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by Jason Gubbels

June 30, 2014

Label Spotlight: Vee-Jay Records

by Jason Gubbels  |  June 30, 2014

Before there was Motown, there was Vee-Jay. An independent R&B label based in the Midwest that was created and owned by African American entrepreneurs -- sure sounds like the Berry Gordy story, doesn't it? But Chicago-based Vee-Jay opened for business in 1953, six long years before Motown appeared in Detroit, and its influence continued to impact the music business long after the label itself folded in the mid-'60s due to a crushing accumulation of debt and distribution problems.

Although rightfully associated with Chicago, Vee-Jay actually first saw light in nearby Gary, Ind., the brainchild of Vivian Carter ("Vee") and James Bracken ("Jay"), two record store owners who hoped to scrape together some cash to record The Spaniels, a local R&B vocal group they both liked. Vivian and James were excellent talent spotters: Although just out of high school, The Spaniels hit No. 10 on the Billboard R&B chart with debut single "Baby It's You." And shortly thereafter, Vee-Jay scooped up an even bigger unknown artist when affable bluesman Jimmy Reed turned to the label after being denied by blues powerhouse Chess. Reed would become one of the most successful blues artists for Vee-Jay or any other label, crashing the Top 20 over a dozen times throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s (and influencing the emerging wave of British blues/rock bands to an enormous degree; The Rolling Stones featured two Reed covers on their 1964 debut alone).

In addition to blues and R&B, Vee-Jay championed doo-wop, girl groups, gospel acts and jazz artists. Jerry Butler and the Impressions helped lay down some of the first soul recordings for the label, while Gene Chandler racked up one of the very last national doo-wop hits in 1962 with "Duke of Earl." And although Vee-Jay had long been identified primarily with black performers, the label also found some of its greatest success with two white acts: New Jersey's Italian American vocal act The Four Seasons (who first appeared in late 1961 with "Sherry") and a new quartet of British youngsters called The Beatles that Capitol had earlier passed over.

The Beatles didn't stay with Vee-Jay for long, as it quickly became apparent the label didn't have the distribution or record-pressing abilities to keep up with the band's exploding demand. Soon, Vivian and James were drowning in debt, royalty disputes and cash flow disaster. They would file for bankruptcy in 1966. But Vee-Jay's run remains a glorious one. You'll find plenty of the label's big hits inside our Vee-Jay Spotlight ("Sherry" and "Duke of Earl"), but we've also uncovered some lesser-known gems, like the inscrutable doo-wop silliness of "Shombalor" by Sherrif & The Ravels and the scorching gospel of Marion Williams' "Surely God Is Able" -- plus blues, R&B, rock and jazz, all from the little Chicago label that could.

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