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The Exotics, still on fire after all these years

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When radio station WAGG broadcast a rock 'n' roll band from his father's furniture store in Franklin, Billy Adair made an instant decision about his future: "I want to do that!" In February of 1965, he founded The Exotics with childhood friend Glenn Crowell on bass, Jeff Cook on keys and Loy Hardcastle behind the drums.

Today, the term "cover band" describes groups of varying talent and ingenuity, but for most of whom nostalgia is stock-in-trade; your accountant plays in one for fun. In The Exotics' heyday, playing the current chart-toppers — Beatles, Stones, Stax, Motown — was serious business, and they worked their way into an elite cadre of Nashville dance bands who got steady weekend and summer work throughout the region. Adair recalls that 300 patrons was a slow night, and one backyard gig swelled to 1,500 kids, overseen by a pair of off-duty highway patrolmen.

When their own band left, gifted vocal quintet The Spidells hired The Exotics to back them up. Future trumpeter Steve Smartt was in the audience at War Memorial Auditorium when the two groups smoked headline act The Standells, the Boston group who had a national hit with "Dirty Water."

"This is the best damn band I've heard, ever!" Smartt recalls thinking, and hot they were — perhaps too hot for their own good.

Like the tag "cover band" today, the designation "backup band" had a negative connotation, limiting the group's hopes of scoring their own hit. Working with the Spidells didn't open any doors, either: Nashville producers worked exclusively in country or R&B, and neither type showed any interest in The Exotics. The Spidells' singles, hits in both the U.S. and U.K., featured highly skilled Nashville R&B session players. Though no Exotics session was ever deemed worthy of release — save a studio recording from 2008 — what remains from their earliest days is a powerful bond and a joy in playing that keeps them ready to cut heads at their 8-10 annual gigs.

"Just pinch me," says Smartt.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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