Exile (American band)

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Head shots of the members of the band Exile
Exile in 2013. L–R: Steve Goetzman, Les Taylor, Marlon Hargis, Sonny LeMaire, and J.P. Pennington.
Background information
Also known asThe Exiles, Jimmy Stokley and the Exiles
OriginRichmond, Kentucky, U.S.
GenresCountry, soft rock[1]
DiscographyExile (American band) discography
Years active1963 (1963)–1995, 2005–present
SpinoffsBurnin' Daylight
Past membersSee List of members

Exile is an American band founded in Richmond, Kentucky, in 1963. Originally known as the Exiles, the band played cover songs and local events in the state of Kentucky for a number of years before becoming a backing band on the touring revue Caravan of Stars. After a series of failed singles, Exile achieved mainstream success in 1978 with "Kiss You All Over", a number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100. This iteration of the band mostly played soft rock and pop music, with Jimmy Stokley handling most of the lead vocals alongside lead guitarist J.P. Pennington.

After Stokley was fired due to his declining health, Mark Gray and Les Taylor joined as vocalists, although Gray departed after only three years to begin a solo career. Exile began a transition to country music in the beginning of the 1980s with Pennington and Taylor as both lead vocalists and guitarists alongside Sonny LeMaire (bass guitar, harmony vocals), Marlon Hargis (keyboards), and Steve Goetzman (drums). This lineup was featured on their 1983 album Exile, their first as a country band and their first on Epic Records. Between then and 1987, Exile had ten number-one singles on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, as well as a number-one country album with Kentucky Hearts in 1984.

Hargis, Pennington, and Taylor left the band between 1987 and 1989, with LeMaire and multi-instrumentalist Paul Martin alternating on lead vocals for two albums on Arista Nashville between 1990 and 1991. During the early 1990s, both Pennington and Taylor recorded as solo artists. Exile disbanded in 1995; LeMaire later founded the band Burnin' Daylight before writing songs for other artists. Individual members of Exile played a number of informal shows between the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, but the early-1980s lineup of Pennington, Taylor, LeMaire, Hargis, and Goetzman did not re-establish until 2008. Exile has continued to tour and record under this lineup ever since.

Exile's sound is defined by vocal harmony with rock and pop influences, and the band is noted for their successful transition from rock to country. Many of their country music releases were co-written by Taylor and Pennington. Songs of theirs have also been covered by Alabama, Huey Lewis and the News, Dave & Sugar, and the Forester Sisters.


Exile was founded in Richmond, Kentucky, in 1963 as the Exiles,[2][3] by a group of students attending Madison High School. Author Randy Westbrook, in the book 50 Years of Exile: The Story of a Band in Transition, describes the band's origins as "murky" due to conflicting accounts between early members.[4] According to Westbrook, founding drummer Mack Davenport began playing as a teenager in a band called The Kings of Rhythm, which performed at local high school dances. Davenport recalled this band consisting of Paul Smith Jr. on bass guitar, Doug Jones on lead guitar, Ronnie Hall on vocals, Doug Begley on saxophone, and Billy Luxon on trumpet.[5] The band played jazz, soul, and blues. After an unknown number of performances, this group became The Fascinations, which consisted of Davenport, Smith, Luxon, Jones, and percussionist Eddie Rhodus, with Hall and Jimmy Stokley both providing vocals. Rhodus died in a car accident and Jones departed in 1963, at which point (according to Westbrook) the five remaining members dissolved that band and founded the Exiles.[2][6] They entered a contest in Richmond that same year, which featured a recording session as its grand prize. The Exiles lost to a band called the Digits, although after the competition, Jones left for undisclosed reasons and the other members recruited the Digits's guitarist Mike Howard to take his place.[7] The name "the Exiles" was inspired by the Cuban exodus, or exile of Cubans to the United States following the Cuban Revolution.[8]

Originally, Stokley and Hall alternated as lead vocalists.[9] However, the other band members thought that Stokley was "much more dynamic" and fired Hall in 1964.[10] J.P. Pennington joined soon after, having previously played in a local band called the Le Sabers. This band's lead singer was Leroy Pullins, later known for his 1966 novelty hit "I'm a Nut". The other members of Exile persuaded Pennington to play bass guitar despite his unfamiliarity with the instrument, which allowed Smith to begin playing rhythm guitar instead.[11] Westbrook refers to the band's lineup in 1964—Howard, Smith, Davenport, Pennington, Luxon, and Stokley—as the "core" of the Exiles.[12] After rehearsing in Luxon's mother's basement in Richmond, they performed publicly for the first time in 1964 at Irvine-McDowell Park in Richmond. Most of their other early performances were at sock hops and high school dances.[13] Early shows included covers of songs by artists such as the Temptations and James Brown.[14]

Stokley wanted to incorporate keyboards into the band. As he found it difficult to sing and play keyboard at the same time, he selected Buzz Cornelison (who had briefly played with the Kings of Rhythm) to take over that role.[15] Cornelison initially played an electric organ which Stokley had bought at Sears, but after realizing the instrument's technical limitations, purchased a Farfisa electric organ.[16] As Cornelison was the only band member with formal music training, he taught the other band members melodies to cover songs using a melodica.[17] They spent most of the early-mid 1960s performing in local gigs throughout Kentucky. According to Pennington, the other band members often felt unsafe when staying at hotels, as they were all teenagers at the time and were often ridiculed by other patrons for their long hair.[18]

