Before Motown and Sam Cooke's SAR Records, Chicago's Vee-Jay Records defined the artistic and commercial possibilities for an African American-owned record label. Founded in 1953 in Gary, Indiana by spouses Vivian Carter ("Vee") and James Bracken ("Jay"), Vee-Jay soon moved to Chicago and, over the next 13 years, released some of the most influential music of the 20th century.
Shout! Factory's new box set, Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection, is the first-ever comprehensive look at the label's history, with 86 songs spread out over four CDs. What's most impressive is not just the quality, but also the diverse range of music they released. While they specialized in the Chicago blues of artists like Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, they also had hits with doo-wop (The Moonglows and Gene Chandler), gospel (The Staple Singers), soul (The Impressions), and even surf (Aki Aleong & The Nobles' instrumental rewrite of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say").
Another reason to get The Definitive Collection is for the original versions of songs made famous in later years by other artists, including Elvis Presley (Reed's "Big Boss Man"), Linda Ronstadt (Betty Everett's "You're No Good"), The Yardbirds (Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would"), and Cher ("The Shoop Shoop Song," also by Everett).
With a lot of R&B box sets, part of the joy is in finding obscurities that are every bit as good as the hits. Unfortunately, that's not the case on The Definitive Collection. There's little unknown here that can match classics like "Bright Lights, Big City" or "Boom Boom." The closest was a gorgeous duet by Jerry Butler and Betty Everett on The Everly Brothers' "Let It Be Me." I hadn't heard it before, but given the singers and song, there was also no way it could disappoint.
But at the same time, there aren't too many clunkers, which is very rare in a box set, especially given the diversity of the artists represented here. Because of this consistency, Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection will make a great gift for the vintage R&B lover in your family.