Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pucker Up For Exile

What do you get if you combine a dozen pairs of giant ruby red lips, a lead vocalist who bears a striking resemblance to Kung Fu’s David Carradine (minus the flute and backpack), and a band sporting almost as many beards as Supertramp at the height of their hirsuteness? During 1978 the answer took the form of the sultry, smoking, slow-tempo, synth-driven funk/disco chart topper ‘Kiss You All Over’, performed by veteran rock and roll combo, turned polished pop practitioners, Exile. Though considered by most to be an overnight pop sensation (like so many artists during the late 70s), Exile’s journey to the summit of the pop charts had defied most traditional routes during the fifteen years since the band had first come together as The Exiles, in Berea, Kentucky, way back in 1963. Their flirtation with pop superstardom may have proved fleeting, but though exiled from the mainstream charts following a flurry of pop/disco style hits, Exile reinvented themselves once more, and took up citizenship of the U.S. country charts for a further decade.

Back in 1963, a bunch of long haired students got together and formed a rock and roll band - no that unusual in and of itself. It was in the years following Castro’s takeover of Cuba, and it may have been in reference to the influx of Cuban ‘exiles’ into the U.S., that the band took their original name of The Exiles. The combination of long hair, and ‘rebellious’ rock and roll music led the band members themselves to be treated with derision, even outcasts, by many in the local Richmond region community. But it didn’t discourage lead singer Jimmy Stokley, Ronnie ‘Mac’ Davenport, Ronnie Hall, Paul Smith, Buzz Cornelison (keyboards), and J.P. Pennington (guitar/vocals), from plying their musical trade relentlessly over the next couple of years. Three of the bands founding members, Stokley, Pennington, and Cornelison, had already been part of a popular high school band called the Fascinations. Stokley was the early focal point of The Exiles, and the band were soon infusing their sets with the latest soul and R&B styled numbers - basically anything that had a good beat and could encourage a crowd to dance. The line-up was fluid during the period from ‘63 to ‘65, with several other Richmond region locals, Mike Howard, Larry Jackson, and Billy Luxon, also involved.

The Exiles may never have progressed beyond being a local act, had it not been for the touring Dick Clark ‘Caravan of Stars’, which traversed the U.S. during the mid to late 60s. The Exiles were recruited to be one of the opening acts for the likes of Brian Hyland, Tommy Roe, Young Rascals, and Freddy Cannon. With several years touring experience under their belt, by 1968 The Exiles had set up camp in Lexington, Kentucky. The band were still searching for a definitive style during that period, and flirted with everything from rock and roll, through soul/R&B, and country. During the late 60s and early 70s, The Exiles released a string of singles on various labels (Columbia, Date, SSS International, Curb), and worked with the likes of Tommy James, who produced their 1969 single ‘Church Street Soul Revival’, but beyond a couple of regional hits, The Exiles remained banished from the mainstream charts.

By 1973 The Exiles had become simply Exile, and their line-up had settled to Stokley (vocals), Pennington (guitar/vocals), Cornelison (keyboards), Kenny Weir (bass), and Bob Jones (drums). In that guise, Exile recorded their eponymous debut album in 1973 via the Wooden Nickel label, but neither album or associated singles made much of an impact. Exile remained unsigned, but undeterred, in pursuing their quest for success over the next few years. Their popularity in and around their home stated remained strong, thanks in part to a relentless touring schedule, and in 1977 Atco Records signed Exile to record a single. ‘Try It On’ sold well at a regional level, and became Exile’s first crossing into Hot 100 territory, reaching #97 during March of ‘77. The line-up had now evolved to include mainstays Stokley, Pennington, and Cornelison, along with a second keyboardist Marlon Hargis, Sonny Lemaire (bass), and Steve Goetzman (drums). As 1978 rolled around, Exile once more found themselves label-less, and as they’d done many times before, they sent out demo tapes to all and sundry deejays, producers, promoters, and labels. One such tape found its way to the home of producer Mike Chapman, he of the Sweet, Suzi Quatro, and Mud fame (to name a few to that point). The Australian born, British based Chapman was looking to broaden his horizons as a producer and was in search of American based talent. Within a year, Chapman would produce the likes of The Knack and Blondie, but his first major success story Stateside would arise out of his association with Exile. Chapman liked what he heard on Exile’s demo tape, and shortly after attended one of the band’s concerts - it happened to be, of all things, for the opening of an apartment complex in Lexington, Kentucky. Though the venue didn’t offer Exile the best surroundings by which to showcase their music to Chapman, he was impressed enough to make an offer to produce an album for Exile. With the weight of Chapman’s name behind them, Exile managed to score a recording deal with the Warner/Curb label.

