Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Black Rock & Roll

Vee-Jay had it all: blues, R&B, gospel -- plus the Beatles

***1/2

VEE-JAY: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
Shout! Factory

Before Motown, Chicago-based Vee-Jay was the biggest black-owned label of the rock & roll era, with a run of R&B -- and then pop -- hits stretching from Jimmy Reed's "High and Lonesome" in 1953 to the Dells' "Stay in My Corner" in 1965 -- and also included the Four Seasons' 1962 "Sherry" and, thanks to Capitol Records' initial stupidity, six of the first eleven Beatles songs to go Top Forty. But the label failed to survive these unlikely successes -- by 1964 or so, it was said to be involved in sixty-four separate legal actions.

Vee-Jay had no house style -- just A&R man Calvin Carter, who favored the rougher strains of blues and gospel but appreciated every R&B and gospel style, and promo man Ewart Abner, who could schmooze anybody about anything and ended up president of Motown. Reed was Vee-Jay's most prolific artist. Label-hopping blues primitivist John Lee Hooker had his biggest singles with Vee-Jay, and apostle of soul cool Jerry Butler his first. Carter also brought the world the supernal doo-wop of Pookie Hudson's Spaniels (sadly underrepresented here), and the durable post-doo-wop of Marvin Junior's Dells. But all these artists are more efficiently accessed on their own collections. What's striking on this four-CD set are the one-shots: young Gladys Knight, the aging "5" Royales, cult heroes Rosco Gordon and Pee Wee Crayton outdoing themselves, hot songwriter Hoyt Axton's hokum blues and future exec Donnie Elbert's falsetto workout. Like most boxes, this one needs its familiar hits and is too long on high-generic collector's items. But when the worst of eighty-six tracks is a lounge-jazz "Exodus" -- a lot of people were clearly doing something right.

Rolling Stone, Sept. 20, 2007