Wild Cards and Aces
Musical archaeology has unearthed a buried side of Music City. Nashville, we are learning, was a place where giants of R&B, blues, and jazz dropped in to perform at venues like the New Era and the Bijou Theater. It was a place where near-forgotten jump-blues artists like Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown inspired a generation of soul shouters. Above all, it was the hub of a small but lively R&B recording industry, fueled by obscure hopefuls who churned out dynamic singles before vanishing into history’s cut-out bin.
In the 1950s and ’60s, through the mail-order service of Ernie’s Record Mart on Third Avenue North, the Nashville R&B label Excello Records called out to soul and blues fans around the world. Its sprawling roster encompassed Music City swing and Louisiana swamp music, rural combos from Middle Tennessee and city slickers from Chicago. Recordings by Slim Harpo, Arthur Gunter, the Marigolds, and more unknown but equally vital artists all bore the orange-and-blue Excello imprint. The label/record store’s impact is impossible to gauge. Among Ernie’s clients, according to writer Philip Norman, was a young Keith Richards, who shared his Nashville R&B shipments with his pal Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones went on to cover not only several Harpo tunes but also “You Can Make It If You Try,” a Gene Allison smash written by Nashville producer and tunesmith Ted Jarrett. As for local bluesman Arthur Gunter, his recording of “Baby, Let’s Play House” wound up in the hands of a hillbilly cat named Elvis Presley. You may be familiar with the results.
What made Nashville R&B special? “First of all,” says John Broven of the British reissue label Ace Records, “the studio conditions were very primitivethere was a raw sound to the records. Then they have a very nice rhythmic pattern, like the mambo beat. There’s also some very nice horn work. These were basically jazz musicians playing R&B.”
For decades, this slice of Nashville music history seemed to have little market value, except in the hands of sharp-eyed collectors. But in recent years, reissues of prime Nashville R&B have met with critical acclaim and growing excitement. Of particular interest has been the catalogue of the Excello and Nashboro labels, founded by Ernie’s entrepreneur Ernie Young. Now, however, it appears that these recordings have more than historic, artistic, or sentimental value.
In a deal earlier this year, the Universal Music Grouppart of Seagram’s global entertainment octopus and parent company of MCA Nashville, Death Row Records, and other labelssnapped up the holdings of AVI Entertainment Group, which owned the masters of Excello and its related labels. While Universal would not confirm the amount of the purchase, a source familiar with the negotiations estimated the price at “a couple of million dollars at least.”
The sale is a mixed blessing for fans. Over the past three years, AVI had issued a steady stream of Nashville R&B and gospel compilationsnot just the obvious candidates, but also CDs featuring unsung local heroes like vocalist Roscoe Shelton and the wonderful 1950s gospel group The Skylarks. Unfortunately, the label did an erratic job of placing its releases in stores. Potential buyers complained they never saw some of the records anywhere in Nashville.
Universal’s clout should solve that problem. Andy McKay, VP of catalog development and A&R for Universal Music Special Projects, says Universal’s Hip-O oldies imprint “can do a better job” of making Excello reissues available. In time, the imprint stands to make money on these recordings, either through its own compilations or through licensing to various entitiesother labels, movie soundtracks, maybe even commercials. Ultimately, however, Hip-O will likely concentrate on the best-known Excello recordings, releasing fewer reissues with less tracks. As predicted, the first two post-AVI releases from Hip-O will be a Slim Harpo collection and a sampler of Excello’s renowned swamp-blues repertoire.
To do this music justice, Hip-O should study what Ace Records has done with its outstanding Nashville reissues. Led by John Broven, a music historian and R&B fanatic, Ace has quietly put out first-rate Nashville R&B and blues compilations for years. (Many of the AVI Excello reissues were simply repackages of existing Ace collections.) While Ace’s contractual rights last, the label is cranking out one exciting compilation of Nashville music after anotherreplete with generous track listings, informative liner notes, and snappy photos.
The early years of Music City soul emerge in all their honking, hair-raising glory on Ace’s Wail Daddy!, an ear-opening collection of Nashville jump-blues sides. In these 24 tracks, recorded between 1951 and 1954 for Excello and Nashboro, the city that would become the nation’s mecca for country music is a different world. The sound here is decidedly urbanrollicking jelly-roll piano, hip-swinging bass lines, and jazzy full-band charts that butt in and blare like car horns.
The groups themselves weren’t meant to last. As Daniel Cooper explains in his superb liner notes, Ernie Young nurtured a “here today/gone tomorrow outlook on artist development,” and brilliant acts like the Blue Flamers, Little Maxie Bailey, and Sherman Johnson sometimes cut only a couple of sides for Young before splitting Excello forever. And yet their music has an exuberance and vitality that lingers. The best tracks on Wail Daddy! show that Nashville’s brand of soul music was indeed something special.
In addition, Ace just released three other primo Nashville retrospectives. No Jive collects raw, rare country-blues sides by Arthur Gunter, the Dixie Doodlers, and more. The Oh Julie compilation features Nashville teen group The Crescendos and other late-’50s sensations from Young’s Nasco pop label. And Hey Baby! The Rockin’ South assembles 30 slabs of Nasco and Excello rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll; included are two tracks by Franklin’s The Monorays, which counted among its members Johnny Potts, today proprietor of local club the Sutler. (We’re unsure, however, if the Ray Batts featured on Hey Baby! is the same Ray Batts who for years hawked furniture to Nashvillians with the jingle “my kind of furniture man.”)
