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Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story

Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story

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Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story

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222 pages
3 hours
Nov 20, 2018

Nov 20, 2018

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Shake Your Hips - Randy Fox




One morning in the fall of 1961, seventeen-year-old art school student Keith Richards was waiting at the Dartford, Kent, station for the train to London. He was pleasantly surprised when he spotted Mick Jagger, a childhood classmate, but surprise turned to utter astonishment when he saw what Jagger was carrying. Tucked under Jagger’s arm were two record albums: Chuck Berry’s Rockin’ at the Hops and The Best of Muddy Waters. Both were American LPs on the Chess label and rare treasures in the UK, at least in the eyes of a fanatical R&B and rock ’n’ roll fan like Richards.

On the train, Jagger explained that he had acquired the rare records via mail order directly from Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois, USA. The pair made a date to meet at Richards’ house that afternoon to continue their music discussions. When Jagger arrived, Richards was astonished by the colorful and rare records Jagger brought with him. These records held music that leapt from the speakers like fierce and powerful panthers while the colorful American record labels spun at forty-five revolutions per minute: Chess blue and silver, Atlantic red and black, and the bright orange and dark blue of Excello Records.

Many of the American record labels demonstrated a specific sound or style, but Excello carried a special mystique. There was a unique, primal power in the way Excello recordings combined the blues, gospel, and hillbilly music. That was particularly true for the records credited to the mysterious Slim Harpo. Songs such as I’m a King Bee and Rainin’ in My Heart oozed both hillbilly funk and sophisticated cool unmatched by other blues records.

Beyond the allure of Excello’s music lurked another mystery. Unlike record labels based in the well-known American cities of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, or music centers including New Orleans and Memphis, Excello Records was based in Nashville, Tennessee—a city unfamiliar to most Brits except for its association with country music. The address on those orange and blue Excello labels—Nashboro Record Co., 177 3rd Avenue N., Nashville, Tennessee—was also home to Ernie’s Record Mart, a shop that happily shipped American records to addresses around the world. As Jagger and other British blues aficionados discovered, a gold mine of American blues, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll was just a stamp and a money order away from their doorsteps.

What seemed like a distant, magical wellspring of music in the UK in the fall of 1961 was a well-established resource for American music fans. Since the late 1940s, Ernie’s Record Mart had regularly shipped millions of records to destinations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands. Thanks to nightly advertising on the 50,000-watt clear channel radio station WLAC, the wonders of R&B spread to millions of listeners each night, and the orders poured in to Ernie’s.

The collaboration of WLAC’s nightly R&B broadcasts and Ernie’s Record Mart (along with its competitors Randy’s Record Shop and Buckley’s Music Shop) was a moment of cultural realignment for America. Suddenly a full range of contemporary African-American music was accessible to anyone with a radio—black or white, young or old, rich or poor—and with the assistance of Ernie’s Record Mart and its competitors, tangibly preserved copies of that music could be delivered to your door.

Across the United States, black youths and young adults set up camp by their radios, soaking in the tunes and invoking pride in a culture that had been mostly hidden from the mainstream since its creators arrived on American shores in chains. White teenagers hid under covers with only the light of a radio dial to accompany the exciting music jumping out of the speaker and stirring concepts of a world bigger and more diverse than their parents ever imagined. And young, aspiring musicians of all races tuned in to hear the newest R&B sounds from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville. Ideas began to spark. Why not combine a little R&B with hillbilly and pop? What would that sound like?

Although Excello scored hits from time to time, climbing the charts was not the founding goal of the label. At Sun Records in Memphis, Sam Phillips followed a personal vision of American music, recording songs that defied conventional record industry logic and produced astounding musical breakthroughs. In Nashville, Ernie Young’s goal was simply producing products. If a song was catchy and could be recorded cheaply, it was worth a shot. As a result, Excello produced a steady stream of records that never came close to a chart. For most record labels, such dogs ended up in the chipper bin, but not at Excello. Ernie’s primary marketing tool—weekly, radio-advertised six-pack specials of four or five hits and one or two Excello releases, made every Excello record between 1951 and 1966 a sellout. The result was scores of oddball R&B classics from such little-known artists as Shy Guy Douglas, Jerry McCain, Good Rockin’ Sam, Rudy Green, Lonesome Sundown, Carol Fran, and others who piggy-backed their way into record collections across the country.

