Album: Various artists

Vee-Jay Records: Chicago Hit Factory, CHARLY
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The Independent Culture

Before it hit fresh paydirt through the canny licensing of The Beatles' first recordings (see above), Chicago's Vee-Jay label was one of America's pre-eminent R&B outlets. It was entirely black-owned and black-operated, having been founded by the DJ Vivian Carter and the record retailer Smilin' Jimmy Bracken in 1953, years before Berry Gordy founded Motown. Now, the value of Carter and Bracken's hands-on, street-level relationship with the shifts of taste is shown in this four-CD, 115-track set. Right from The Spaniels' "Baby It's You", the label's first hit from 1953, it's one classic after another from black American music. There's doowop from The Flamingos and The Moonglows, gospel from The Staple Singers and Swan Silvertones, jazz from Eddie Harris and Wayne Shorter, soul from Jerry Butler and Gladys Knight, rock'n'roll from Little Richard and Billy "The Kid" Emerson, and blues from John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed, the label's biggest star in the late Fifties and early Sixties. So prolific was Reed that the same company offers a three-CD set dedicated to the legendarily sozzled bluesman. Sadly, Carter and Bracken couldn't prevent the label going bust in the Sixties, but they left a legacy of extraordinary music.