22 December 2009

Vee Jay, the Dells and chance with a small "c"

The photograph used for the cover of Cornered (see below), borrowed from Unca Marvy's history of the Dells

Following on from the notes about Golden Teardrops and the licensing of Vee Jay recordings by budget labels like Springboard in the late 60s, it occurs to me how much Vee Jay material I was fortunate enough to hear very early on in my infatuation with doo wop largely through the unfortunate circumstance of the company's financial difficulties.

In addition to Springboard International's ORIGINAL OLDIES Vol. 18 (block caps, always block caps) making its way from an American supermarket or drugstore to the bargain basement of Listen Records in Renfield Street, Glasgow, I once found a whole heap of LPs on the Joy label (distributed by UK's President Records) in a little newsagent's beside Motherwell Civic Centre (admittedly you will need a degree of familiarity with that West of Scotland town to appreciate quite how surreally unlikely such a discovery was).

The pressings turned out to be horrendous, but I bought them all up there and then, as they were doo wop, this music I had lately discovered, and they were cheap, at 50p a pop.

I noticed each LP mentioned it was a Vee Jay recording, and I read names like the Flamingos, the Spaniels, the Moonglows and the Magnificents; in short, I'd accidentally stumbled across a cache of the very best of Chicago doo wop, including Chance and Parrot recordings, without realising it. It was then that I first heard mysterious tracks like the Spaniels' Play It Cool, which seemed to be in a kind of impenetrable code, and the strange, lumbering rhythms and fragmented narrative of the Orchids' Newly Wed; both were a world away from the brightness of Frankie Lymon.

One group was absent, but at around the same time in a Glasgow-based musical instrument shop called Biggar's (which has only recently closed its doors) I found a bargain price double album on the DJM label (Dick James Music, as in the man who originally owned the Beatles' publishing) entitled Cornered, featuring a generous selection of the Dells' two stints at Vee Jay. It may even have been licensed through Springboard, as I remember buying some Scepter/Wand material on the same label.

With the Dells, again, I had no idea of what I was buying, but songs like Sweet Dreams of Contentment remain favourites: some of the missing posts from the Kewl Steve site involved lengthy debate about just what that word is which is dreamily intoned towards the end of the song - I'm still not sure and don't necessarily need to know: a sweet word of pismotality, intended for the lover's ear alone, is all; Vernon Green would surely have nodded in recognition.

But "dreamily" seems the right term, as you sense the whole group sort of happily dozing their way through the performance, entranced and entrancing; there's even a kind of background wail or drone which reminds me of the self-disparaging term used by a group member to describe their early work: "fish harmonies" - ie all moving roughly in the same direction but hardly what you'd call synchronised swimming. Though I'm sure I've also read a group member (the same one?) say that that recording is also particularly evocative of those days for the group itself.

I had to stop at that point to listen to the song again. An interesting recording; not muddy, exactly, but the lead, bass and the band are so prominent that it's almost as though the other singers are ghostly presences from adjoining radio station - but their contribution is still crucial, even if you sense it more than you hear it. And the moment when that tremulous lead takes off into the stratosphere, finally unshackling himself from language other than that final, unknowable but perfectly comprehensible word, is what makes the record: he has sung himself into an ecstacy of longing.

You too can listen to Sweet Dreams of Contentment and other Dells tracks of the era here, on the official Vee Jay website cited in the Golden Teardrops post, if you have realplayer. What I didn't mention before, however, is that the CDs so temptingly arrayed on the site were deleted long ago; they date from a brief resurgence in 1993. But Vee Jay are still licensing material, hence the continuance of the site.

There are currently several compilations of Vee Jay artists including the Dells on Shout Factory in the US and there are Charly/Snapper CDs in Britain - though when I tried to link to Charly's Dells comp just now it seemed to have disappeared, so instead here is a review by Geoff Brown of the Charly compilation on the mojo magazine website. I haven't heard any Shout Factory product, but my experience of the audio quality of Charly CDs has certainly been, let's say, variable And I've been spoilt by that lavish double album anyway, so that neither of those Dells CDs is an adequate substitute.

One track not on that album, however, is Darling I Know by the ur-Dells, otherwise known as the El Rays, which as someone once said is like saying "The The" -though not a bad name for a group. You can hear it here, though its interest for me is hearing all the elements of the Dells but not quite gelling. Somehow it seems naive and amateurish, whereas Tell the World is naive and endearing, even though there's probably not that much between them.

To the gentlemen above: I salute you, and your fallen comrade.

And I thank Springboard International and those other budget record companies; whatever their intentions in the matter, they brought the Dells and the Flamingos into my orbit.

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