By Bruce Sylvester
The late 1940s and '50s were a goldmine for new indie labels putting out regional music that didn't interest major labels. Shifts in technology as well as musical tastes enabled companies like Aladdin and Specialty to thrive. Then there was Excello with its trademark swamp blues/R&B vibe. Randy Fox tells its story in Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story (BMG Books).
The lo-fi label's vibe was rural Louisiana (far from New Orleans), but its base was Nashville, which – with four black colleges – had a strong R&B scene alongside its country industry. Its two 50,000-watt clear-channel radio stations spread its music far and wide.
The book explains technological and business elements in Excello's success. For a start, coin-operated phonographs had been invented in the 1890s, but by the 1930s they'd become cheaper and easier to operate and could play more discs, boosting the juke box industry and well as the record industry.
In Nashville, Ernest Lafayette (“Ernie”) Young (1892-1977) had a thriving mail-order record business servicing gospel, R&B, and country fans. Realizing that he already had a means to market discs on a label he could found, he began Nashboro Records for gospel in 1951, Excello for R&B (and more) in '52 and, Nasco, Mankind, and abet farther down the line, putting out rough-edged jewels like Lightnin' Slim's “Bad Luck Blues,” Guitar Gable's “This Should Go On Forever” and Lazy Lester's “I Hear You Knockin'.” In 1961, Slim Harpo's quiet “Rainin' in My Heart” became Excello's third single to be released in Britain. Decades later, Keith Richards recalled, “You can almost smell the swamp coming off this thing. This proved that not all records were made in Chicago or New York.”
Like other indie owners, Young sensibly established a publishing arm, Excellorec, to capitalize on his artists' compositions. Its first windfall came when young Elvis Presley at Sun covered Arthur Gunther's “Baby Let's Play House.” The Rolling Stones redid Slim Harpo's “I'm a King Bee.” The Yardbirds and The Kinks recorded his “I Got Love if You Want It.”
Shake Your Hips goes into great detail about various tracks – including some that sold poorly and are largely forgotten. We learn that The Marigolds (“Rollin' Stone”) were Johnny Bragg's Prisonaires (of “Just Walkin' in the Rain” fame in 1953 on Sun). “Little Darlin'” by The Gladiolas started out as a straight ballad. Fox quotes a 2003 interview by their lead singer, young Maurice Williams: “Ernie told us to make it into a calypso, telling us how to do it, because I was only 16 and didn't know what a calypso was.” The white cover by The Diamonds made #2 on 1957's pop charts.
By the late '60s, Stax and Motown made the Excello sound out of fashion, but publishing royalties remained strong thanks to the British Invasion. Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun once remarked on signing The Stones in 1970, “I think [Mick] Jagger would have liked to be on Excello. We were the closest he could get to Excello and still get $5 million.”
– beings BMG Books' new RPM series spotlighting influential indie labels. The amply illustrated books are 7x7” – just like yesteryear's 45 RPM singles. On the one hand, it would be cool if the books came with sampler CDs to hear while reading, creating a multisensory experience. On the other hand, that would create licensing issues and force up the book's price. Anyway, excellent Excello compilations can be found online so readers can easily get the music on their own. BMG works on Chrysalis and Cold Chillin' are in the pipeline.