Vee-Jay was one of Chicago's most successful labels. Until the advent of Motown during the early 1960s, it was the country's largest black-owned record company. Four individuals were most responsible for the success of the label: James Bracken and Vivian Carter who founded the company in mid-1953; Vivian's brother, Calvin Carter, who was the principal producer and A&R man; and Ewart Abner, Jr. A fifth individual, Art Sheridan, was a secret partner in the company. Vee-Jay was founded in Gary, Indiana in 1953 by Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken (later that year, Mr. & Mrs. Bracken), who used their first initials for the label's name. In a short time, Vee-Jay was the most successful black- owned record company in the United States. By 1963, they were charting records faster than some of the major labels. They were the first U.S. company to have the Beatles. In one month alone in early 1964, they sold 2.6 million Beatles singles. Two years later, the company was bankrupt. Early on, Vee-Jay became involved in gospel music and recorded many of the top acts in the field, notably the Staple Singers, the Swan Silvertones, the Original Five Blind Boys, and the Highway QC's. Early jazz performers included Tommy Dean, Turk Kincheloe, and Julian Dash. But Vee-Jay established itself as a hitmaker with doowop groups and blues singers. The biggest groups were the Spaniels, the El Dorados, and the Dells, but the label could boast a host of lesser names, such as the Magnificents, the Kool Gents, and the Rhythm Aces. Vee-Jay in 1955 considerably expanded its stable of blues acts, adding Eddie Taylor (as a reward for his stellar accompaniment to Jimmy Reed), L. C. McKinley, Billy Boy Arnold, Morris Pejoe, Billy "The Kid" Emerson, and the great John Lee Hooker.
The bulk of today's tracks come from several fine box sets: Vee Jay, The Chicago Black Music (P-Vine), The Definitive Collection (Shout Factory), Jimmy Reed: The Vee-Jay Years (Charley) and John Lee Hooker The Vee-Jay Years (Charley). The 4-CD P-Vine collection is probably the best collection from a blues standpoint while the Shout Factory 4-CD is more of an overall view. Both Charley sets are 6-CD collections that contain everything Hooker and Reed cut for Vee-Jay. Below is some background on today's artists.
Jimmy Reed was Vee-Jay's second signing. He was born Mathis James Reed on September 6, 1925, on a plantation near Dunleith, Mississippi. Reed moved to Chicago in 1943, and after service in the Navy during World War II settled in Gary, Indiana. The first session in June 1953 produced no hits, but "Roll And Rhumba" (Vee-Jay 100) sold enough under both Vee-Jay and Chance imprints to keep the fledgling company interested. A second session near or at the end of the year produced Reed's first national hit, "You Don't Have to Go," which upon release in early 1955 lasted 10 weeks and went to #5 on the Billboard R&B chart. The key ingredient in the Jimmy Reed sound was the addition of guitarist Eddie Taylor who provided a firm drive to the songs. Reed soon emerged as one of the biggest blues acts in the country.
Bluesman Eddie Taylor was born in Benoit, Mississippi, on January 29, 1923. As a youngster he took up guitar. In 1943, he moved to Memphis, and worked in the Beale Street clubs. In 1949 Taylor moved to Chicago, initially playing in Maxwell Street but then moving into the clubs. In 1953 he began working with Jimmy Reed, who was a childhood friend in the Delta. His guitar work played a large role in the success of Jimmy Reed's records. Taylor also appeared on the February 1954 sessions with Floyd Jones and Sunnyland Slim and in January 1955, Vee-Jay rewarded Taylor by giving him another chance to record numbers of his own.
John Lee Hooker signed with Vee-Jay in 1955, experiencing his breakthrough session for in March 1956. There with guitarist Eddie Taylor, bassist George Washington, and drummer Tom Whitehead, he laid down one of the strongest sessions of his career. Even though "Dimples" did not make the Billboard national R&B chart, it was a genuine national hit, getting played on radio stations across the country. Hooker remained with Vee-Jay until 1964, recording a load of LPs, and producing a notable pop hit, "Boom Boom," in 1962.
Harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold first began performing on 47th Street with Bo Diddley's street band. He made his first recording in 1953 for the highly obscure Cool label." After Bo Diddley was signed to Chess in February 1955, Arnold recorded a couple of his own numbers at the end of the first Bo Diddley session, but Leonard Chess did not seem interested in releasing them. So Arnold went to Vee-Jay, where he recorded his great number, "I Wish You Would" (this was really the same tune that Bo Diddley recorded on his second session as "Diddley Daddy"). The session took place on May 5, 1955; his supporting band included Henry Gray (piano), Jody Williams (electric guitar), Milton Rector (on the then-novel electric bass), and Earl Phillips (drums).
Pianist Tommy Dean was born in Franklin, Louisiana, on September 6, 1909, and grew up in Beaumont, Texas. By the time he reached adulthood he was a full-time musician. During much of the 1930s he worked in carnivals and circuses, then near the end of the decade was hired by the Eddie Randle Band in St. Louis. He eventually left Randle and formed his own band, and by 1945 was working the clubs in Chicago. Before he joined Vee-Jay, Tommy Dean recorded for Town & Country in St. Louis, and Miracle, Chance, and States in Chicago. His band for Vee-Jay included Joe Buckner a blues singer who was born in St. Louis in 1924.
Soulful blues singer Billy "the Kid" Emerson was born William Robert Emerson in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on December 21, 1929. His first recordings were made with Sun Records in Memphis in 1954-55, when he cut "Red Hot," which subsequently became a rockabilly staple. In 1955, Emerson joined Vee-Jay Records.
A T-Bone Walker disciple, guitarist L. C. McKinley, was born on 22 October 1918, in Winona, Mississippi, but had relocated to Chicago by 1941. In the early 1950s he was a regular headliner at the famed 708 Club; in 1951 and 1952, he recorded as a sideman with pianist Eddie Boyd for JOB, appearing on Boyd's biggest hit, "Five Long Years." He first recorded as a leader in 1953 for the Parrot label, but label owner Al Benson chose not to release his session. He probably also did some further session work during this period. The guitarist's next session under his name was with States, in 1954. The following year, he recorded two sessions for Vee-Jay.