Excello Records was started by Ernie Young owner of The Record Mart, in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1952. It was a subsidiary label of Nashboro records and was originally set to offer a catalog of Black Gospel music. Initially viewed as another outlet for his Gospel acts, Young soon realized the potential of the local R&B scene, and began recording regional artists like Kid King and 'Little Maxie' Bailey. An important factor in the Excello Records story is the radio station that helped spread R & B through the Eastern half of the country – WLAC. The fifty thousand watt clear channel beacon of the rhythm & blues express electrified many a listener far from the city of Nashville. Another major component of Excello's success can be attributed to 1956 when record producer J. D. Miller began working with the label and developed the sound known as "swamp blues", exemplified by Excello stars like Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo, Lonesome Sundown and Silas Hogan.
Miller operated a small studio and record label (Feature) out in the rice country of Crowley, Louisiana. He had been recording some regional Cajun and Country music in the early fifties with moderate success, when he first heard Lightnin' Slim at WXOK in Baton Rouge. Miller has said that Lightnin's music "did something to me", and, with the help of disc jockey Diggy-Doo, he recorded Lightnin's "Bad Luck" in the Spring of 1954. He pressed a few copies on Feature and sent them out to both Ernie's Record Mart and Randy's Record Shop to sell. When they started spinning the record on WLAC, the phones lit up, and before he knew it, they were ordering 500 copies at a time. There was no way J.D. could keep up with the demand, and he decided to travel to Nashville for a record convention in 1955. Miller met with Ernie Young and worked out a deal that would lease the material he was recording back in Crowley to Excello for release and distribution. Lightnin' Slim’ first few Excello singles sold very well in the South, and Miller's studio soon became ground zero for 'the sound known as "swamp-blues." As noted music historian John BrovenIn wrote: "J.D. 'Jay' Miller, is the Crowley, Louisiana record man who single-handedly put swamp-blues music on the map." Miller scored his big R&B hit on Excello with Guitar Gable's infectious instrumental "Congo Mombo" in 1956, followed closely by the swamp-pop standard "Irene", sung by Gable's vocalist King Karl. For the next three years Guitar Gable and King Karl had regular singles on the Excello label, culminating in "This Should Go On Forever" which provided a US Top 20 hit for swamp-popper Rod Bernard. Not only this but Gable's band was used as Miller's session group, recording everything from swamp-blues to rock'n'roll. Of his unique sound, Miller said: "It wasn't technical as far as audio but I had a sense of something. Maybe that was the best thing that could have happened. I didn't know too much about it, I didn't go by the book, because I went by these two things – my ears!!! I've had so many compliments about the sound I got."
In addition to Lightnin' Slim, Guitar Gable, Lazy Lester, and Lonesome Sundown would all appear on Excello by the end of 1956. Prior to the artists who defined "swamp blues", Excello recorded a variety of jump blues, R&B, vocal group, gospel material and even rockabilly; artists such as The Leap Frogs, 'Little Maxie' Bailey, Kid King's Combo, The Dixie Doodlers, Louis Brooks, Jack Toombs, The Peacheroos, The Marigolds, Larry Birdsong, Rudy Green and many other long forgotten names. J
Excello had its share of hits; their first was Arthur Gunter's "Baby Let's Play House", a # 12 R&B early in 1955. That tune, of course, was one of those that inspired a young Elvis Presley. Later that summer Louis Brooks & His Hi-Toppers got all the way to # 2 R&B with "It's Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)" with Earl Gaines doing the vocal, while The Marigolds went national with "Rollin' Stone", reaching # 8 R&B. From 1957 are two huge hits for the label, "Little Darlin'" by The Gladiolas peaked at a modest # 11 R&B in May, and also became their first Pop cross. Two months later they had their second Pop crossover with "Miss You So" by Lillian Offitt got to # 8 R&B and # 66 Top 100. Lightnin' Slim's "Rooster Blues" was a # 23 R&B hit in December 1959. Their most consistent artists in terms of national hits, however, was Slim Harpo whose "Rainin' In My Heart" was a # 17 R&B/# 34 Billboard Pop Hot 100 in June 1963, while "Baby, Scratch My Back" made it to # 1 R&B (2 weeks at that spot) and # 16 Hot 100 in February 1966. He would also have two more hits for Excello ("Tip On In Part 1" – # 37 R&B/# 127 Hot 100 "bubble under" in July 1967, and "Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu" – # 36 R&B in April 1968).
