-Jay’s 1962 signing of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons would mark the beginning of Vee-Jay’s most successful period to date. The Four Seasons would go down in history with hits like “Sherry”, “Walk Like a Man”, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, but it was the Beatles who really lit up the cash registers. Vee-Jay bought the rights to distribute the Beatles in America after Capitol passed on the group—in fact, the Beatles were thrown in almost as an afterthought on a deal Vee-Jay was making for an artist named Frank Ifield. Capitol would eventually claim that Vee-Jay had relinquished the rights to the Beatles when they released Ifield. Suffice to say that neither party wanted to relinquish such a hot property, and the legal wranglings, complete with dark-of-the-night album pressings by Vee-Jay in the small gaps between Capitol injunctions, deserve their own book.
This period would also spell the end of Vee-Jay’s dominance. The legal battles with Capitol were joined by royalty disputes with the Four Seasons, management shakeups, artists leaving for other labels, artists like Johnny Rivers and Billy Joe Royal getting wind of Vee-Jay’s troubles and refusing to sign, and more than sixty other assorted legal actions. In 1966, they closed their doors for good.
That’s the high-level overview behind Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection, which launches an upcoming reissue campaign of compilations and original albums from Vee-Jay’s vast catalog (here’s hoping they reach into the label’s considerable stores of unreleased material). To say it’s an education—not only into the label’s history, but also into the growth of American popular music—is an understatement, as the roughly-chronological set reveals how the label played a part in the development of multiple genres. It’s especially interesting to hear the smooth sounds of doo-wop glide into equally smooth R&B and southern soul.
It’s also nice to go back to the breeding grounds of many songs, to hear them in their original incarnations. The set contains numerous songs that have been covered repeatedly, or which are widely known by later versions: Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby”, Crayton’s “The Telephone is Ringing”, Hooker’s “Boom Boom”, Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love”, Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good”, and more. Due to the label’s long history—Vee-Jay released over 1,000 singles—The Definitive Collection barely scratches the surface of the label’s history. The set pretty much hits all the high points, though, with Shout! Factory even going so far as to license several songs that no longer belong to Vee-Jay. The Beatles are noticeably absent, but with the bad blood that existed between Vee-Jay and Capitol, that’s not surprising.
Included in the set’s booklet is a brief historical essay by Gerald Early, and track-by-track notes. The track notes, complete with songwriter credits, chart positions, and recording dates, would please most fans on that basis alone. But the real value lies in the commentary that accompanies each song. There’s an unexpected wealth of information to be found there. That’s only fitting for a collection as diverse and strong as this one.