Move over Rhino, the Best of Excello Swamp Collection you put out in 1990 has given way to Excello's own series, and what glorious treasures it has unveiled. This cache of regional blues is more than simply another series of reissues, however, as it carries with it some of the genetic imprint of rock & roll. It's also the story of how a sound born and nurtured deep in the swamps of Louisiana was brought to the world by way of a Tennessee label.
Producer Jay D. Miller recorded some of the most wicked blues ever in his Crowley, Louisiana studio from 1955 into the late Sixties. Between he and Jerry West, the two wrote or co-wrote regional and national hits with names that are most often associated with Louisiana blues: Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Slim (who would also record for Chess), and Lazy Lester, as well as the lesser known Silas Hogan, Whispering Smith, Jimmy Anderson, and Lonesome Sundown. White men both, Miller's ear for a blues hook and West's composing proficiency laid the groundwork for a stable of black musicians that would have tremendous impact on performers from the Rolling Stones to Lou Ann Barton. And all this the result of a chance meeting at a 1955 record convention leading to an agreement for Miller to record Louisiana blues for a blues-based Nashville label run by a man named Ernie Young. Young's two labels, Excello and the gospel-oriented Nashboro, provided Miller with the distribution opportunity he needed, and ultimately gave both commercial success.
The Best of Excello Records and Dark Clouds Rollin': Excello Swamp Blues Classics are appropriate and impressive introductions to the label's lowdown swamp rhythms. Best of... features 30 cuts, including Slim Harpo's "Rainin' in my Heart" - #1 on Billboard's R&B chart in 1961 - Lightnin' Slim's "Bad Luck," and Lazy Lester's "I Hear You Knockin'," as well as non-Louisiana acts like Arthur Gunther's "Baby Let's Play House" (which charted regionally the year before Elvis Presley's 1956 version), and the Gladiolas' "Little Darlin'," later a hit for the Diamonds. Dark Clouds focuses specifically on Louisiana, highlighting Miller's body of work from 1955 through 1966, and is packed with choice cuts such as Slim Harpo's laconic "I'm A King Bee," classic swamp pop like Leroy Washington's "Wild Cherry," and Lightnin' Slim's "I'm Evil," plus Whispering Smith, Silas Hogan, Lonesome Sundown, and Jimmy Anderson. The two collections are as complementary as they are diverse.
Doubtless, the best known of Excello's artists is James Moore aka Slim Harpo. The Louisiana harp player produced an impressive if limited repertoire that continues to be a standard by which South Louisiana blues is measured. Hip Shakin': The Excello Collection is a two-CD compilation of more than 40 songs recorded over his relatively brief 10-year career (he died in 1970 at 54), including "King Bee" and "Shake Your Hips." Creating such standards as "Baby, Scratch My Back," "Tip on In," and "Te Ni Ne Ni Nu," Moore left an indelible stamp of short, gritty blues numbers that continue to delight listeners.
Lazy Lester's I Hear You Knockin': The Excello Singles comes close to matching Slim Harpo for defining swamp blues with his own inimitable harp style, having recorded the definitive version of Miller's oft-covered "Sugar-Coated Love." Likewise, Silas Hogan's easy-going, back-porch blues on Trouble: The Best of the Excello Masters, and the dark blues of Lonesome Sundown (Cornelius Green) on I'm a Mojo Man: The Best of the Excello Singles put the spotlight on two of the label's other artists, as well as the better known Lightnin' Slim (Otis Hicks), whose I'm Evil: Rare and Unissued Excello Masters, Vol. 1 is as seminal a recording of largely unreleased bluesy swamp brilliance as exists.
The music that Excello gave the world from Miller's Crowley studio also broke Southern stereotype with a marriage of black musical talent and white business acumen that would predate many of the Stax/Volt, Chess, and Atlantic Records sessions. Miller's sound superseded prejudice, crossing racial barriers with the universal language of music. Its heyday nearly 30 years past, these reissues from Excello Records nonetheless represent Southern Louisiana blues that's still as good as it gets.
For a dose of swamp pop and Louisiana blues, the second and final weekend of the 26th Annual Jazz and Heritage Festival takes place at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track Thursday, May 4 through Sunday, May 7.