Jimmy Stokley was born to be a rock-and-roll star. The world was his stage. But he was born and bred in Kentucky. He was one of us, but he had the right stuff to rock the world. This is his story. And ours.
Jimmy grew up in the little college town of Richmond, KY, with its peaceful, tree-lined Main Street leading to the manicured campus of Eastern Kentucky University, and its thumping bar scene on 1st Street, not far from Church Street.
A star is born
Jimmy was a Kentucky kid who wore his hair in a flattop until the Beatles exploded across the world in 1963. Jimmy got some high school buddies together, they grew out their hair, practiced hard, and they were on a long ride to the top as a rock band. Called themselves Jimmy Stokley and the Exiles (later, The Exiles, then Exile).
Everybody knew that Jimmy and his boys were going to hit it big. That they were going far beyond Kentucky’s small-town borders. Even, like Jimmy Stokley, when you’re born for something, it takes the rest of us to help you see what you’re born for.
Teenagers in the surrounding towns, Lexington, Bardstown, and my hometown of Elizabethtown, were drawn like creatures of the night to the brightest light, Jimmy Stokley and the Exiles on a stage on Saturday night.
Jimmy was a rock star, even back then, growling and prowling the stage like a lion, his mane of brown hair flowing, wearing clothes that only people who breathe rare air wear.
A small-town Kentucky Saturday night
One night in 1969, when I was 17, my buddies and I caught The Exiles at Club 68 in Lebanon, KY. We knew that the place would be packed with rock chicks, so we drafted behind Jimmy and the boys to try to meet some girls.
I remember two things about that night: Jimmy’s ramped- up version of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” made the Beatles look like four schoolboys from Liverpool; and– the big thing was– I caught the eye of two hot girls in the crowd.
My pants were doing the work: they were dark green velvet Jimmy Stokley-style rock star pants. The pretty blonde said: “I love those pants!” Her gorgeous brunette friend said: “I love what’s in the pants!”
Wow! So far, so good, right? Then I made a huge, strategic mistake: I smiled. My smile wasn’t my best feature. The brunette, who had thought I was so good looking at first glance, said “ooouuh,” like a hideous animal had just bared its fangs. With heavy-metal silver braces on.
These rock-and-roll chicks can break your heart on a Saturday night: one minute, you’re No.1 in Kentucky; the next minute, you can’t even make the charts!
“Kiss You All Over”
Jimmy Stokley and his boys were flying high, though. In 1969, they scored a big regional hit with “Church Street Soul Revival” that climbed to No. 2 on Louisville’s WAKY Radio Top 40 in Kentucky and Southern Indiana. No. 1? The Beatles’ “Get Back.” We loved the Beatles; but Jimmy Stokley was one of us.
Exile, as they would call themselves, kept rocking. In September and October of 1978, they made it all the way to No. 1, top of the charts, with their breakout hit, “Kiss You All Over.” After 15 years of being one of the hardest- working bands in the business, they were an “overnight success.” Jimmy Stokley and his boys had finally climbed to the mountaintop–top of the world!
Jimmy quit the band the next year. It had been a long-time coming.
The final curtain
Jimmy got some health problems. His liver couldn’t take it anymore, and he died at age 41 in 1985 in his hometown of Richmond, with the tree-lined Main Street and the thumping bars on First Street, not far from Church Street.
I, the guy who had worn the green velvet rock star pants to Club 68 all those years ago, was a renegade Associate Pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Richmond. Jimmy’s funeral service was across the parking lot from the church. I went over to pay my final respects to Jimmy, one of our own.
The funeral service was fine. Soothing church music. The pastor had visited Jimmy at Pattie A. Clay hospital, and Jimmy had assured him: “Don’t worry about me. I had a talk with The Man Upstairs, and he said that he was watching over me, and that everything was going to be all right.”
I would have done Jimmy’s funeral service a little differently. I would have played The Exiles’ “Church Street Soul Revival.” Loud.
Did you hear Jimmy sing? “Come on, now! Everybody, jump! Alleluia! Revive your soul!” Jimmy showed the way back when Kentucky and the whole world was his stage. And, now, from Rock-and-Roll Heaven!