Lightnin' Slim recorded for 12 years as an Excello artist, from 1954 to 1965, starting out originally on J.D. Miller's Feature label. As the late '60s found Lightnin' Slim working and living in Detroit, a second career blossomed as European blues audiences brought him over to tour, and he also started working the American festival and hippie ballroom circuit with Slim Harpo as a double act. When Harpo died unexpectedly in 1970, Lightnin' went on alone, recording sporadically, while performing as part of the American Blues Legends tour until his death in 1974. While riding on a bus sometime in the mid-'50s, Lazy Lester met guitarist Lightnin' Slim, who was searching for his AWOL harpist. The two's styles meshed seamlessly, and Lester became Slim's harpist of choice. In 1956 debuted for Excello, recording prolifically for the label through 1965.
Clifton Chenier hired Lonesome Sundown, whose' real name was Cornelius Green, as one of his two guitarists (Phillip Walker being the other) in 1955. A demo tape was eventually sent to producer J.D. Miller who began producing him in 1956, leasing the records to Excello. Over the next eight years, Sundown's lowdown Excello output included "My Home Is a Prison," "I'm a Mojo Man," "I Stood By," "I'm a Samplin' Man," and a host of memorable swamp classics. In 1965 he retired from the blues business to devote his life to the church. It was 1977 before Sundown could be coaxed back into a studio to cut the excellent blues LP Been Gone Too Long. Sundown passed in 1994.
Arthur Gunter scored Excello's first national hit with "Baby, Let's Play House." Born in Nashville, Gunter was a regular at the record shop owned by Excello chief Ernie Young and the association led to his short-lived recording career. In fact, possibly the most interesting thing about Gunter's recorded output is that Elvis Presley cut a version of "Baby, Let's Play House" early in his career.
In the large stable of blues talent that Crowley, LA, producer Jay Miller recorded for Excello, no one enjoyed more mainstream success than Slim Harpo. It was fellow bluesman Lightnin' Slim who first steered him to local record man J.D. Miller. Harpo's first record, "I'm A King Bee", became a double-sided R&B hit. Even bigger was "Rainin' in My Heart," which made the Billboard Top 40 pop charts in the summer of 1961. In the wake of the Rolling Stones covering "I'm a King Bee" on their first album, Slim had the biggest hit of his career in 1966 with "Baby, Scratch My Back" which made Billboard's Top 20 pop charts. Follow-ups "Tip on In" and "Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu," were both R&B charters. Around this time Harpo contacted Lightnin' Slim, who was now residing outside of Detroit, MI. The two reunited and formed a band, touring together as a sort of blues mini-package to appreciative white rock audiences until the end of the decade. The New Year beckoned with a tour of Europe (his first ever) all firmed up, and a recording session scheduled when he arrived in London. Unexplainably he died suddenly of a heart attack on January 31, 1970.
In 1962, at the ripe old age of 51, Silas Hogan was introduced by Slim Harpo to producer Jay Miller and his recording career finally began in earnest. Hogan recorded for Excello from 1962 to early 1965, seeing the last of his single releases issued late that year.
By the end of 1966, Ernie Young had sold his labels to a corporation and left town. The new owners built a new studio and offices on Woodlawn Avenue in Nashville, losing most of that 'funky charm' forever. They also had no use for J.D. Miller, and began producing their biggest star themselves at the new plant. Although"Tip On In" and "Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu" sold fairly well in '67 and '68, the new records failed to capture that southwest Louisiana market. Harpist Whispering Smith made it in on the tail end of the swamp blues movement that swept the Baton Rouge region, working with Lightnin' Slim and Silas Hogan before making his own fine singles producer J.D. Miller.
The Excello label changed with the times putting out quality soul music and having a few minor hits. More soul oriented artists of this period included Little Sonny, Kip Anderson, Marva Whitney, Bobby Powell and Tiny Watkins among others The Kelly Brothers, The final blow to Excello was the changing to a Top 40 format by WLAC that strongly impacted sales. Excello issued its final release in 1975.
The Excello material has been reissued several times within the past decades. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Rhino Records put out several compilations from the Excello masters. In the early 1990's, the masters were sold to AVI entertainment. AVI's Rob Santos retained Tom Moulton to remaster and upgrade virtually the entire Excello catalog, with the result being many CD reissues from 1993 to 1996 in quite excellent sound. Many of today's tracks come from those ecellent reissues which unfortunatley are now out of print. By 1997, AVI itself was bought by Hip-O, a label associated with MCA, which has issued some Excello material including the four volume series The Excello Story and the 2-CD set Slim Harpo: The Excello Singles Anthology. Throughout the 1990's and early 2000's Ace Records extensivley reissued the Excello catalog, issuing a batch of terrific compilations and single artist collections. While there is unavoidably much overlap with the AVI reissues, there's a number of interesting tracks scattered throughout that do not appear on the AVI sets.