The Excellence of Music City USA
An in-depth new book explores the catalog of Nashville’s premier R&B imprint Excello Records
The fifties were littered with great blues and R&B indie labels, and each one had a distinctive sound all of their own.
Chess Records in Chicago was the template for classic blues as we now know it, with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Duke Records, in Houston, TX, added a strutting horn section to the mix, with acts like Bobby Bland and Junior Parker. Excello Records (distributed by Nashboro) was based in Nashville, TN and recorded plenty of local R&B talent, but they also had a direct pipeline to the jumping Louisiana sounds recorded by J.D. Miller. Acts like Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and Slim Harpo had a deceptive feel that could be easygoing and intense all at the same time. This sound came to be known as swamp blues. With its country influence, sometimes the music came dead close to rockabilly (as heard on Lester’s “I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter”). At least twice, two of their blues releases by Slim Harpo crossed over to the pop charts, which is two more than the major Chess blues artists did. It helped that there were two radio shows on Nashville’s WLAC that regularly advertised the latest Excello 45s. Randy Fox’s Shake Your Hips (RPM) is an excellent chronicle of this famed Southern label.
Using interviews with several producers and artists on the label, Fox does a good job of reenacting the story. Out of the company’s stable of swamp blues artists, Slim Harpo was by far the biggest crossover act. When college frat houses started booking black R&B performers to play their beer blasts, Slim Harpo was an obvious first choice. When “Rainin’ In My Heart” crept into the pop Top 40 in 1961, Harpo brought the Delta blues to network television when he appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Five years later, he had an even bigger hit with “Baby Scratch My Back,” which would become a blues band staple. At the time of his death in January 1970, Harpo was already playing the hippie dancehall circuit with rock bands. While Harpo was undoubtedly the crossover hero of Excello Records, with his songs being covered by the Rolling Stones and others, the rest of Excello’s major players are dealt with in the same depth.
Several of the Louisiana-based blues artists came through the auspices of J.D. Miller, a musician-turned-producer who played a huge role in the Excello story. In addition to documenting the fertile blues scene, Miller also recorded straight R&B, rockabilly and what would later become known as “swamp-pop,” the mix of rock & roll, rhythm & blues and country emanating from the Gulf Coast with an unmistakable Cajun flair. Not to be outdone, Excello’s Nashville homebase filled in the gaps with vocal groups from the area. Shake Your Hips does an excellent job of outlining the story.
It should be mentioned that Fox sees the big picture. Not just content to center around the blues that gave Excello its’ reputation, the author gives equal weight to the company’s second act as a soul label, ca. 1966-76, as well as their stabs at the acid-rock market with such dimly-remembered bands as the Electric Toilet and Whalefeathers (via their Nasco imprint). Around 1971, musician-writer-producer Swamp Dogg formed his Mankind label, which gave Excello another shot at the charts with Freddie North (whose biggest hit was 1971’s “She’s All I Got”) and southern-soul journeyman Z.Z. Hill. Despite minor success on the fringes of the soul scene, the Excello label ground to a halt in the mid-seventies. Nashboro, their parent label, kept on going until 1983 – gospel records have been traditionally steadier sellers than R&B. While their blues releases were allowed to lapse out of print, the gospel records stayed available, but this too ended when Nashboro itself quietly went out of business along with Excello. While this company has long had status amongst blues and R&B collectors, this is the first time the subject has been fodder for an entire book. Shake Your Hips, indeed, fills the gap.
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