Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection [Shout! Factory, 2007]
Before Motown, Chicago-based Vee-Jay was the biggest black-owned label of the rock and 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, four of the first nine Beatles' songs to go top 40. 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 its 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 doowop of Pookie Hudson's Spaniels and the durable post-doowop 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 is the one-shots: young Gladys Knight and aging "5" Royales, cult heroes Rosco Gordon and Pee Wee Crayton outdoing themselves, hot songwriter Hoyt Axton's hokum blues and future record exec Donnie Elbert's falsetto workout. Like most boxes, this one needs its familiar hits and is too long on high-generic collectors' items. But with the worst of eighty-five tracks a lounge-jazz "Exodus," a lot of people were clearly doing something right. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]