Randy Fox – Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story
BMG Books (RPM Series)
A chronicle of one of the great partnerships in the music business, this engrossing book tells the story of one of the most influential American record labels, and the two men who were the driving force that made it all possible.
Ernie Young learned to run a business working in his family’s grocery stores and wholesale distribution company. He later struck gold with coin-operated machines like pinball games and, more importantly, jukeboxes. Young viewed music as an opportunity to earn a comfortable living. It wasn’t long before he opened a retail store in order to liquidate record inventory from the jukeboxes, and his own record label. Nashboro Records was focused on the Nashville gospel scene, with a few hillbilly records mixed in. It took the formation of the Excello label to garner Young his first major hit, Arthur Gunter’s “Baby Let’s Play House,” a tune later recorded by Elvis Presley for Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
One reason for Young’s success was his abiding understanding of the importance of marketing. He quickly saw the benefit of advertising on the WLAC radio station, featuring DJs like Gene Nobles and Jon “John R” Richbourg throughout the evening hours playing a mixture of R&B records from black artists that were ignored on other stations. Borrowing an idea from a competitor, Young advertised heavily for his mail order record business, making the sounds listeners heard on the air available to buyers throughout the country, and in some cases, far-flung regions of the planet.
With the formation of the Excello label, Young started working with Joseph “Jay” Miller, from Crowley, Louisiana. Miller had a successful electrical contracting business but music was in his heart. He also had a record store and a small label for releases by local musicians. Eventually, Miller found success in country music, working with legendary figures like Lefty Frizzell and Kitty Wells. To save money, he built his own recording studio. A chance encounter allowed Miller to hear a local blues singer and guitarist, Otis Hicks. A recording session was scheduled, and soon Miller had a release out on his Feature Records label, credited to “Lightnin’ Slim”. The disc sold well regionally, but a lack of distribution limited any further impact.
From his numerous trips to Nashville for his work with country artists, Miller was acutely aware of Young’s growing presence and marketing skills. After months of negotiations, the men settled on an arrangements that had the artists signed to Miller’s production company. Young and Excello owned retained the rights to all completed masters for any song released on the label. The financial aspects were a bit complicated, with Young paying Miller a percentage for each record sold. Miller would then be responsible for the artist and any songwriting royalties.
From this point, author Fox, a long-time music journalist, details the result of their efforts in chronological order, records that are still influencing generations, from revered artists like Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, and Lonesome Sundown. Miller’s recording style gave the records a unique sound, often referred to as swamp blues for the relaxed feel and mood. Together the men were a formidable team, bringing them both plenty of financial rewards. The success also brought new concerns, Slim Harpo was constantly at odds with Miller over money he felt he was owed. Success meant more staff and higher operating costs, stretching the profit margin in a notoriously tough business.
Fox provides the factual history with a minimum of conjecture. Readers will quickly be hooked on the story-line, and those unfamiliar with the Excello label will get an education that will undoubtedly open up a new world of listening opportunities, and a corresponding dent in the personal finance department. The efforts of Young and Miller ended up having a far greater impact than just the sale of records. The author notes that Excello records reached far and wide through the mail-order channel, influencing many musicians including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. A must read for anyone with a love blues music!