One of the band's recurring gigs was at a youth center in Martin, Kentucky, whose owner David Grigsby would accompany them on tenor saxophone and offer advice on performing. Grigsby encouraged the Exiles to submit a demo to Nashville radio station WLAC disc jockey John Richbourg (who used the name John R. Grigsby on air). Richbourg arranged for the band to record their first single in 1965: "The Answer to Her Prayers", a song which Smith wrote. Despite Cornelison criticizing the lyrics as misogynistic, the song received local attention around Kentucky.[19] After performing a number of times at Speck's, a nightclub near Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, they became that club's house band.[20] As Luxon, Pennington, Cornelison, and Howard all contributed backing vocals, the Exiles began incorporating cover songs with more vocal harmony, such as the Young Rascals and the Beach Boys.[21] Pennington quit the Exiles in 1965, as he was only 16 at the time and his parents thought he was too young to be in a band.[22] Following Pennington's departure, Smith reverted to bassist, creating a six-piece lineup with Howard, Davenport, Luxon, Stokley, and Cornelison. Grigsby encouraged the band to keep recording soul music, as Stokley had a "raspy voice" which Westbrook compared to Wilson Pickett and James Brown.[23]

1965–1972: Caravan of Stars and early singles[edit]

In late 1965, Richbourg took the band to Nashville a second time to record material which he selected and produced. These sessions included the single "Alligator Time". It featured double entendre lyrics and spoken-word ad-libs by Stokley.[24] The single was credited to Jimmy Stokley and the Exiles, and was issued through Monument Records.[25] Grigsby also contacted Peggy Rogers, a manager for radio and television host Dick Clark. After seeing the band perform at Speck's, she encouraged them to travel to Cincinnati Music Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they would be a backing band for Lou Christie at a stop on Clark's Caravan of Stars touring revue. The Exiles rehearsed with female backing vocalists who would also be accompanying Christie on a rendition of his single "Lightnin' Strikes". During rehearsal, Cornelison noted that the backing vocalists had been singing the wrong notes and taught them the correct melody. As Christie had no time to practice with the band and vocalists due to travel delays, he did not notice this correction until the performance. Afterward, he noted that other backing bands had been performing the song incorrectly as well, and asked who was responsible for correcting the arrangement. When Cornelison stated he was responsible, Christie asked him to write down the correct notes, a move which impressed Rogers.[26]

A black-and-white head shot of Dick Clark
Early on, Exile was a backing band for Caravan of Stars, a touring revue hosted by Dick Clark.

In 1966, the Exiles were asked to accompany a Caravan of Stars performance at Stoll Field in Lexington, Kentucky, after a truck intended to deliver musical instrmuents to said show broke down. Due to their success in this capacity, they continued to do throughout October and November. One act they accompanied in this timespan was the Yardbirds.[27] John Caldwell, a Caravan of Stars manager, encouraged the band to travel to New York City in 1967 to record singles for Date Records. These featured the Exiles solely as vocalists, with the instruments played entirely by session musicians. They recorded a cover of the Young Rascals's "What Is the Reason", as well as the originals "Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are" and "I'd Love to Give My Love Away". None of these singles was successful.[28] Caldwell also invited the band to move to New York City at this point; Cornelison refused and quit the band, as he wanted to rejoin college and study musical theater. He was replaced in late 1966 by Bernie Faulkner, who had played with them at Speck's a number of times before Cornelison's departure allowed him to become a full-time member. In addition to keyboard, Faulkner contributed on guitar and saxophone.[29] Smith was drafted shortly after the band's move to New York City, leaving Exile without a bass player. He was briefly replaced with Larry Davis, whom the other members met while in New York, but he quickly left due to personality conflicts.[30] As a result, Howard contacted Pennington and asked him to rejoin. Unlike when Pennington had quit, his parents were supportive of him rejoining, and he did so in 1967.[31] After three months of playing various venues in and around New York, the Exiles returned to Kentucky in 1967 and resumed performing at Speck's. By this point, the band has begun incorporating unusual costumes into their show, such as oversized headdresses, cricket uniforms, and "mismatched Edwardian suits",[32] as well as strobe light effects.[33]

Due to their success backing Caravan of Stars, they were invited to do so again in 1967 and 1968. Their performances at the time included twelve minutes of cover songs at the beginning of the show, followed by accompanying other performers on the bill. Among the musicians for whom they served as a backing band were Freddy Cannon, Brian Hyland, and Paul Revere and the Raiders.[34] After the 1968 tour of Caravan of Stars ended, they were contacted by Mark Alan, a talent agent who invited them to come back to New York for another recording session with Date Records. Unlike the previous session, they were allowed to play their own instruments this time. These sessions resulted in one single, "Mary on the Beach".[35] However, the band was dissatisfied with their living conditions in New York and left again in early 1969.[36] Soon afterward, Howard was drafted as well, and he served in Vietnam for eleven months. He declined to rejoin, as he was disappointed by the second trip to New York as well as the lack of original material in the band's repertoire. Howard became a construction worker and then worked in a post office before retiring in 2009.[37] Following Howard's departure, Cornelison rejoined after being turned down for a job playing piano at a lounge in northern Kentucky.[38] As a result, Exile did not have a lead guitarist, instead relying on both Cornelison and Faulkner as keyboardists. In addition, Cornelison played trumpet, while Faulkner also played saxophone and rhythm guitar.[39]

