J.P. Pennington Interview
While still in high school in Richmond, Kentucky J.P. Pennington put together
a group called The Exiles.
They had long-hair and played Rock ‘n’ Roll music, and it served
The Exiles were picked up by the Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars tour.
They opened the show and backed headliners like Freddie Cannon and B.J.
Thomas to name just a few.
By 1976 The Exiles became known as Exile and their style of music changed
Rock ‘n’ Roll gave way to Pop music, and later Country Music.
They enjoyed considerable success with a song called “Kiss You All
Over”. That song took them on the road with Aerosmith, Heart, Dave
Mason, Boston and Seals And Crofts.
By 1979, the group’s songs were being recorded by Kenny Rogers, Alabama,
and Janie Fricke.
“Exile” enjoyed four Number One songs in a row.
That led to an appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and eleven
nominations for Vocal and/or Instrumental Group Of The Year from the Academy
Of Country Music and the Country Music Association.
We spoke with J.P. Pennington about the success The Exiles and now Exile
have enjoyed over the years.
Q - J.P. just how dangerous was it to have long hair,
funky clothing and play rock ‘n’ roll in Richmond, Kentucky
A – Well, I’m not sure how dangerous physically it was but
socially it was pretty dangerous I guess. That’s one of the reasons
we named ourselves The Exiles. It’s Exile now. It was The Exiles at
first. We were trying to think of a name when we were in our first little
rehearsals in our trumpet players’ mothers’ basement and came
up with a few things. I don’t remember exactly what they were. But,
our drummer Mac, he pointed out that in the news at the time there was a
lot of news about the Cuban exiles. It was when the Cuban Missile Crisis
was going on and there was a big immigration from Cuba to Florida. He made
the observation that since we’re pretty much socially ostracized because
of our look and what we were choosing to do-----be in a band, maybe we should
call ourselves The Exiles. Everybody was just sort of rebellious enough
to say-----‘Hey, that sounds good’. That’s how we got
our name. The ramifications of having long hair and different clothing is
one of the ways it manifested itself in those days. That was in 1963.
Q – You probably played the small clubs in
A – Yeah.
Q – And then you did the Dick Clark Cavalcade
Of Stars Tour.
A – Yeah. Caravan Of Stars is what it was called.
Q – I’ve heard it referred to both ways.
A – I guess they did, yeah. You’re right about that. We met
a lady who was from this area. She worked in Dick Clark’s office in
L.A. Her name was Peggy Rodgers. She was home visiting for some reason,
maybe around Christmas time and she got to catch us I forget where now,
at one of our local gigs and she liked us. They happened to be looking for
someone to fill a spot in a tour that was coming up. One thing led to another
and we got hired on to do one of the tours. It was with, I forget who the
headliner was, it might have been Paul Revere And The Raiders I believe
who were just white hot at the time. Our job on the show was some arbitrary
number like 12 minutes or something like that of our songs; I mean cover
songs, what we were doing at the time which is what they wanted. Then the
single acts would come out. I believe Freddy Cannon was one of the ones
on that first show. Brian Hyland. There might have been a couple more on
that first one I can’t remember. It was our job to back them on the
hits they had, their current hits. Once that was over the headliner would
come on. It was Paul Revere And The Raiders. That was our first taste of
the Big Time. They played in all the biggest venues and of course they were
all sold out because all of those acts were very ‘hot’ at the
time. That was really an eye-opening experience for us. We’d never
played anywhere for probably more than 200 people at a sock hop or a pool
party or whatever. We really learned a lot. We traveled in buses. That was
a real luxury for us because we could just pack ourselves and all of our
equipment in a couple of cars and go and do our shows. But, that was our
first taste of the Big Time and it was a really great experience for us.
Q – So, how does a group hone their craft when you’re
only given 12 minutes?
A – It was hard and even harder in that the first day of the tour
Freddy Cannon and Brian Hyland came in that afternoon after we had set-up.
An hour rehearsal with them consisted of us standing in the dressing room
and having them teach us the songs. Then, about an hour later we’d
go on and do the show. (Laughs). Sort of baptism by fire as far as getting
up in front of an audience and trying to be somebody. But, I think a lot
of things were done that way in those days. Things are a lot different now.
Big acts like to be a lot more prepared and not have to sort of fly by the
seat of their pants as much as they used to. But, when I look back on it,
the crowd reaction was just as good as it is now, even with all the extra
preparation you take now I don’t know which is the best way. The main
thing is the audience is happy with what you do. Whatever works.
Q – Then you had Tommy James write and produce the song “Church
Street Soul Revival” for you. Was he on that tour as well?
