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Album: Mixed Emotions
Casual country fans might be shocked to know that the 80’s country hitmakers, Exile, toured with acts such as Aerosmith, Heart, Dave Mason, Boston, and Seals & Crofts in 1978. Although their first no. 1 country hit was Woke Up in Love in 1983, their first-ever no. 1 song was Kiss You All Over, a mellow soft rock/pop hit, sung by Jimmy Stokely and J.P. Pennington. The song went to no. 1 on Billboard in 1978, spending 23 weeks on the charts.
The Kentucky based group, Exile actually began as ‘the Exiles,’ co-founded by Jimmy Stokley and J.P. Pennington in 1963. When you listen to Kiss You All Over, you’ll hear two distinct vocals, a lower one and a higher one, although at times the two are basically imitating one another. The lower one, which begins the tune, is Jimmy Stokley who was, in reality, the driving force of the band in those days.
In fact, in the earliest days of the band, when most of the original members were still in high school, they were called Jimmy Stokley and the Exiles. Even according to Pennington, the band was “riding Jimmy’s coattails.” However, according to long-time Exile fans, familiar with the early days, it was Pennington who kicked Stokley out of the band after the producer decided that Stokley should go after he pressed for a better deal. After the producer gave J.P. an ultimatum, Pennington chose to fire Stokley from the band rather than lose the deal, in 1979. This may or may not have contributed to Stokley’s alcohol abuse (over heartbreak) and his subsequent death from hepatitis, 1985. Whether this is true or not, and many fans insist it is, it not the focus of this article. But if you would like to hear a better example of his voice, listen to Church St. Soul Revival below, since Kiss You All Over doesn’t really do him justice, nor his Steven Tyler-Esque screams.
Although Jimmy was as Kentucky born-and-bred as the rest of the band, however, the band’s becoming country legends would probably be more due to Pennington’s country roots.
Pennington came from a major country family. His mother was Lily May Ledford, a banjo and fiddle player who was head of the Coon Creek Girls with her sisters. They were a featured act in manager John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance where J.P.’s father, Glenn Pennington, the future owner, also performed.
J.P. Pennington’s uncle was none other than Red Foley (Clyde Julian Foley), country music legend and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame member.
Despite his obvious country roots, however, J.P. Pennington had no intention of becoming a country musician when he started the Exiles. After the band’s country success, he admitted to one interviewer that “If somebody would have told me in 1972 that I was gonna be in a country band with a number one record, I would have beat them to death with an Iron Butterfly record.”
The Exiles had started out touring with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars in 1965 and then providing back-up for a variety of rock and pop groups. After changing their name to Exile in 1973, they had their first taste of success with Try It On, after which Kiss You All Over became a number one hit in 1978. They later had some foreign success but failed to have the same success in the U.S.
Following Jimmy Stokley’s departure and some other personnel changes, and a new lead singer (to share vocal duties with Pennington) the band went into their own sort of Exile, returning to Kentucky where they worked in local clubs including as a bar band in The Rebel Room, a bowling alley in Lexington, Kentucky.
While the band was toiling in relative obscurity, an odd thing was happening. The songs that they recorded in the mid-1970s and were considered pop or soft rock were being thought of more as country, garnering the band a following. Soon, major country acts like Dave and Sugar who Janie Fricke (It Ain’t Easy Being Easy) were covering their songs, which required only a slight retool to be presented to a country audience. The story is often told that they were intentionally re-working their sound after their return to Kentucky, but some sources seem to doubt this, and imagine that the band was pulled into country, which is probably a bit closer to the truth, if not the whole truth. It is very difficult to trace the true history of musical acts, especially bands, as spinning goes on with more than just records.
One of the most famous covers of an Exile song, recognizable to this day as a country-pop classic, was a cover by the band Alabama, The Closer You Get. You’ll recognize, perhaps, the lyrics:
The closer you get,
the further I fall.
I’ll be over the edge now,
in no time at all.
Listen to the Exile’s original, and then to Alabama’s rendition, and you’ll realize that the lines between country and pop were quite blurred. Pennington could not escape his country roots, even despite a distinct disco-inflection in some of the earlier pop songs.
Exile transformed themselves from a pop and soft-rock act into a Southern rock, country-rock/pop band and reemerged as country stars with their country chart success, High Cost of Leaving, which went to no. 27. Then came their first number one hit, Woke Up in Love, which was followed by a slew of other hit songs including many number one’s in 1984-1987:
- I Don’t Want To Be A Memory
- Give Me One More Chance
- Crazy For Your Love
- She’s A Miracle
- Hang On To Your Heart
- I Could Get Used To You
- It’ll Be Me
- She’s Too Good To Be True
- I Can’t Get Close Enough
Much of this transformation was due to the influence of the new singer and guitar player Les Taylor. After Pennington and Taylor left in 1987, the band managed to hang on for a few more hit songs but finally disbanding in 1993. Since then the band has reformed several times with the core membership of Pennington and Taylor and they are still going strong to this day.
Kiss You All Over by Exile Video
Church St. Soul Revival Featuring Jimmy Stokley
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