Alan booked the Exiles as an opening act for Tommy James and the Shondells at a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1969.[40] Lead singer Tommy James enjoyed the band's performance and invited them to travel to New York a third time, as he wanted them to record a song he had written titled "Church Street Soul Revival". Pennington alternated with James on lead guitar in addition to his usual role as bassist.[41] The song was released in 1969 on Columbia Records and became the band's first chart entry, making number four on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles charts.[42][43] In 1970, the band was recommended to musician and producer Buddy Buie, who also wanted to record a song with them. This song, "Put Your Hands Together", featured the Exiles accompanied by the Atlanta Rhythm Section, of which Buie was a member.[44] As this song was also unsuccessful, the band began expressing disappointment with Alan's management. In addition, Pennington had begun writing original songs for the band to record, but Stokley and Cornelison were not interested in writing songs, and the original material proved unpopular in concerts. Davenport quit in late 1971 or late 1972, attributing his departure to the band's continued lack of success. He went on to become a bartender, and was replaced on drums by Bobby Johns.[45] Pennington left a second time in 1972, as he wanted to move to California with his cousin. While the other band members expressed a desire to break up, they remained together at Stokley's insistence, and Johns recruited guitarist Kenny Weir and bassist Bill Kennon. Pennington returned to the Exiles after only a few months, assuming the role of guitarist this time. As a result, Kennon departed and Weir took over on bass.[46] Westbrook noted that this lineup allowed a more hard rock sound in addition to the existing vocal harmonies, as well as the presence of Faulkner's saxophone and Cornelison and Luxon's trumpets, for a sound "more intricate than what was expected from the average bar band".[47]

Pop music career[edit]

1972–1975: Wooden Nickel Records[edit]

In 1972, the band was offered a recording contract by Chicago-based Wooden Nickel Records. As they thought "the Exiles" sounded "dated", the band shortened its name to Exile. Their first Wooden Nickel album, the self-titled Exile, was released in 1973. Wooden Nickel co-owner Bill Traut served as producer. He allowed the band to perform all of the instruments and vocals by themselves; except for some vocal overdubbing, the entire album was recorded in only one take. Despite this, Traut selected most of the material, which included covers of Seals and Crofts, Van Morrison, and Todd Rundgren, and he wanted the band to perform in a blue-eyed soul style. The album included only two original songs: Pennington wrote "Do What You Think You Should", while he, Stokley, and Traut co-wrote "Hold Tight, Woman".[48] Wooden Nickel released a second album in late 1973 titled Stage Pass. It included two songs written by Pennington and one by Johns, while the rest was once more composed of cover songs. Among the covers was one of the Beatles's "We Can Work It Out" arranged by Cornelison. Also included was a live recording of Jeff Beck's "New Ways/Train Train", which featured a number of solos from all members. Both of the Wooden Nickel albums were unsuccessful commercially, and the label dropped the band by year's end.[49]

Following their departure from Wooden Nickel, the band lost three members in quick succession. Faulkner left in late 1973, due to disillusionment over the failure of the Wooden Nickel releases and began working at Lemco Studios, a recording studio in Lexington, Kentucky.[50] He also released one single in 1983 as a member the country music band Hazard.[51] Weir left at an unknown point prior to late 1974; according to Westbrook, neither Cornelison nor Pennington could remember why Weir exited the band.[52] Soon after departing Exile, Weir died in a car accident. Danny Williams replaced Weir on bass guitar in 1974.[52] Luxon quit around the time Williams joined, citing the lack of horn parts on the Wooden Nickel albums. He went on to own a nightclub in Richmond until he sold it in 1993.[53] Taking Faulkner's place on keyboards was Marlon Hargis, a native of Somerset, Kentucky. He had become acquainted with Exile through his work as a keyboardist in Lemco Studios, where members of Exile had joined in on recording commercials, demos, and country music albums by local artists.[54]

1975–1978: "Try It On" and "Kiss You All Over"[edit]

A head shot of musician Jimmy Stokley.
Founding member Jimmy Stokley was the band's lead singer at the time of their first major hit "Kiss You All Over".

By the mid-1970s, the band—at the time composed of Stokley, Pennington, Cornelison, Hargis, Williams, and Johns—had moved to Lexington, Kentucky.[55] They recorded a number of demos in an attempt to secure another recording contract. One such demo was submitted to Mike Chapman, an Australian record producer who was looking to begin working with American artists.[56] Working with Chapman, the band recorded a disco song called "Try It On" for Atco Records, which charted at number 97 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977.[57] As the song was not successful, Johns quit around the time of its release and was replaced by Steve Goetzman, who at the time was Pennington's roommate. Johns later joined the rock band Roadmaster.[58] Although Chapman had initially chosen not to work with Exile again following the failure of "Try It On", his wife persuaded him to give the band a second chance, as she liked their music and noted that unlike other bands he had worked with, the members of Exile were polite to him.[59] Chapman invited the band to the Forum, a recording studio in Covington, Kentucky, where he presented them with a song he had written called "Kiss You All Over".[60] The band spent nearly an entire day in the studio recording it, owing to Chapman's "demanding" production style.[61] Chapman found great difficulty with recording Stokley's voice due to his raspy delivery and poor sense of pitch, and asked Pennington to sing the lines on which he could not get a satisfactory vocal from Stokley.[62]