A – No. We met Tommy at a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that we
opened for him. He liked us. He was getting into producing records quite
a bit at the time. He’d been a big star for quite a while. He was
interested in producing records. Tommy was a studio rat like a lot of songwriters
were and there was something he liked about us. He said, ‘I’ve
got this song that I’d really like to record you guys on. Do you have
a record deal’? We didn’t have a record deal, but one thing
led to another and by virtue of being able to drop his name to a record
label, our manager managed to get us a single deal with Columbia. So we
went to New York and cut this song ‘Church Street Soul Revival’,
the song that Tommy wrote. We went in and cut it and Tommy actually played
and sang on it with us as well. They had another little song for the B side.
Columbia released it. Up until that time we had a few records out on small
labels. That one came the closest of any to actually being a hit for us.
It did very, very well in a number of big markets but I guess there weren’t
enough big markets that added the record to making it a national hit. That
was actually our first Billboard charted single. I think it got up into
the 60’s or something like that which we were thrilled to death with.
Just a bunch of little Kentucky guys that had really never seen any success
at radio. That was a really good experience for Tommy. A very talented guy.
Q – And then in the late 70’s, you hit
the road with Boston, Heart, and Aerosmith. How did these people treat
A – Well, we didn’t see a lot of them. By that time a lot of
these Big Acts had stopped traveling in buses. They traveled in planes.
We didn’t see much of those people because they would fly in on a
private jet, get to the venue about 15 minutes before they went on. As soon
as they came off stage, it was like a bat out of hell to the limo and the
airport and they were gone. We did meet them but I cant’ say that
we got to know them very well. But, those were really good shows too. Those
Q – When did you make this transition from
being a Pop group to a Country group?
A – In ’78, we had the hit ‘Kiss You All Over’ which
was our coming out party. Somebody called us a 15 year overnight success
when that happened. We had a lot of difficulty, following up ‘Kiss
You All Over’ for whatever reasons. We put a few more records out
and they did o.k. A few of them did real well overseas. But, that wasn’t
our main concern. In the interim we started getting a lot of cuts in country
music of songs that we had either written and/or written and recorded on
our pop label. By virtue of that, to make a long story short------that’s
how we got noticed in country music as writers. So, this kept happening
to the point where we felt we need to either abandon the group altogether ‘cause
we were really sinking. Finally we had a meeting one day. We were torn between
either giving it up or trying to continue on as a Country group and try
to get a country deal and that’s what we decided to do. I guess it
took us a good 2 years to 2 and a half years to finally land a record deal.
We made a lot of trips to Nashville. Did a lot of showcases down there for
country labels and got turned down by everybody, on several different occasions.
But, this one guy from Epic Records kept coming back to see us and finally
he decided to take a chance on us. It happened pretty quickly. We did an
album, released one single and it did fairly well. We released another single
which went straight to Number One. After that we had like eight Number Ones
in a row and Several Number Ones after that. So, that’s how it happened.
The two songs that I think made the most difference as far as being cut
were 2 ‘ Alabama’ songs. ‘ Alabama’ was ‘the
hottest’ thing in Country music at the time. This was in the early
80’s. They cut two songs of ours. These were songs that were actually
covers. We had cut both of the songs on one of our pop albums when we were
on Warner/Curb. One was ‘Take Me Down’ and the other was ‘The
Closer You Get’. Those became Number One records for them. So we sort
of had that to hang our hat on when we would go in to talk to these labels.
I think that really helped us a lot.
Q – Through the years would you say you had
a number of personnel changes?
A – Yeah. We had a whole lot.
Q – Was it because they couldn’t deal with the hard times or
because they couldn’t deal with the pressure of success?
A – Well, it was probably a little bit of both. Before we had our
success from ’63 to ’78, during those times is when I’d
say we had the most member changes, and that was because of the hard times.
We had nothing going. The older people got the more responsibilities they
had to assume. Day jobs had to come into the picture. The band sort of became
just secondary. We lost a lot of members in those days.
Q – You actually performed on The Tonight Show.
A – We did.
Q – Was Johnny Carson hosting that night?
A – Yes he was. That was a real thrill getting to meet him. We didn’t
get to go over and sit and talk to him. We did our song. Just to see Johnny
Carson sit there, holding our album up to the camera and looking at us and
giving us a thumbs up saying, ‘Good job fellas’ was such a thrill.
Unbelievable. But, we did get to meet him and he was so gracious.
Q – What does the New Year hold for Exile?
A – We’ve got a lot of shows booked for next year already.
We normally do 60-70 shows a year. All those are one-nighters and are mostly
in the warm months. Winter time is when we take some time off; be with families
and write, go in the studio and what not. I’m planning on getting
a new album project going. We don’t have an album right now, but I’ve
got somebody who’s gonna shop the project for me, and we’ll
see what happens. I feel like we got a lot of great songs to choose from
so we’ll just have to make the decision of how many we’re gonna
cut and take it from there. I’m really looking forward to it.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved