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R. Buckminster Fuller is credited with coining the phrase, “the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.” What he was really trying to say was that if a group of individually talented people work together successfully “that teamwork will produce an overall better result than if each person” was trying to do their own thing. That’s a overtly mathematical explanation for a successful band. But with a successful band, you got your math and then you got your chemistry. The end result is an unpredictable outcome of the collision between math and chemistry…with a whole bunch of emotion in between. And when it works out, it’s a miracle.
Exile may well be the most textbook illustration of this theory; if not in deed certainly in accomplishment and longevity. Case in point: How many other bands formed in 1963 are still speaking to one another?
God would probably not singled out Richmond, KY, 1963, as the starting point of His grand cultural experiment. Since the primary industries in this smidge of a central Kentucky community were tobacco-growing, whiskey-distilling, the Blue Grass Army Depot and God-fearing, band-rearing is in nearly direct conflict with the mission of the neighborhood. Cooking up rabble-rousing musical concoctions of rawknroll, R&B & LA-scenster pop are all dern good reasons to cast out the long-haired, mod clothes-wearing, rebellious rascals. So cast out were “The Exiles” as the band was originally named. The lemons-to-lemonade good news in being cast out, in part, gave them their name. It also planted the “sing for your supper” seeds they would use grow their career from that point forward.
As usually happens the first big performance moment is best remembered for what went wrong. Founding member, J.P. Pennington recalls, “It was our big debut in the Richmond City Park, summer ’63. We’d told everyone we were related to and everyone we knew about our big night. We were nervous. It got off to a good enough start then suddenly we were upstaged…by a fist-fight right in front of the stage.”
With skivvies changed and more tunes in tow The Exiles embarked on a heavy diet of sock hops, pool parties and any other gathering that music made better through ’63 into ’64. Every performing artist wants to hear more than their echoes playing when they are done. That’s why God invented the miracle of garage recording. It’s the classic cheap-but-effective path to musical immortality. Their miracle arrived in 1964. While not all the details can be recalled, the recording of “The Answer To Her Prayers” is a readily cited turning point for the fist-fight inspiring sock hoppers.
It seems like no time at all now but a long two years later came the seminal “big break” every artist prays for: The opening and backing band slot on the vaunted “Dick Clark Caravan of Stars.” As “American Idol” of its time, the exposure & experience gained doing the 15 minute opening slot then backing the likes of Freddy Cannon, Bryan Hyland and B. J. Thomas was wrapped in the package of great advice dispensed by Mr. Clark himself. After several shows he recognized the potential and boiled it down the primary essence. To J.P. it seems like yesterday Clark delivered his cogent career advice. “We had just finished a blazing show and were beside ourselves. We thought we’d done about as good a job could be done when Dick came over and gathered us around him. He looked us all right in the eye and said, ‘boys, you aren’t out here to entertain yourselves; it’s about the people who bought the tickets. Never forget your audience.’ ” It’s the band’s mantra to this day.
1967 found the band residents of the Big Apple all sharing a one-bedroom 4th story walk-up apartment on the upper west side. When Central Kentucky decides to take mid-town there’s gonna be a learning curve. Communicating with the locals, running with the “Blade Runner” traffic & how to get a slice without getting cut are the kindergarten lessons. They coped by moving in and unpacking their tried-and-true play-live-and-loud tools. The performance-addicted band utilized the band-on-the-lunge method & assaulted the area’s vibrant music scene. In their own way they stood out as soon as they drove up to a gig. It was unclear what their chosen mode of transportation said about their hopes or image. A hearse is either a sign of obtusely dark sense-of-humor or things to come.
For The Exiles the crucial “thing to come” was a record deal with Clive Davis’ Columbia Records. The recordings were highlighted by “Church Street Revival,” a song written, produced and performed with Tommy James who was as bright a star in the musical universe as there was at the time. They met opening a show for him in Baton Rouge that wowed the white hot star enough to offer his tune and talents.
It was straight to the Columbia studios for marathon 30-solid-hour session to cut this track. It also brought J.P. the first cut of his young songwriting career for the B-side, “John Weatherman.” In 30 hours you can think of everything; except maybe a way home. Midtown gas stations closed long before the track was wrapped and they were on empty. Time on the road spawns a strange brew of skills. Ironically among them is siphoning gas. But this was a band with a conscience: they left cash under the windshield wipers of the “vampired” vehicles. Considering it was cash left out in the open on cars on a New York City street they will not take bets as to whether it was still there when the owners returned to their fuel-lightened rides. It’s the thought that counts, right?
Although the road took them out of New York for a couple of years, it brought them back for a second all-in-one-room arrangement in 1968. This time it was the venal Broadway Central Hotel near the not-so-upper-west-side Bowery. No place does skid row like NYC & the Bowery. Only Army-cots-as-beds can make it the completely unforgettable experience. It brings its own share of history being known as the birthplace of Major League Baseball hosting the formation of the league’s first team, the Cincinnati Redlegs…along with birthing more cockroaches and rats than NASA could count.
Their collective experience to that point taught them they were one skill set short of a total band: songwriting. Their Bowery proximity fueled the motivation to write their own music which has transformed musicians to artists since time immortal. That motivation is best summed up by oft-repeated, seldom-thought-through phrase: “Well, hell. I can do that.” By 1971 they were writing incessantly. Shows & records from that point were dominated by their homegrown songs. It’s the whet stone for an image and the sharp edge on identity.