Through a connection with music journalist Nola Leone, Chapman was able to contact Curb Records owner Mike Curb, who signed the band as he thought "Kiss You All Over" had potential to become a hit. The band's contract consisted of four albums, with Curb handling promotion and Warner Bros. Records handling distribution for all four.[2][63] Exile then began recording more songs written by Chapman and English songwriter Nicky Chinn, along with six songs by Pennington. These songs became the band's first Warner/Curb album Mixed Emotions.[64] During these recording sessions, Williams became frustrated with the amount of control Chapman was exercising over the rest of the band, and was fired in late 1977. He was replaced by Sonny LeMaire, who knew Hargis through a number of cover bands the two had worked with in the early 1970s. LeMaire played and sang backing vocals on two tracks on Mixed Emotions: "Never Gonna Stop" and "Stay with Me".[65] Released in mid-1978, Mixed Emotions featured elements of disco, funk, and pop rock.[66]

Curb released "Kiss You All Over" as the album's first single. While the band noted that it was initially unpopular at live shows, it began climbing the Billboard charts due to radio airplay. Westbrook attributes the song's success to its sexually suggestive lyrics,[67] an observation also made by Tom Breihan of Stereogum in 2020.[68] "Kiss You All Over" reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1978 and held the position for four weeks.[2][68] The song was also an international success, reaching number one on the Kent Music Report charts in Australia,[69] and number six on the UK Singles Chart.[70] Its success led to Exile appearing on variety shows such as The Midnight Special. Rogers also made arrangements to sign Exile with William Morris Agency, a talent agency who assisted in booking the band as an opening act for Aerosmith and Heart.[71] Warner issued two more singles from Mixed Emotions. "Never Gonna Stop" did not chart,[72] while "You Thrill Me" reached number 40.[42] "Never Gonna Stop" was later recorded by Linda Clifford, whose version was sampled on Tupac Shakur's "All Eyez on Me".[66] "Stay with Me" was later covered by Dave & Sugar in 1985.[73]

1978–1981: All There Is, Don't Leave Me This Way, and Heart & Soul[edit]

Exile began working on their second Warner album, All There Is, in late 1978 before releasing it in 1979. During the sessions Chapman faced increasing difficulty recording Stokley's voice, as the singer had developed nodules on his vocal cords and was weakened by hepatitis. As a result, Chapman asked Pennington and LeMaire to sing lead vocals on some tracks instead, with both band members later noting that Chapman would often make them record as many as fifty takes until the vocal track was to his satisfaction.[74] In addition, Chapman wanted the band to record disco, as that genre was popular at the time and he thought doing so would help the band become popular again following the failure of "You Thrill Me".[75] The recording sessions featured a large number of synthesizers and drum machines. Opening and closing tracks "How Could This Go Wrong" and "Too Proud to Cry" were both over eight minutes long, featuring a number of disco-influenced instrument solos.[76] The latter was also Hargis's only writing credit.[77] "Let's Do It Again" served as the lead single, reaching 88 on the Billboard Hot 100.[42] Neither "The Part of Me That Needs You Most" nor "Too Proud to Cry" charted in the United States,[77] although the former was a minor chart hit in Australia.[69] Jay Black covered "The Part of Me That Needs You Most" in 1980, as did B.J. Thomas in 1985.[78][79]

Due to the difficulties experienced during the All There Is recording sessions, Stokley was fired at Chapman's insistence shortly after the album's release.[80] He was briefly replaced by vocalist and guitarist Randy Rickman, who only lasted in the group for "a couple of months" due to his style not working with the rest of the band.[81] After this, the band found two vocalists in Mark Gray and Les Taylor, who also contributed on keyboards and guitar respectively. Chapman had recommended Gray after discovering him in Los Angeles. Gray's joining briefly led to the unusual scenario of Exile having three keyboardists: him, Cornelison, and Hargis.[82] Pennington had chosen Taylor due to his involvement in a number of local bands that had played at Martin Youth Center and Speck's.[83] Both Gray and Taylor began auditioning with Exile in August 1979.[84] They made their debut on Exile's third Warner album Don't Leave Me This Way (1980), which featured them and Pennington alternating on lead vocals.[85] LeMaire thought Chapman had become increasingly focused on more successful bands with whom he collaborated, such as Blondie and the Knack, and had therefore lost interest in promoting and writing songs for Exile. In addition, due to his involvement with these bands, his sound engineer Peter Coleman took over as producer. The band members found that unlike Chapman, Coleman was willing to accept their suggestions on how each song should sound. Because of this, LeMaire later remarked that he considered Don't Leave Me This Way the best of the band's Warner albums.[86] The album's two singles, "You're Good for Me" and "Take Me Down", both made the Bubbling Under Hot 100 singles chart in 1980.[42] Both the latter and the album track "The Closer You Get" were later recorded by Alabama, whose versions topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts in the early 1980s.[63][87] In 1981, Cornelison left the band as he "became more and more estranged" from the soft rock and country pop influences of the album.[88] He re-entrolled at Eastern Kentucky University, where he acquired a master's degree in English, in addition to working in local theater productions and running a craft shop with his family.[89]

Members of the band Huey Lewis and the News performing in concert
Members of the band Alabama performing in concert
Early single releases by Exile were later successful for Huey Lewis and the News (left) and Alabama (right).

