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 them well.

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 as well.

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 in 1963?
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 Richmond.
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 you?
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 were fantastic.

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.

Official website: www.exileband.com
© Gary James All Rights Reserved