The story behind the beloved blue and orange label has even more twists and turns than the fascinating and funky music produced by Excello. It’s the tale of how a former grocer, restauranteur, and pinball machine operator in his late fifties launched black gospel and rollicking R&B record labels in the country music capital of the world. It’s the story of how an idiosyncratic Cajun musician in Louisiana served as the midwife for the birth of swamp blues. It’s the narrative of how a hard-working and dutiful family man in his thirties helped spark the British rock ’n’ roll invasion, and how all those mongrel dog discs that snuck into record collections continue to influence and shape the blues and rock heard ’round the world.

Chapter One


When Cecil Gant sang, Nashville really jumps! in his 1948 recording for Bullet Records, it wasn’t just hometown hyperbole. Although Gant built his career on the sophisticated West Coast jazz crooning style pioneered by Nat King Cole, Gant was a Tennessee boy through and through. As Private Cecil Gant, he cut his first records while stationed in Los Angeles during World War II. His 1944 recording of I Wonder zoomed to the top of the R&B charts. After the war, he returned home to Nashville and the homegrown music scene that soared every night with the sounds of boogie woogie, blues, and jazz. Nashville did indeed jump, as well as rock and roll—long before those two words enchanted teenagers around the world.

Decades before Nashville earned the name Music City USA, it was a major crossroads for African-American music. In 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers formed to raise funds for the struggling Fisk Free Colored School (later renamed Fisk University). The group’s performances of Negro spirituals were successful with white audiences, and one of the first popular presentations of genuine African-American culture. The Fisk Singers’ popularity led to the formation of several other Nashville-based Jubilee ensembles that enjoyed great acclaim through the final years of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

By the 1920s, a new style of African-American gospel quartets began finding favor with black audiences. Their performances were infused with complex harmonies and blues and jazz–derived rhythms. The Fairfield Four, a quartet spawned at Fairfield Baptist Church on Hermitage Avenue in Nashville, became a leader of the new style and, by the 1930s, performed regularly on local radio station WSIX, attracting both black and white listeners.

Away from the churches and respectable white concert halls, blues and jazz flourished in Nashville’s black neighborhoods. In 1916, the Bijou Theater opened at 423 Fourth Avenue North in downtown Nashville and showcased black artists. The white owner of the Bijou, Milton Starr, established it as a major stop on the African-American vaudeville circuit. Starr became the first president of the Theater Owners Booking Association in 1921 and ensured Nashville’s prominent role in a network of black theaters and nightclubs that was eventually known as the Chitlin’ Circuit.

In addition to the Bijou, Fourth Avenue and Jefferson Street were peppered with small nightclubs and juke joints that mixed music, food, illegal liquor, and gambling. In the 1930s and into the 1940s, Nashville’s jazz scene boomed and grabbed the attention of the city’s white population. With two 50,000-watt clear channel radio stations and a multitude of hotel ballrooms and dinner clubs, Nashville became home to several popular and successful white swing orchestras. Although both liquor and gambling were strictly outlawed, a network of public and private white nightclubs functioned as quasi-speakeasies and catered to white Nashvillians’ love of music and vices.

After finishing an evening of playing, many white musicians made the rounds at the black clubs lining Fourth Avenue and Jefferson Street. Establishments like the New Era Club, Brown’s Dinner Club, Club Baron, and the Del Morocco often hosted integrated early morning jam sessions. It was also common for accomplished black musicians to occasionally sit in with all-white orchestras at some of the private whites-only supper clubs.

The arrival of World War II furthered Nashville’s dance music boom. As a centrally located transportation hub, thousands of soldiers, both black and white, poured into Nashville. An overnight stay called for a night on the town. Even as the big band era drew to a close, Nashville’s black clubs continued swinging with the new sounds of jump blues, small combo jazz, and more.

After the war, Nashville continued as a major live music market for a new breed of R&B performers. Nashville’s African-American higher learning institutes—Fisk University, Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College, Meharry Medical College, and the American Baptist College—attracted young black students from across the United States.

By the late 1940s, Nashville’s reputation as a center for country music was well known. The Saturday night broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry on radio station WSM and the NBC Radio Network made Nashville the face of country music, but the hidden heartbeat of the Music City was strictly rhythm & blues.

The Hot-Spot Salesman

Of all the great record men who founded independent labels catering to the R&B market in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ernie Young was perhaps the least likely. Unlike Sam Phillips of Sun Records or Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic, Young was never a musical visionary or die-hard fan of the music he sold. Nor was he a careful and commercial analyst of popular music like Lew Chudd of Imperial or Art Rupe of Specialty Records. And, though Young entered the record field primarily looking for financial success, he never operated with a cutthroat thirst for profits on the scale of Syd Nathan of King, Jules Bihari of Modern, or Don Robey of Peacock.