Exile finished their contract with Warner and Curb in 1981 with Heart & Soul. The band reinstated Chapman as producer, as they thought working with him would help them become successful again, and that Coleman was not strong at selecting songs with potential as hits.[90] LeMaire and Pennington wrote several songs on the album including "Take This Heart", which was later recorded by Kenny Rogers.[91] Heart & Soul continued to feature elements of soft rock, but Westbrook also noted influences of country music beginning to appear on tracks such as "One More Night for Love".[91] The album's only charted single release was its title track "Heart and Soul" (written by Chapman and Chinn), which also entered the Bubbling Under Hot 100 singles charts upon release.[42] This song would later be covered by Huey Lewis and the News, whose version was a top-ten pop hit in 1983.[92] "What Kind of Love Is This" was also a single, but it did not chart.[93]

Country music career[edit]

Exile was dropped from Warner/Curb in 1981 when their four-album contract expired. Westbrook noted that at the time the band did not have positive critical reception due to their soft rock sound.[94] As a result of this, their manager Jim Morey suggested between late 1982 and early 1983 that the band begin recording country music due to that genre's increasing popularity, as well as the success of "Take Me Down" and "The Closer You Get" through their covers by Alabama. While Pennington was interested in the band pursuing this genre, Hargis and Goetzman were outspoken against such a change.[73] Despite the latter two's reservations, the band began rehearsing covers of artists such as Merle Haggard and George Jones. This led to them playing a country set at the Rebel Room, a club inside a bowling alley in Lexington, Kentucky, before moving to another club called Breeding's.[95] The band also played a number of shows in South Africa, where "Kiss You All Over" had become popular in the interim.[96]

Gray left the band at this point, as he wanted to become a solo artist. As a result, Pennington and Taylor became the band's two lead vocalists.[97] After writing a number of songs for Janie Fricke, Gray was signed to Columbia Records in 1983.[98] He charted five top-ten singles on the Billboard country charts between 1984 and 1986, two of which ("Left Side of the Bed" and "Diamond in the Dust") were co-written by LeMaire.[99] Gray died of undisclosed causes at age 64 in 2016.[100]

1984–1985: Switch to country with Exile and Kentucky Hearts[edit]

All five members of the band Exile.
The band's lineup after switching to country in the early 1980s, and again since 2008 (L-R): Sonny LeMaire, Les Taylor, Marlon Hargis, Steve Goetzman, and J.P. Pennington.

Through Morey, the band arranged a meeting with Nashville-based producer and publisher Buddy Killen, who invited them to play a number of shows at a Nashville-based club called the Stockyard. These shows were intended to aid in the band's transition to country, and were attended by representatives of major Nashville record labels. One such label, Epic Records Nashville, signed the band in 1983. By this point, the band consisted of Pennington, LeMaire, Taylor, Hargis, and Goetzman.[101] Their first Epic album, Exile, came out that same year. Killen produced the album and Hargis served as sound engineer. Hargis noted that Killen was willing to let the band play all of their own instruments, as opposed to most country bands at the time who relied on session musicians on their albums. The album featured Taylor and Pennington alternating as lead vocalists and songwriters, with Ricky Skaggs being the only outside musician on the entire project. Although Gray had left by this point, he was a co-writer on two tracks.[102] While their first country release "High Cost of Leaving" only reached number 27 on the Billboard country charts, its follow-ups "Woke Up in Love" and "I Don't Want to Be a Memory" both went to number one between late 1983 and early 1984.[103] Exile also reached number ten on the Top Country Albums chart upon release.[104] The success of this album led to Pennington and LeMaire putting increased focus on their collaborative songwriting, while also restarting the band's touring schedule.[104] Exile was nominated in 1983 for Top Vocal Group by the Academy of Country Music (ACM), a nomination they would receive again in 1984, 1985, and 1987.[105] They would also be nominated by the Country Music Association (CMA) for Vocal Group of the Year in every year from 1984 to 1987, as well as Instrumental Group of the Year in 1984 and 1985.[106]

The band's second country album, Kentucky Hearts, was released in 1984. It was their only number-one album on the Billboard country albums charts.[104] As with the previous album, Killen once again served as producer. Pennington and LeMaire wrote the entire album by themselves except for the track "Comin' Apart at the Seams", which Taylor wrote with his friend Jerry Marcum.[107] All three singles from Kentucky Hearts reached number one on the Billboard country charts. These were "Give Me One More Chance", "Crazy for Your Love", and "She's a Miracle".[103] "She's a Miracle" was also made into a music video, which was one of the first to be aired on the television network CMT.[108] Tom Carter of the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader wrote that the band was "more mellow and confident" than on previous albums, while also praising the harmony and instrumentation.[109] During this timespan, Killen had the band play instruments and perform backing vocals on Ronnie McDowell's mid-1985 hit "Love Talks" due to him also being a producer on that song.[110] In addition, the Forester Sisters covered "Just in Case" (a track from Kentucky Hearts) and took their rendition to number one on the country charts in 1985.[107]

1985–1986: Death of Stokley and Hang On to Your Heart[edit]

After the release of Kentucky Hearts, the band members were informed of former lead singer Jimmy Stokley's continued decline in health. In repsonse, they held a charity concert in Richmond to raise $18,000 toward Stokley's medical bills, which they succeeded in doing. Other former members such as Davenport, Cornelison, Luxon, and Howard were in attendance as well. The members had intended for Stokley to join them onstage, but he was too ill to do so. Stokley died of hepatitis at age 41 in August 1985.[111][112]

