Southern-Fried Soul

Maybe it's because they recorded tough R&B, raunchy blues, and wildcat rockabilly in a city where straight-line honky-tonkers ruled the Nashville nest. Or maybe it's because its staggering roster of talent never cracked the pop charts. Whatever the reason, Excello Records and its parent company Nashboro have somehow slid through the cracks of rock and roll history. Although Excello recordings have been collected on numerous import compilations, and were feted in 1991 with a two-volume set issued (and since deleted) by Rhino, Excello isn't even mentioned in the recently published Little Labels, Big Sound, an infuriatingly skimpy history of independent labels, written by Rick Kennedy and Randy McNutt.

Nonetheless Excello ranks alongside revered labels such as Specialty, Savoy, Sun, Ace, King, and Apollo as one of the most important indies in rock and roll's early history. Its hits were few, but Excello managed to crank out fine, often brilliant, singles through the late Seventies.

The four-volume Excello Story, recently issued by Universal's Hip-O offshoot, is a stunning, 80-song compendium that spans the gamut of the label's myriad offerings, from gorgeous gospel to hopped-up country boogie; from raggedy blues to sublime doo-wop; and some terrific southern-fried funk and soul. Though little of this music met with much success at the time, its influence was felt on countless artists, including Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Alex Chilton, and, more recently, Fat Possum's lineup of north Mississippi bluesmen and white-boy punks.

Excello was founded by Nashville record man Ernie Young, a disc jockey and distributor who in 1951 began dabbling in gospel and country via his Nashboro label. Excello debuted in 1952 with the Boyer Brothers' "Step by Step," a gospel gem that never found an audience. A few more sanctified singles followed, but it was the secular boogie of the Kid King Combo's 1953 stomper "Banana Split" that brought the label its first taste of regional success and its first chart single, cracking Billboard's R&B Top 10. In 1954 Music City bluesman Arthur Gunter gave Excello its next chart hit with "Baby Let's Play House." It was a slinky country-blues raveup that a white Memphis kid named Elvis Presley would rebuild and redefine in 1955, in the process turning Gunter's sloppy slab of boogie into one of rockabilly's classic anthems.

The next year wasn't so great for the label, but as Volume One and the first half of Volume Two of The Excello Story attest, Young had an ear for robust, rollicking R&B in all its diverse strains. There was the Blues Rockers' bizarre "Calling All Cows," a hit that never happened; the Marigolds' "Rollin' Stone," a hit that actually landed the number eight spot on the R&B charts in 1955; a bona fide hit that same year with Louis Brooks's lascivious creeper "It's Love, Baby"; the Marigolds' "Little Darlin'," a semihit that, in the hands of the white group the Diamonds, hit the number two slot on the pop charts in 1957; and some manic bits of craziness from obscure figures such as Jerry McCain, the Blue Flamers, the Solotones, and Good Rockin' Sam, who lives up to his nom de boogie on the fabulous "Now Listen, Baby." Young also returned to honky-tonk and gospel, with ace offerings from Jack Toombs and the Sons of the South, among others.

They're all fine genre pieces, and the best of them pack a wallop that can still throttle you with authority and passion. It wasn't until Young met up with a Louisiana producer named Jay Miller, however, that Excello would ensure its place in the legacy of independent labels that documented the early interracial mingling of blues, country, R&B, gospel, and pop -- which is to say, the birth and flourishing of rock and roll. Miller had a tiny studio in Crowley, located in the deep southern part of Louisiana that was a breeding ground for practically every sound of the bayou swamps: zydeco and rockabilly; honky-tonk and gutbucket blues; swamp pop, rock and roll, and doo-wop. Like his Memphis contemporary, Sun impresario Sam Phillips, Miller was a master of off-the-cuff engineering who worked around the limitations of his crude equipment, using echo, reverb, innovative microphone placement, and inventive percussion devices to give his recordings a singular stamp. And like Phillips, Miller believed in always keeping the tape rolling; some of his wildest productions went unissued until the mid-Seventies, when the British Flyright label began an extensive excavation of his outtakes via its Legendary Jay Miller Sessions series.

Miller's affiliation with Excello didn't produce many hits, yet the singles issued during their partnership rival Sun's wildest rockers and craziest blues stompers. South Louisiana bluesmen like Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester, and Lonesome Sundown cranked out fierce, raw sides built around piercing guitars, tormented vocals, distorted harmonica, and beats pounded out more times than not on cardboard boxes. Miller's stable of white hillbilly boppers (most notably Johnny Jano and Al Ferrier) never made the country charts, but the former's hilariously hiccupping "Havin' a Whole Lot of Fun" and the latter's frenzied "Hey, Baby" attest to the scope of Miller's eclectic vision and his penchant for sheer weirdness.

By the early Sixties, Excello finally found something close to a consistent, and consistently inspired hitmaker: James Moore, a.k.a. Slim Harpo, a swamp-blues master from Lobdell, Louisiana, with a drawling voice and slurred phrasing that made his weepers resonate with heartache and his rockers ooze with sweaty, swaggering sexuality. He made his debut in 1957 with the slow-crawling "I'm a KingBee," a flop at the time that has since become a blues standard, as did its flipside, "Got Love If You Want It." Both of these songs were covered by a slew of post-Beatles Brit rockers, including the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, and the Kinks. With 1961's aching "Rainin' in My Heart," Harpo landed his first Top 40 pop hit. A string of brilliant singles followed, but it wasn't until 1966's "Baby, Scratch My Back," a classic in the canon of lewd, slinky swamp blues, that Harpo landed his first and only R&B chart topper and Top 20 pop hit. His later singles worked similar themes in both sound and content ("Shake Your Hips," "Tip On In," "Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu") and he continued to record up to his death in 1970. Although his chart impact had ended by the late Sixties, Harpo's influence endured; if you want to hear where Mick Jagger learned to sing, take a stroll through the catalogue of Slim Harpo.

Harpo was the last genuinely great artist to grace Excello's blue-and-orange-color label, but Charles Sheffield, Tabby Thomas, Silas Hogan, and others continued to bang out brilliantly sloppy classics. Sadly its output was seldom heard beyond the Southern radio stations that through the decades had helped bring a smidgen of fame and royalty checks to Excello's host of rockabillies and bluesmen. As the ragged R&B of the Fifties evolved into the percolating soul of the Sixties, and later the groove-laden funk of the Seventies, Excello held its own in spite of its numerous chart failures. Volume Four merely skims this productive, often brilliant period for the label, bypassing some of Excello's pure-funk sides for the Southern soul balladry of the Kelly Brothers ("You Put Your Touch on Me") and Eddie Kemp's "The Power Is Gone," a neglected anthem of economic woe and romantic isolation. Nonetheless The Excello Story is a glorious testament to the label's staggering output, the hits and obscurities, the shoulda-beens and also-rans.


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