Rich with comic falsettos and pop blues, the four-disc Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection gives us a portrait of (mostly) African-American singers as they tried to decide what was more frightening: Judgment Day or unexpected telephone calls. Started in 1953 by James and Vivian Bracken, a husband-and-wife team more concerned with art than the bottom line, the Chicago label benefited early on from the presence of such bluesmen as Pee Wee Crayton—whose 1956 “The Telephone Is Ringing” features a girlfriend who dials up Pee Wee to command, “Clean house, Daddy, your mama’s comin’ home to rock”—and Jimmy Reed, owner of a blues style that stuttered but never stumbled, as on the 13-bar “You Don’t Have to Go,” a No. 5 1955 r&b hit.
There’s plenty of blues here, from Eddie Taylor’s “Big Town Playboy” to Elmore James’s “It Hurts Me Too,” but Definitive Collection makes a case for doo-wop—Vee-Jay’s other specialty, as evidenced by the Spaniels’ 1954 “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite,” the label’s first hit to cross over to white teenagers—as sexy avant-garde vocal music. The El Dorados, teenagers from suburban Chicago, charted pop and r&b the following year with “At My Front Door,” a primal celebration of groupiedom. “Keep your little mama off my street,” lead singer Pirkle Lee Moses warns, as the falsettos preen and the group delivers lines such as “Whomp-whomp-dooday-whomp-a- whomp-whomp” as though their sex lives depended on it. They might act like they don’t want that young girl knocking on their door, but the performance is pure come-on.
By the time Vee-Jay went under in 1966, the label had released the Beatles’ first American singles and the Four Seasons’ “Sherry,” itself some kind of demented doo-wop. Unable to pay royalties, the label lost both groups in 1964, and so the Honeycombs’ “Have I the Right,” with its yelled chorus and Joe Meek production, stands as the only British Invasion hit represented here. No matter: The collection presents a version of soul music that includes Gene Chandler’s whimsical “Rainbow” along with more conventionally conflicted songs such as Jimmy Hughes’s Muscle Shoals–recorded “Steal Away.” On disc four, the label flounders around, Billy Preston’s “Billy’s Bag” coexisting with Hoyt Axton’s Dylanesque whine on “Bring Your Lovin’,” while Little Richard’s “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me” pits egotism against harsh reality. Which means it’s a blues after all.