This was followed in 1986 by the release of Exile's third Epic album Hang On to Your Heart. Pennington and LeMaire wrote the entirety of the album, and it accounted for five singles.[113] These were "Hang On to Your Heart", "I Could Get Used to You", "Super Love", "It'll Be Me", and "She's Too Good to Be True". Of these, all except "Super Love" went to number one on the Billboard country charts.[103] Although Taylor had sung lead on a number of album tracks prior to this point, "It'll Be Me" and "She's Too Good to Be True" were the first singles to feature him on lead vocals instead of Pennington.[113] LeMaire said that "It'll Be Me" was specifically written with the intent of having Taylor sing it, due to him having a higher vocal range than Pennington.[114] In addition, the track "Music" features Pennington rapping.[113] Due to the success of "I Could Get Used to You" and the Forester Sisters' rendition of "Just in Case", which peaked at number one only six weeks apart, Pennington and LeMaire were both awarded as top country songwriters of the year by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI).[115] Walter Tunis of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote that the "playing is efficient and economical", highlighting the number of up-tempo tracks and the album's relatively short length.[116]

Mid-late 1980s: Shelter from the Night and departing members[edit]

Following Hang On to Your Heart, Hargis noted that there was "too much partying" among the other band members, and that the label wanted to have industry professionals take his place as the band's sound engineer. In response, he quit in early 1987 and stayed in Nashville to own a music store.[117] Lee Carroll took his place on keyboards.[118][2] Carroll had been serving as a backing musician for the Judds, and had met the members of Exile a number of times in this capacity before Pennington invited him to join.[119] Executive Roy Wunsch had taken over as the head of Epic Records around this point, and told the band members that he thought their sound had "sameness".[120] Similarly, Goetzman noted that radio disc jockeys had similarly thought that too many of Exile's songs sounded similar to each other, and that perception in the country music scene had become increasingly negative toward Killen's production style. As a result, Wunsch and other Epic executives ordered the band to fire Killen as their producer and begin seeking songs by other writers than Taylor and Pennington.[121]

Record producer Elliot Scheiner, seated while using an audio mixing console.
Elliot Scheiner produced the band's 1987 album Shelter from the Night.

The band chose Elliot Scheiner, a pop producer who had worked with Bruce Hornsby and Steely Dan among others, to produce their final Epic album Shelter from the Night (1987). Pennington thought that employing a pop producer would help the band change their sound, as he had noted the crossover success Restless Heart had with "I'll Still Be Loving You" on pop formats.[122] Scheiner selected three songs by outside writers: the title track, "Fly on the Wall" (written by Hornsby and Bernie Taupin), and John Farrar's "She's Already Gone", all of which were sung by Taylor.[123] The album was recorded in June 1987 at Scheiner's studio in Stamford, Connecticut.[124] Westbrook describes the album as "uneven" due to Scheiner's involvement and Carroll's use of synthesizers.[125] While lead single "I Can't Get Close Enough" accounted for the band's tenth number-one single on Billboard, the later releases were unsuccessful. "Feel Like Foolin' Around" only reached number 60, while "Just One Kiss" and "It's You Again" were minor chart entries as well.[103] Carroll attributed the single's failures to the success of the Judds and Randy Travis, both of whom were having success with neotraditional country at the time.[126] Norman Rowe of the Richmond Times-Dispatch thought the album contained influences of Southern rock and rhythm and blues,[127] while Ken Tucker of The Philadelphia Inquirer thought that it contained "empty, cliche-ridden country-pop music from a group whose members apparently think that turning up the volume on their guitars qualifies as a bold new direction."[128]

Taylor quit the band in August 1987 as he was frustrated with the label almost exclusively choosing songs sung by Pennington as singles instead of ones sung by him. In response, he chose to begin a solo career.[129] He was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Paul Martin, whose family owned a studio in Kentucky where Pennington had recorded on a number of occasions.[130] Shortly after Martin's joining, Pennington quit as well, citing exhaustion, the departure of Taylor, and personality conflicts among him, Martin, and Carroll. In particular, Carroll thought Pennington was too controlling of the band's sound and would not let him write songs.[131] Pennington's last show with Exile would be on New Year's Eve in 1988, and Martin was promoted to lead singer at the beginning of 1989.[132]

Epic Records dropped the band in 1989 due to the failure of Shelter from the Night along with the departures of Taylor and Pennington.[133] After Martin was in place as lead singer, the band members then began seeking a replacement for Taylor as well. They found guitarist/vocalist Mark Jones, who joined in early 1989. Jones had previously been aware of the band when he tried to hire them for his senior prom in 1978, but they were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts.[134] Roger BonDurant briefly joined their touring band in late 1989 as a backing vocalist and rhythm guitarist, but was not considered an official member.[135] LeMaire told Jack Hurst of the Chicago Tribune that the addition of Martin to the lineup "opened up what we are capable of doing onstage" due to his ability to play other instruments such as mandolin and Dobro.[136] In the same article, Hurst thought that Martin's singing voice was very similar to Pennington's.[136]

1989–1991: Move to Arista Nashville[edit]

A head shot of music executive Tim DuBois.
Tim DuBois signed Exile to Arista Nashville in 1989 and co-produced both of their albums for that label.

