The first successful African-American-owned record label, Vee-Jay, was formed in 1953, six years before Berry Gordy formed Motown. Its catalog eventually boasted a wider stylistic range than Chicago rival Chess Records, but initially concentrated on doo-wop and blues.
Shout! Factory’s four-disc, 86-track anthology is the first serious retrospective of this integral chapter in rock, pop, and R&B history.
Husband-and-wife label heads Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken borrowed $500 to record the Spaniels’ “Baby, It’s You,” which climbed to #10 on Billboard‘s R&B chart in 1953. (Incidentally, it should not be confused with the song of the same name by the Shirelles, which was featured on Introducing The Beatles, the Fab Four’s first American LP, released by Vee-Jay in July ’63.)
The label’s biggest blues star was Jimmy Reed, whose catchy, melodic tunes like “Big Boss Man,” “You Don’t Have To Go,” “Honest I Do,” and “Bright Lights, Big City” are included here. Most blues fans will already have these, but it’s interesting to hear them in the context of the label as a whole, alongside gospel by the Harmonizing Four, smooth ballads by Jerry Butler, jazz by saxophonist Eddie Harris, and eventually rock and roll hits by New Jersey’s Four Seasons (“Sherry”) and the British Invasion’s Honeycombs (“Have I The Right?”). Reed and partner Eddie Taylor’s two-guitar boogie, of course, remains the template for aspiring bluesers and rockers to this day. Taylor also recorded under his own name for the label, including essentials like “Bad Boy” and “Big Town Playboy.”
The fact that Vee-Jay landed the Beatles – or, more accurately, the Beatles landed in the label’s lap – is more fluke than vision. Still, when you listen to that first mop-top album, it’s inconceivable that label after label passed on it, and the fact of the matter is that Vee-Jay didn’t. While Shout! Factory was able to license some hits that are no longer controlled by Vee-Jay (which went under in ’66), not surprisingly it was not able to get any Beatles tracks from Capitol, who added Introducing to its catalog under the title The Early Beatles. Too bad; it would be cool to hear, say, “Love Me Do” alongside Gene Chandler’s “Duke Of Earl” and Aki Aleong & The Nobles’ “Body Surf.” (Yes, the label even dabbled in surf music!)
The blues wing of Vee-Jay, naturally, contains the biggest bang for your guitar buck, with Elmore James (“It Hurts Me Too”), J.B. Lenoir (“Oh, Baby”), Bobby Parker’s eerie “Blues Get Off My Shoulder, and Pee Wee Crayton’s T-Bone-styled licks on “The Telephone Is Ringing.”
Gospel groups like the Swan Silvertones (“Mary Don’t You Weep”) and the Staple Singers (“Uncloudy Day”) also featured guitar heavily – in the latter’s case, the pulsing vibrato of “Pops” Staples.
Vee-Jay platters found their way to England and had a major impact on the British Invasion and, in particular, the burgeoning blues revival there. Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” was the Yardbirds’ first single; the Animals covered John Lee Hooker’s “Boom, Boom”; the Pretty Things were just one of the bands who did Snooky Pryor’s “Judgment Day”; and Eric Clapton borrowed “Steppin’ Out” from pianist Memphis Slim’s instrumental, featuring Matt Murphy’s stinging guitar.
It’s great to see this unsung label finally get its boxed-set due.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct ’07 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.