One of the benefits of Nashville’s ongoing boom has been the burgeoning narratives that counter or add depth and nuance to the city’s image as the capital of country music. Perhaps the most valuable and relevant has been a re-examination of the role of race in civic history, from its significance as a staging ground for activism during the civil-rights movement to the role of Jefferson Street as a hub for the rhythm-and-blues Chitlin Circuit that was essential to the rise of rock’n’roll. In Shake Your Hips, Randy Fox narrates the history of Nashville’s Excello Records, which gave the world Slim Harpo, and, through a scant few degrees of separation, the Rolling Stones.
“The story behind the beloved blue and orange label has even more twists and turns than the fascinating and funky music produced by Excello,” Fox writes. “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.”
Fox begins his narrative with the famous anecdote of how Keith Richards and Mick Jagger connected as schoolboys thanks to Jagger’s possession of a superior collection of American R&B records, including a Slim Harpo disc released on the Excello label. “Harpo’s laid-back, minimalist take on downhome blues was truly unusual,” Fox writes. “The plodding, muffled bassline and percussion of ‘I’m a King Bee’ invoked an otherworldly atmosphere, while the harmonica and the half-spoken hillbilly-tinged vocals floated like a cloud of insects on a sweltering summer evening in the Louisiana swampland.” Some fifty years later, Keith Richards observed that “You can almost smell the swamp coming off this thing.”
Having established Excello’s bona fides for the lay reader, Fox dives quickly into the remarkable tale of a man named Ernie Young, who transitioned from selling pinball machines to opening Nashville’s first stand-alone record store, Ernie’s Record Mart. Eventually Young launched the Excello label, mining the talent of R&B musicians who were drawing integrated audiences to the clubs on Jefferson Street. The records he produced indirectly launched the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Fox’s lively account of the history of Excello covers enormous ground in its slim 156 pages. It offers rich insights into the culture of Nashville during the post-war years. It tracks the history of a small business built on shrewd management and good timing, one that turned into a thriving corporate asset which endured until the 1970s. It provides a tidy and insightful history of music production and distribution in the early days of the industry, when customers outside urban areas had no means of access to music other than radio and mail order. It proves, as Keith Richards observed, “that not all records were made in Chicago or New York.” Moreover, Fox deftly illustrates the value of music as a means of bridging the walls and trenches of social, economic, and cultural segregation in a city whose history on the issue of race is much more complicated than the popular narrative suggests.
The coda of Shake Your Hips returns to the Rolling Stones: “I think [Mick] Jagger would have liked to be on a funky label,” said Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun in a 1978 interview with Esquire. “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.” Fox proves beyond doubt (if any remained) that the explosive popularity and influence of the Stones, the Beatles, and the many other blues-crazed white boys on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean would have been impossible without the likes of Slim Harpo, Ernie Young, and small, regional record companies like Excello.
The more compelling theme of Shake Your Hips, however, is the function of American roots music as a unifying force. After all, as Fox nimbly demonstrates, “a flick of a switch and the drop of a needle is all that’s required to create the same magic that entranced a teenager in his bedroom at the Lauderdale Courts housing project in Memphis, or an aspiring harmonica player listening to the radio in a Baton Rouge diner, or two young men in a Dartford flat listening to records who decided to play in a rock’n’roll band.”
Ed Tarkington holds a B.A. from Furman University, an M.A. from the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. from the creative-writing program at Florida State University. His debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016. He lives in Nashville.
Tagged: Book Reviews, Non Fiction