After Jones joined and Martin was promoted to lead singer, the band began seeking a new recording contract. Radio host Lon Helton heard them perform at a show in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and recommended the band to Tim DuBois, a record executive who had just started the Arista Nashville label and was seeking new artists for it. LeMaire was apprehensive at first, as he thought the new lineup should not retain the name Exile due to Pennington's absence, but DuBois thought the name recognition would help the new label and signed the band by the end of 1989.[137] Exile released their first Arista Nashville album Still Standing in early 1990. DuBois co-produced with Randy Sharp, a songwriter who had success with Restless Heart and also wrote several songs on the album.[138] Still Standing was led off by the single "Keep It in the Middle of the Road", co-written by Pennington and LeMaire and featuring Martin on lead vocals. The song was a top-20 country hit in early 1990.[138] An uncredited review of the single in Billboard stated of the song, "Hot guitar and piano licks strike like lightning throughout this lively, tightly performed number."[139] After it were the top-ten hits "Nobody's Talking" and "Yet", both co-written and sung by LeMaire. These were his first contributions as lead vocalist since All There Is.[140] "Keep It in the Middle of the Road" and "Nobody's Talking" were promoted through music videos as well. Despite the success of "Nobody's Talking" and "Yet", the fourth single "There You Go" under-performed on the charts.[141]

Their second and final album for Arista Nashville was 1991's Justice, which also featured DuBois and Sharp as producers. While the lead single "Even Now" (composed by Sharp and Marc Beeson) was a top-20 country hit, the other two singles "Nothing at All" and "Somebody's Telling Her Lies" failed to chart at all. Westbrook noted that the former song was quickly withdrawn from release due to concerns that it was too similar to Reba McEntire's "For My Broken Heart".[142] DuBois had suggested "Somebody's Telling Her Lies" as a replacement, but Westbrook thought that the song failed due to it lacking a hook.[143]

Early-mid 1990s: Solo careers, 30-year anniversary, and hiatus[edit]

Both Taylor and Pennington began their solo careers during Exile's tenure on Arista Nashville. Taylor released two albums for Epic as a solo artist: That Old Desire in 1990 and Blue Kentucky Wind a year later.[144] These albums charted a combined three singles, and the latter included a song written with early Exile member Bernie Faulkner titled "The Porchlight".[133] Pennington's only solo album, Whatever It Takes, was also released in 1991 on MCA Nashville. Produced by Barry Beckett, the album included two singles in its title track and "You Gotta Get Serious".[132] Pennington performed two shows in Lexington, Kentucky to promote the album, both of which included BonDurant as guitarist.[145]

Taylor thought that the band members' solo albums were unsuccessful due to radio backlash against Exile in the intervening years.[133] Relatedly, the members of Exile attributed the failure of their Arista albums to the lack of Pennington and Taylor, as well as a perception that Arista had begun to focus more heavily on Diamond Rio after that band reached number one in 1991 with their debut single "Meet in the Middle".[146] Exile ended their contract with Arista and focused on touring while in search of another recording contract. They played an average of 150 shows a year between 1991 and 1993.[147] They held a 30-year anniversary concert in 1993, which also included Cornelison, Pennington, Luxon, and Davenport.[148] Despite this, the band's tour bus was robbed after a concert in 1993, which they took as a sign to retire from touring. Jones, Martin, and LeMaire did one show in 1994 at Dollywood, while they, Carroll, and Goetzman recorded Latest and Greatest for Intersound Records that same year. The album included a mix of original content and re-recordings of previous hit singles. One such re-recording was of "Super Love", which included several keyboard and synthesizer parts played by Martin. He also received his only writing credit for the band on the new song "L-O-V-E Spells Trouble".[149]

After this album, Exile officially disbanded in 1995.[150] Both Jones and Goetzman became artist managers, the former working with Pat Green and the latter with Steve Wariner.[151] LeMaire and Beeson co-wrote Restless Heart's 1992 hit "When She Cries"; five years later, the two joined former Southern Pacific member Kurt Howell in the group Burnin' Daylight, which released one album on Curb Records.[152] Martin chose to pursue a solo career but after proving unsuccessful in this regard, he found work as a backing musician for Kathy Mattea. Later on, he became bassist in Marty Stuart's touring band, the Fabulous Superlatives, before touring with his wife and four children as the Martin Family Circus.[153] Carroll joined his brother in franchising a number of Papa John's pizza restaurants in Pennsylvania.[154]

Late 1990s–present: Reunion[edit]

Following the failures of their solo careers, Pennington and Taylor sought to reform Exile. They played a few local shows with various musicians on keyboards, drums, and bass before establishing a lineup with Steve Richmond on drums, Ray Salyer on bass, and Jason Witt on keyboards. This lineup played a concert at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2005, and said concert was issued as an album titled Live at Billy Bob's Texas.[150] Meanwhile, LeMaire had further success as a songwriter in the first decade of the 21st century, including Diamond Rio's "Beautiful Mess", Andy Griggs's "She Thinks She Needs Me", and Clay Walker's "Fall" (also covered by Kimberley Locke). He collaborated with Shane Minor and Clay Mills on all three.[155]

Singer Clay Walker strumming a guitar while singing into a microphone.
Exile member Sonny LeMaire co-wrote "Fall", a hit single for Clay Walker.

In 2008, Pennington and Taylor rejoined Hargis, LeMaire, and Goetzman for a charity concert in Lexington to benefit one of their former managers, who had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. In doing so, they re-established the lineup of the band's early Epic releases.[156][150] After this concert was sold out, the five members decided to begin performing officially as Exile once more.[156] Following their reunion, the Kentucky General Assembly honored the band in 2009 for "extraordinary talent", which led to them performing for members of the state of Kentucky legislature.[157] This lineup self-released an extended play titled People Get Ready in 2012. The project featured a rendition of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", as well as a re-recording of "Kiss You All Over" with a guest vocal from Trace Adkins.[156] Exile has continued to serve primarily as a touring artist ever since. Following their reunion, author Randy Westbrook released a biography of the band titled 50 Years of Exile: The Story of a Band in Transition.[158] The same year, the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame inducted Exile along with Skeeter Davis and the Kentucky Headhunters.[159]

