Vee-Jay Records was one of the most successful labels in the history of R&B music and one of the largest labels in Chicago at the height of its success for a period of ten years from 1954 to 1964. It was a major employer of black people in the local community, who were involved in every aspect of the recording business. Prior to the emergence of the Soul era, Vee-Jay Records obtained its first national success in 1954 with the Spaniels’ single “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight”, which became a top R&B hit. A successful cover version, performed by the McGuire Sisters, became a million-selling certified gold record. Additional successes further established the company when they signed their first blues artist, Jimmy Reed. These two acts would become Vee-Jay Records’ most successful recording stars during the 1950s. The early success of the Vee-Jay artists led Jimmy and Vivian to move the company to Chicago.
One of the key elements of Vee-Jay’s success was the creative input of Calvin Carter, Vivian’s brother. Calvin was the label’s A&R man and principal producer. A key musician who gave creative support to Calvin in the early years was Al Smith, the leader of the house band at Vee-Jay from 1954 to 1959. Although Calvin Carter was the main producer at the label, Al Smith conducted each recording session with a collective approach, involving arrangers, background singers and studio musicians to achieve the best results. Calvin had great emotional intelligence when it came to identifying appropriate vocal harmonies, bringing the best out of each individual artist and vocal group, producing a variety of sounds, each based on individuals’ or groups’ creative skill sets.
Calvin’s tremendous feeling for outstanding vocal harmonies meant that he knew how to achieve the sounds he wanted. The band worked with him to get the best sound, with particular help from Lefty Bates on guitar and Red Holloway, as designated tenor saxophonist and joint arranger. Al was responsible for rehearsing and preparing Vee-Jay acts for recording sessions; on many occasions he held rehearsals at his home.
Under the leadership of bassist Al Smith, a powerful and dynamic studio band had been established in 1954, which created many of the early hits such as “At My Front Door” by The El Dorados, released in1955, which made it to R&B number two. This single became the first entry into the national Pop charts for the label. The rhythm section usually had a main core consisting of veteran Chicago musician Quinn B. Wilson (bass), William “Lefty” Bates (guitar), with Paul Gusman, Vernel Fournier, and Alrock “Al” Duncan sharing drum duties. The piano parts were mainly handled by Horace Palm and Norman Simmons, while James “Red” Holloway was assigned the responsibility of playing the tenor saxophone with McKinley “Mac” Easton playing the baritone saxophone. In addition to the rhythm section, there was a dynamic brass section which usually included Red Holloway and Lucius Washington (tenor saxes), Vernel Fournier and McKinley Easton (baritone saxes) and Harlan “Booby” Floyd (trombone). The two principal arrangers employed by the label at the time were Von Freeman and Riley Hampton.
AI and his musicians participated on approximately one fifth of the recordings released by Vee-Jay from 1954 to 1959. The recordings were always conducted at Universal Studios on Chicago North Side. The studio band did between three and six sessions in a day. Al Smith and his band were so excellent that several other local labels such as Chance, Parrot and United/States hired them to improve the quality of their recordings. These are now-defunct labels that operated in Chicago during the 1950s.
Under the leadership of the late Ewart Abner, (born May 11th 1923 and died December 27th 1997) the label developed into a multi-genre operation with major hits in jazz, gospel, pop, R&B and soul. To achieve these levels of success, Ewart would appoint key individuals to run different regional operations on the West Coast and the East Coast to give the company a strong presence with the emergence of soul music and the British invasion.