Ernest Lafayette Young was born on December 2, 1892, in Pulaski, Tennessee. He was the eldest of six children born to John Ernest Young and Elizabeth Lemontine Abernathy Young. John Young was a tinware merchant who moved his family seventy miles north to Nashville sometime between 1900 and 1910.

In 1915, Ernest married Adelaide Williams and worked as a salesman for Zibart Brothers Tobacco Company and the Nashville Chalmers Automobile dealership before opening two neighborhood grocery stores in partnership with his brothers. In February 1920, the five Young brothers—Ernest, Horace, Edwin, Harold, and Frank—opened the Young Brothers wholesale grocery distribution company. From the beginning of his business career, Ernest Young developed a penchant for self-promotion and cultivated friendships at the local newspapers to ensure that the public paid attention to his business exploits. The September 5, 1920, issue of the local newspaper, the Tennessean, featured Ernest Young in an installment of the one-panel cartoon series Prominent Commercial Men, touting the success of the Young Brothers Wholesale Grocers in its first few months of business.

This prominence was fleeting. In less than two years, the Young Brothers’ wholesale business failed, and Ernest returned to working in one of his family’s neighborhood grocery stores in North Nashville. His failure in business was further complicated by personal issues. His marriage to Adelaide ended in divorce in early 1927. He quickly married Dell Allen Carter, a fellow divorcée who worked as a sales clerk in a downtown dress shop. Perhaps wishing to avoid scandal, Young and his new wife relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, just months after their wedding. There, they opened a small market and lunch counter. We don’t know the details of Young’s sudden departure from Nashville, but his relationship with his brothers remained strained for the rest of his life.

Young’s second marriage was short-lived. By the end of 1928, the couple had separated, and they eventually divorced. For the next several years, Young remained single, living in a nearby boarding house and operating his lunch counter. Around 1932, he returned to Nashville and invested in a poolroom in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. His return to Nashville presaged both a new romance and a new career.

Shortly after returning to Nashville, Young married Roberta Allen Massey (née Dobson), a native of College Grove, Tennessee. Eight years younger than Ernest Young, Roberta, or Bertie, as she was known, was a divorcée with a twelve-year-old son, Glen, from her first marriage. After her divorce, she worked as a sales clerk and displayed a particularly astute business sense that proved to be a boon to her new husband’s future business ventures.

Along with his new marriage, Young entered the growing coin-op industry he had witnessed firsthand in both his years of operating a lunch counter in Birmingham and his short tenure running a pool hall. With an initial investment of just a few hundred dollars and the proper placement in cafes, pool halls, and beer joints, it was possible to earn a sizable and steady income from vending machines, slot machines, and pinball machines. Introduced in 1931, coin-operated pinball machines were a boom industry during the Great Depression. The early pinball machines were flipperless games of chance rather than skill. Their chief purpose was under-the-counter gambling. Originally introduced in the 1890s, slot machines became a primary target of anti-gambling laws across the United States by the 1920s. The introduction of pinball machines provided an end run around anti-slots laws.

Pinball machines removed the jackpot from the playing field, making it easier for operators to claim that the games were merely amusement devices. In actuality, cash payouts were made to players by the businesses where the games were located based on the number of free replays the machine awarded a player for points accumulated. If a potential player smelled of law enforcement, the business owner simply denied knowledge of pay-outs. By the mid-1930s, pinball machines with under-the-counter payouts were ubiquitous in Nashville and other cities, and small operators collected thousands of dollars per year.

In 1938, Young’s coin-op business was thriving, so he moved his family into an expensive new home in the developing suburb of Green Hills, southwest of downtown Nashville. While the public’s passion for pinball was booming, anti-gambling forces began targeting the games across the United States. Many cities outlawed the machines or imposed severe restrictions. Young’s business eventually led him to a criminal trial but surprisingly not as a defendant.

On December 22, 1939, six Davidson County Sheriff deputies were indicted by a grand jury on charges of extortion, accepting bribes, obstruction of justice, and trafficking stolen slot and pinball machines. According to the indictment, the deputies raided local businesses, confiscated slot and pinball machines, and sold the machines back to their owners, along with required monthly payments to avoid future raids. Eight Nashville machine owner-operators were named as witnesses, including Ernest L. Young.

The case came to trial on February 22, 1940, with Nashville attorney Jack Norman defending the deputies. Norman was a colorful and legendary figure in Nashville, often described as a Southern Perry Mason and renowned for his ability to influence the emotions of juries and frustrate prosecutors. For the next three weeks, news of the trial dominated the

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