In a new book on the legendary swamp blues label, writer Randy Fox reveals what made Excello owner Ernie Young unique.
Blues and R&B weren’t writer Randy Fox’s natural beat. He was a fan of the ’80s American underground rock ’n’ roll explosion that produced Husker Du, Sonic Youth, The Replacements and Black Flag. At the end of the ‘80s, that moment was fading, but the CD reissue boom helped him scratch that same itch. When companies realized that there was money to be made by reissuing music on CD that they had already paid for and that vinyl collectors collected, they began to aggressively revisit artists that had become legendary in their absence, many of them blues and R&B bands. Ace Records in England reissued music released on the legendary Excello Records label—particularly songs from the early 1950s—and that really got Fox’s attention. “I was looking for music that was basic and raw,” he says.
He lived in Nashville and didn’t know at the time that Excello was a Nashville label. Neither did anybody else in Nashville, he discovered, unless they were of a certain generation. The label name didn’t ring a bell with older musicians, but if he mentioned Ernie’s Record Mart or WLAC to older Nashvillans, “It was, like, POW!” Fox says. “They’d say I listened to that show every single night.”
The disconnect made sense. The 50,000-watt Nashville radio station WLAC blasted R&B across Tennessee and much of the East, from Canada to the Caribbean if the weather was right. Ernie’s Record Mart was an local record store that advertised on WLAC, but because Excello’s best-known records featured Louisianans Slim Harpo, Lightnin Slim and Lazy Lester, “If people are aware of it, they think of it as a Louisiana label,” Fox says. The combination of the music and the label’s lack of acclaim in its hometown made the story irresistable.
Fox’s new book, Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story, tells how Nashville record store owner Ernie Young parlayed a promotion on WLAC into an influential record label, and it reads like the liner notes for a Bear Family box set, lacking only seven lovingly compiled discs of songs released on the legendary blues and R&B label. The book is one of the first two entries in BMG’s new series of books about famous record labels, along with Gillian Gaar’s very entertaining book World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story.
Fox tells how Young, who ran Ernie’s Record Mart started first a gospel label, Nashboro, then the broader Excello, in 1952. “Ernie is probably the only example—maybe ever, certainly of that time—who was actually honest with his artists,” Fox says. He was a “notorious cheapskate,” but he did pay the musicians he worked with the money he owed them. His deal with his artists was that they got 50 percent of royalties for a record and he got 50 percent. Many labels notoriously found ways to charge additional costs to the artists to make sure that most if not all of royalties came to the label, but not Young.
“That made him very unusual,” Fox says.
He thinks of Young as the opposite of Sun Records’ Sam Phillips in Memphis. Phillips had very specific ideas about the music he wanted to make, but Young didn’t. He less concerned with the impact of his releases, and because of that, he was also less interested in number ones. Ernie’s Record Mart offered a mail-order promotion that sold six singles for $2.98. Listeners on WLAC recognized that as a good deal—less that 50 cents per record versus the more common 69 cents per record—and at first Young used the package deal as a way to dump excess stock in the store. Then he realized that if he included Excello records in those orders, he’d get more of the money. Because of that, his emphasis was simply on product to help fill those orders. “He wasn’t looking for something new,” Fox says. “He was looking for ‘good enough.’”
Still, Fox argues, Excello inadvertently mirrored Sun. Phillips looked for artists such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich who didn’t fall neatly into genre categories, and Young similarly released records by artists that others would pass over. He did so for very different reasons, though. Young knew that if he released 5,000 copies of anything, he’d eventually sell them all, and if something hit, he could press and sell more of that single. Because of that, he could take chances other labels wouldn’t.
To address his need for product, Young made a deal with Louisiana producer J.D. Miller to release records he produced, and those records—including releases by Slim Harpo and Lightning Slim—gave Excello its biggest and most impactful releases. “That’s what all the British rockers picked up on,” Fox says. In 1964, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and Them all released covers of Harpo songs. In Shake Your Hips, Fox writes about Miller being an entrepreneur himself with labels, a studio, and a jukebox business. The one thing he lacked was good distribution for his records, and for that he made a deal with Young—one that at first only paid Miller a nickel in royalties for each record sold, and that nickel had to be split with the artist.
“I liked Ernie a lot, but he was real tough to deal with,” Miller said. “You couldn’t get no money out of him. When he promised to pay, he’d pay you, but he wouldn’t promise much.”
Today, it’s easy to think of Excello as living in country music’s shadow, but it was not that simple. Many country musicians in Nashville and surrounding states listened to WLAC and grew up on Excello releases. Fox talked to musicians who played the Grand Ole Opry who listened to R&B on WLAC and found that many country musicians grew up listening to R&B. “It had a tremendous impact on people from that time period and influenced them later on,” Fox says. Those that became session musicians in Nashville in the ‘60s and ‘70s brought some of that background to their studio work.
Fox remembers country singer Bobby Bare telling him, You weren’t worth a damn if you weren’t listening to WLAC.