There’s still more to come. In September, Ace releases Across the Tracks 2, a sequel to last year’s landmark Ted Jarrett compilation“a great word-of-mouth record with good sales,” according to Broven. And there’s still an instrumental Excello collection due for October that will focus on local combos featuring tenor saxophonist Louis Brooks and pianist Skippy Brooks, among others.
In a way, it’s fitting that a British label should be the one to make us properly appreciate the musical heritage hidden on our own city streets. Nashville’s R&B artists have never received their due at home; it was a bittersweet triumph when Ted Jarrett and the marvelous singer Earl Gaines filled a Second Avenue nightspot during this year’s NEA Extravaganza. That the Excello recordings, the famous and the forgotten, should wind up at one of the world’s largest music concerns 40 years after their heyday is an irony worth savoring. In Music City, that’s the definition of overnight success.Jim Ridley
One of the highlights of the year for blues fans is the annual Musicians Reunion and Benefit, presented every year by Nashville’s own “Queen of the Blues,” Marion James, and the Music City Blues Society. Not only do you get to spend all night with Nashville blues greats of the past and present, but James herself cooks the platters of soul food that have come to be as much of an attraction as the music.
This year’s lineup includes a real treat for Nashville blues connoisseurs: hotshot guitarist Johnny Jones, whose career includes the Night Train TV show in the 1960s and sessions on some of the hottest R&B records ever made in this city. (In case you didn’t know, legend says Jones once whupped Jimi Hendrix in a guitar duel here in the early ’60s.) Also featured on the bill are longtime Nashville soul man Clifford Curry, along with Deford Bailey Jr. & Carlos Bailey, Rick Vito & the Blues Town Rhythm Kings, the Roadrunners, Dan Dowling & the Metrotones, Richard Waters & the Blues Boyz, Lady Dianne, Mike Holloway, Richard Fleming & the Hypnotics, Aron Vonell, Shawn Wanzer, and the usual unannounced surprise guests.
The benefit begins 5:30 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Elks Lodge, 2614 Jefferson St. Admission is $10, and dinner is available for an extra charge. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Music City Blues Musicians Relief/Flower Fund and such programs as Blues in the Schools.Jim Ridley
One of the most rewarding and underappreciated styles in the air right now is the low-key, tinkly indie-folk of bands like Spent, Butterglory, East River Pipe, Portastatic, and the Brooklyn combo Ladybug Transistor. All of these groups have found magic in the grooves of old songs and in classic productionthe extra bells and whistles that made the old Hit Parade stand up straight. In the case of Ladybug Transistor, who perform this week at Lucy’s Record Shop, being cooped up in a big city has expanded the musicians’ imaginations, instilling a desire to create music that breathes.
The group’s most recent LP, Beverly Atonale, gives us a glimpse into what the Velvet Underground’s first LP might have sounded like if it had been produced by Phil Spector. The record opens with a hard-sounding piano rag, which turns into “Rushes of Pure Spring,” a Burt Bacharach-esque ditty with mellow organ fills and trumpet flourishes. The next song, “Windy,” brings a kettle drum into the mix, augmenting trumpets and chimes with a “Be My Baby” cadence. The rest of the album continues in this vein, building on a backbone of muted vocals and muted rhythm guitar, frosting the band’s murmuring pop with sprightly instrumentation.
Like their contemporaries, Ladybug Transistor take timeless materials and build livable little rooms, where music rings off the windows. They have small ambitions, and their record fades in the stretch, but what they’ve created has a fragile beauty that can be breathtaking. In concert, as on record, they’re like hobbyists who build detailed miniatures that have both complexity and a firm base; onstage their sound has a pastoral prettiness that suggests a view beyond the fire escapes and skyscrapers. Ladybug Transistor performs at Lucy’s Friday night on an all-pop bill with Crop Circle Hoax, Calypso, the Friendlies, and Everything’s Gone Green.Noel Murray
Aashid Himons returns to the Nashville stage this Saturday at Exit/In to present the latest evolution of his ongoing musical journey. His new band, Aashid & the Blu-Reggae Underground, will feature elongated, limber jams and fierce blues-rock tunes with an undercurrent of mysticism and slow-baked funk. His big band, which features several new members along with some longtime collaborators, includes keyboardist and electronics wizard Giles Reaves, percussionist and electronic mallet player Kirby Shelstad, guitarists Mike Simmons and Reggie Wooten, bassist Jamie Simmons, and drummer Paul Simmons. Prior to the Blu-Reggae Underground performance, disc jockeys Akilah and Sister Love will spin Jamaican dancehall music. Aashid promises the show will be the first of several in coming months.
The Amazing Rhythm Aces will host a benefit and tribute show for longtime drummer Butch McDade, who is currently battling cancer. The recently reformed group, led by singer Russell Smith and featuring several original members, performs Friday at 3rd & Lindsley in a special night billed as “Aces and Friends.” Besides such classic tunes as “Third Rate Romance,” “The End Is Not in Sight,” and “Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song),” the band will play songs from its newly released independent album, Out of the Blue.
Al Delory and his Salsa en Nashville band have been drawing spirited crowds to their late-night dance parties at Caffé Milano. The pianist and his Latin-based trio have been concentrating on dance numbers for the after-dinner performances, which take place this Friday and Saturday night at 11 p.m.Michael McCall
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