The band released multiple projects in the 2010s and 2020s. First was a Christmas album titled Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas in 2017.[160] In 2018, they released a new album titled Hits, consisting of re-recordings of their hit singles.[158] This was followed a year later by The Garage Tapes, which included various demos from their early years.[161] A second Christmas album, Joyful Noise, followed in 2021.[162] Exile signed with Clearwater Records in 2022.[163] Their first Clearwater release was the studio album A Million Miles Later in 2023. Pennington and LeMaire wrote most of the album except for a cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons". One track, "Down in Cold Water", features guest vocals from the Isaacs.[164] Also in 2023, former member Billy Luxon released a memoir of the band's early years, titled Exiled: The Climax and Surrender of Jimmy Stokley.[165]

Musical styles[edit]

Exile is noted for their successful transition from pop and rock music to country music.[3] Writing for AllMusic, Steve Huey stated that "Among rock listeners, Exile is remembered as the one-hit wonder responsible for 1978's number one smash 'Kiss You All Over.' However, in the early '80s, the Kentucky-bred band reinvented itself as a country outfit—and a hugely successful one at that."[2] Author Randy Westbrook, in 50 Years of Exile: The Story of a Band in Transition, found hard rock influences in the band's Warner albums, particularly in the gruffness of original lead singer Jimmy Stokley's voice as well as the guitars, drums, and synthesizers present on tracks from All There Is.[77] Huey stated that Taylor "spearheaded" the band's transition to country music,[2] while Westbrook noted that the success of "The Closer You Get" and "Take Me Down" in their subsequent covers by Alabama was also integral in the shift of Exile's sound.[63] Westbrook also thought that Taylor and Pennington both had Southern accents conducive to singing country.[166] Hargis told Cashbox in 1984, "It originally started as a rhythm and blues group. When I joined it had developed into a rock 'n' roll band. I suppose because it was the thing to do at the time, even though we all grew up with country music; it wasn't the thing to do, to be in a country band."[167]

Most of the band's sound is defined by the songwriting, composition, and singing of Pennington and LeMaire. Westbrook noted Pennington's sense of melody, such as the use of Lydian mode on the title track of All There Is, as well as the Southern gospel chord progressions of "Woke Up in Love" and the Hang On to Your Heart album track "Promises, Promises".[168] Additionally, Westbrook found influences of Western swing and boogie-woogie on tracks such as "I've Never Seen Anything", "Proud to Be Her Man", and "Keep It in the Middle of the Road".[169] Also present on the albums with Epic were three-part vocal harmonies among Pennington, Taylor, and LeMaire.[104][116] Pennington usually handled lead vocal duties on the Epic albums, including almost all the singles, although Taylor sang "It'll Be Me" and "She's Too Good to Be True". Of these songs, Westbrook wrote that their success "started a new streak" and "proved that Les' voice could prove as popular on country radio as J.P.'s."[170] Most of the early Epic albums were dominated by collaborative songwriting between Pennington and LeMaire. Of their songwriting relationship, they both said they usually wrote together at the piano, and would start coming up with lyrics after one of them provided a title.[104] Tom Carter of the Lexington Herald-Leader thought that the band's vocal harmonies and "often contrasting rhythms playing against the tone of the song" were notable elements of the band's overall sound.[109] Hargis noted that Exile was one of the first country bands to play all the instruments on their own albums instead of using session musicians,[161] an observation also made by Pennington.[171] Similarly, Walter Tunis thought in a review of Hang On to Your Heart that the album's lack of studio musicians such as a string section, as well as Pennington and LeMaire's dominance as songwriters on the album, would help the band stand out among their contemporaries.[116] Ellen Creager of the Detroit Free Press wrote in a review of Kentucky Hearts that both Pennington and Taylor "have husky voices any girl could fall in love with." She also noted that the album, unlike most other country albums at the time, largely consisted of up-tempo material.[172]

List of members[edit]

List of current and former members of Exile, in alphabetical order

  • Roger BonDurant - guitar, backing vocals (touring) (1989)
  • Lee Carroll - keyboards (1986–1995)
  • Buzz Cornelison - keyboards, saxophone, trumpet (1964–1966, 1969–1981)
  • Mack Davenport - drums (1963–ca. 1971)
  • Larry Davis - bass guitar (ca. 1967)
  • Bernie Faulkner - keyboards, guitar, saxophone (1966–1973)
  • Mark Gray - lead vocals, keyboards (1979–82)
  • Ronnie Hall - vocals (1963–1964)
  • Mike Howard - guitar (1963–1969)
  • Bobby Johns - drums (ca. 1971–ca. 1977)
  • Doug Jones - guitar (1963)
  • Mark Jones - harmony vocals, guitar (1989–93)
  • Bill Kennon - bass guitar (1972)
  • Billy Luxon - trumpet (1963–1974)
  • Paul Martin - lead vocals, guitar (1989–1995)
  • Paul Smith Jr. - rhythm guitar, bass guitar (1963–ca. 1967)
  • Steve Richmond - drums (2005)
  • Randy Rickman - lead vocals (1979)
  • Ray Salyer - bass guitar (2005)
  • Jimmy Stokley - lead vocals (1963–1979)
  • Danny Williams - bass guitar (1974–1977)
  • Jason Witt - keyboards (2005)
  • Kenny Weir - guitar, bass guitar (ca. 1972–ca. 1974)


Studio albums[edit]

List of studio albums released by Exile


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Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]