Exile wrote much of their own material by that point, or more accurately guitarist/vocalist J.P. Pennington did, but for their debut single on Warner/Curb, Chapman offered them a song that he’d penned with long time writing partner Nicky Chinn. Exile liked what they heard when they listened to Chapman’s demo recording of ‘Kiss You All Over’. Chapman’s demo was a bare bones affair, with a simple guitar, bass, and drum combo accompanying his vocals. He encouraged Exile to improvise with their version, and the sextet adding lush, atmospheric keyboards, and added a funkier texture to it. The result was ready to unveil by mid ‘78. Exile’s ‘Kiss You All Over’ was a sultry, smoking soft rock hit, with more than a hint of synth-driven disco blended into the mix. The sensuous lyrics and slick production combined to produce just the kind of engaging sound for commercial pop/rock audiences. ‘Kiss You All Over’, which featured Stokley and Pennington sharing the lead vocals, debuted inside the U.S. Hot 100 during July of ‘78, and by September had puckered up and kissed the #1 spot. Interestingly, it replaced another somewhat sensuous, though more overtly disco-styled hit, ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ by A Taste Of Honey (see future post). After a four week stint at #1, Exile were supplanted by yet more of the same sensuous danceable soft-rock, ‘Hot Child In The City’ by Nick Gilder, produced by none other than, you guessed it, Mike Chapman. ‘Kiss You All Over’ experienced considerable cross-over success into other territories, peaking at #6 in Britain, and spending one week planted at #1 in Australia, late in ‘78. For a band of musicians who had been toiling away for fifteen years, it was no doubt gratifying to have finally cracked the code for mainstream commercial success - and in a none too subtle fashion.

Exile’s album, ‘Mixed Emotions’, elevated itself to a peak of #14 on the U.S. charts (OZ#52), largely on the lips of ‘Kiss You All Over’. The set did yield a further top forty hit with another Chapman/Chinn song, ‘You Thrill Me’ (US#40/OZ#31), but by November of ‘78, Exile had already returned to the studio, with Chapman, in an effort to recapture the lightning in a bottle that ‘Kiss You All Over’ had proven to be. Unfortunately, the formula couldn’t be replicated, although the lead out single ‘How Could This Go Wrong’ was a thoroughly appealing slice of pop-rock - again very much synth-driven. Chapman and Chinn penned ‘How Could This Go Wrong’ along with Exile guitarist J.P. Pennington, but the track pretty much tanked on the charts (US#88/UK#67/OZ#68), and it spelled the end of Exile’s residency inside the U.S. Hot 100. Its source album, ‘All There Is’, missed the U.S. album charts completely (OZ#96), though did yield one more minor hit on the Australian charts, ‘The Part Of Me That Needs You Most’ (#81).

For a while Exile found themselves touring the world in support of the likes of Aerosmith, Boston, and Heart, but by 1980 lead singer Jimmy Stokley had left the band. Stokley’s health declined over the ensuing years and sadly he died in 1985 from liver failure. The remaining members of Exile found themselves at yet another career crossroads. Their commercial success had proved fleeting and they were now in need of someone to front the band. Apparently the band approached Australian singer Darryl Cotton (ex-Zoot) to join them, but Cotton was experiencing a resurgence in his popularity at home, and declined the offer (thanks to 'jetboy' for the Darryl Cotton info. - see comment below). The band found a new vocalist and guitarist in the form of Les Taylor who worked on Exile’s 1980 album ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Producer Mike Chapman remained committed to the Exile cause for one more album, 1981’s ‘Heart And Soul’, which yielded a minor British hit single with the title track (#54). Original keyboardist Buzz Cornelison also jumped ship during this period, and was replaced by Mark Gray. Gray proved a valuable song-writing ally for J.P. Pennington, and the pair penned two songs, ‘The Closer You Get’, and ‘Take Me Down’, which were turned into hits by country-rock outfit Alabama. Other country oriented artists such as Dave and Sugar, Janie Fricke, and Kenny Rogers also recorded hit versions of Exile penned songs, and by 1983 Exile realised that they were only receiving half the returns for their hard work. To add the performance royalties to the mix, Exile decided to reinvent themselves as a country-rock outfit. For a year, Exile became the house band for a local club called the Rebel Room (not sure if they played behind chicken wire), and honed their new sound whilst penning new material (probably not at the same time). By 1984, Epic had signed Exile under their new country-rock guise, and the bandreleased a self titled album (U.S. Country #10), produced by Buddy Killen. The album yielded immediate results, spawning two U.S. #1 country hits, ‘Woke Up In Love’, and ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Memory’. The follow up set, ‘Kentucky Hearts’, shot straight to #1 on the country charts and produced two more country chart toppers in ‘Give Me One More Chance’ and ‘Crazy For Your Love’.

Over the course of the 80s Exile rose to become one of the pre-eminent country-rock acts in the U.S., with a string of chart topping albums, singles, and industry awards. By 1990, several long term members, J.P. Pennington, Les Taylor, and Marlon Hargis, had exited Exile, leaving the band to record the album ‘Still Standing’ with new members Mark Jones (vocals), and Paul Martin (guitar). Exile scored a handful of country hits over the next couple of years, but by 1993 the band found itself without a label, and with ongoing instability within the line-up, the decision was made to wind the band up with a number of farewell concerts. Both Pennington and Taylor had gone on to record solo albums, but by 1995 they had begun performing together and soon thereafter the Exile brand was resurrected. Over the ensuing decade plus, Exile have continued to tour on a regular basis, with Pennington featuring as a mainstay of the band’s line-up throughout.


jetboy said...

Australian singer Darryl Cotton (ex-Zoot) was asked by the band to join as Exile's vocalist in 1980 when Stokley left the band. However, he was experirencing a resurgence of popularity in Australia at the time via his 'Best Seat In The House' album (which contained the hit 'Same Old Girl') along with several TV offers and he declined their advances.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Wow - cool piece of info. there jetboy! Hope you don't mind, I've added that fact about Darryl Cotton in my post (with reference to your comment) - cheers mate :)