The many reasons Nashville’s nickname is Music City, as opposed to Country Music City, is made abundantly clear in Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story, the new book by East Nashville music writer (and managing editor of The East Nashvillian) Randy Fox.
Shake Your Hips documents the extensive history of the legendary Nashville-based R&B label and its affiliated labels (Nashboro, Nasco, A-Bet, etc.) and shines a light on an important, but often overlooked part of the city’s music history: the vibrant and influential R&B scene that had its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s.
Although Fox, who has contributed historical pieces to Goldmine, Vintage Rock, Record Collector, The East Nashvillian, and Nashville Scene, had not previously written about Excello, he was familiar with the label’s rich history when he was approached by Scott Bomar of BMG books about possibly writing a book for their RPM series on important independent record labels.
“Scott told me they had this idea for a series on labels and asked if I’d be interested in doing one,” Fox recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, and I think the most obvious choice is Excello.’ He loved the idea, so we went for it.”
In addition to Fox’s exhaustive research of historical documents, Shake Your Hips relies on first-hand interviews with a number of people who played a part in the label’s history, including Mac Gayden, Ernie Winfrey, Glen Snoddy, Bob Wilson, Freddie North, and Rob Santos to tell Excello’s story.
Fox opens the book with a story illustrating the far-reaching and monumental influence the label had on popular music: It was the fall of 1961 when a couple of British teenagers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, got together to listen to and talk about the blues. Among the records Jagger took to Richards’ house that day were some with the bright orange and dark blue Excello label. Concrete evidence of the label’s influence on them came three years later on the Rolling Stones’ debut album, which included a cover of the A-side of Slim Harpo’s first record for Excello, 1957’s “I’m a King Bee.” A few years later, the band would cover another of Harpo’s Excello releases on their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street; the song with which Fox’s book shares a title, “Shake Your Hips.”
If you are familiar with the Excello story at all, you know the name Ernie Young and Ernie’s Record Mart. You may also know that with the help of the Ernie’s Record Parade show hosted by legendary deejay John Richbourg, aka John R., on the pioneering R&B radio station WLAC, Young built Ernie’s Record Mart into a mail-order powerhouse for R&B and black gospel recordings, which is how Jagger came to have some of the label’s releases. As Fox notes in the book, for British teens like Jagger and Richards, “a goldmine of American blues, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll was just a stamp and a money order away from their doorstep.”
As did many of the best-known artists associated with Excello, Harpo came to the label via a relationship begun in 1955 with Louisiana-based independent record producer Jay Miller. “Most of the previous scholarship on Excello Records has focused on the Louisiana recordings,” Fox explains. “So there was a lot that wasn’t known about the earlier, pre-Jay Miller stuff, and the Nashville material recorded concurrently with Miller’s productions.”
Shake Your Hips is a deep dive into the entire history of Excello’s parent company, Nashboro Record Company, from its beginning in 1951 to the renaissance it enjoyed in the ’90s when much of the label’s catalog was released on compact disc. Fox’s research for the book quickly led him to the realization that there was much more to the Excello story than he had realized.
“The story of the subsidiary label Nasco and how (Young) had this flirtation with trying to score pop hits was new to me,” Fox says. “And very little of the story of the post-Ernie Young period had been told.”
The post-Ernie Young period began in the summer of 1966 when Young sold the entire business — record store/mail order business, record labels, and publishing companies — to the Crescent Company, which would own the business for 14 years before selling it to AVI.
As Fox delineates in the book, one of the company’s first moves under Crescent’s ownership was to begin construction of a state of the art studio at 1011 Woodland St. in East Nashville. Christened Woodland Studios, the facility housed two recording studios, as well as the recording and publishing divisions of the company. From there, Excello’s new owners looked to expand the label’s horizons, releasing soul and funk recordings, most notably Funky Music Machine, the 1972 album by former James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, billed as Maceo and All the King’s Men.
It was also during the ’70s the company moved into an area genuinely surprising to Fox. “Another thing that fascinated me — even though it’s a minor point — was their experiment with signing prog rock bands, such as the Electric Toilet and the Whalefeathers. It was just kind of a crazy wild period,” he says with a laugh.
In spite of the company’s occasional forays over the decades into other genres, Excello made its mark as a purveyor of authentic blues and R&B. That’s the music that influenced Jagger, Richards, and so many others, and that’s the music that makes Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story such an important book.
As Fox relates, after signing the Stones to Atlantic Records in 1978, founder Ahmet Ertegun spoke to Excello’s lasting influence in an interview with Esquire: “I think Jagger would have liked to be on a funky label,” Ertegun said. “I think Jagger would have liked to be on Excello. We were the closest he could get to Excello and still get five million dollars.”