The Spidells were formed in 1962, by four students from Tennessee State University. This R&B vocal harmony group was comprised of Billy Lockridge (lead and second tenor), James Earl Smith (senior student, second lead and first tenor), Nathaniel Shelton (tenor), Lee Roy Cunningham (baritone / tenor) and Michael Young (bass / baritone). Sam Jones, of The Astors from Memphis, remembers being introduced to them by Larry Lee at the Club Del Morocco as early as 1962. Lee was associated with the group at that time, perhaps as part of the supporting band but also as songwriter.
Their first label outings appeared on Monza. This label carried six 45s, including efforts by white Floridian teenager Norma Shearer, a garage band called The Moxies, and Big “C” and the Galaxies, an outfit from Ohio who also recorded for Nashville labels Sur Speed and Bullet. The Spidells recorded two songs for Monza: “Find Out What’s Happening” / “That Makes My Heart Break” (Monza 1122), and “Hmmm, With Feeling Darling” / “Uncle Willie Good Time” (Monza 1123). An archived Billboard news release referred to RIC (Recording Industries Corporation) picking up a deal to distribute Monza releases, also indicating the inception of Monza in 1964, though possibly earlier. The Spidells’ tracks were recorded later that year or in early 1965.
Courtesy of Glenn Crowell.
Jerry Crutchfield (b. 1934) produced a few of the Monza 45s, and indeed The Spidells’ later releases on Coral. Crutchfield commenced his music career writing jingles for WKYB in Paducah and later worked at WCBL in Benton whilst attending Murray State University, Kentucky. Over the following fifty or so years he was to become general manager of Capitol, president of MCA Music in Nashville, and formed his own companies Crutchfield Music Publishing and Glitterfish Music. Crutchfield’s move to Tennessee came in the late 1950s when he and his group, the Country Gentlemen, attracted the attention of Chet Atkins, legendary musician and A&R man for Nashville RCA. There, Jerry developed a deeper interest in production and song-writing for country, pop and soul genres. From an R&B perspective, this was initially with local labels including Monza and by the end of the 1960s, with Coral and other major labels.
Crutchfield penned “Find Out What’s Happening”. The song was essentially an up-tempo rock and roll number, and an original for The Spidells, though it was later associated with Elvis who cut a few versions (the first of which appeared on the 1973 LP “Raised on Rock”). The Spidells’ version also found its way onto a UK Sue release. The flip of the Spidells take, “That’ll Make My Heart Break”, is a very competent gentle doo-wop / soul ballad, and perhaps a better demonstration of their vocal talents. The second Monza release “Hmmm, With Feeling Darling” was written by the group’s own James Earl Smith and is firmly in mid-sixties soul territory; another up-tempo dance number reminiscent of the harmony group sounds of The Impressions or The Esquires. Jerry Crutchfield produced this track also. There is the possibility that both 45s were derived from the same recording session.
Between 1965 and late 1966, The Spidells made no further recordings but took to the road instead with a white back-up band called The Exotics (not to be confused with the Excello recording artists of “Boogaloo Investigator” fame). Together they performed at various venues throughout Tennessee. In certain areas of the south, particularly in North Carolina and Virginia, white solo artists and bands were well known for their love of soul music. In Nashville at that time however, this was unusual - a comment echoed by Gerald Fleming of Athens Rogues elsewhere in this book. The Exotics were formed by 16 year old high school students from Franklin and Columbia, Tennessee, in February 1965: Billy Adair (guitar, backup singer), Glenn Crowell (bass, lead vocal), Loy Hardcastle (drums, vocals) all from Battle Ground Academy (BGA), another local Jeff Cook (keyboard, saxophone, vocals); and later Robert Early and Steve Smartt on horns. The association with The Spidells came about in 1965 when the vocal group hired The Exotics to back them up after their own band left. Glenn Crowell remembers:
Courtesy of Glenn Crowell.
“The Spidells were all really nice guys. At the time I don’t think they had a manager - the lead singer Billy Lockridge handled all the bookings with us. We played several gigs with them over about a two year period. We were very popular, particularly locally. Sell-out crowds. I can remember playing “Find Out What’s Happening”, “Pushed Out Of The Picture”, “So In Love”, “Never Let Me Go”, “Looking For A Love”, “Come Go With Me” and lots more. There were some difficult situations though because of the colour issue. Being from the south at that time it was hard to mix, even though whites loved soul music. When we were on the road, if we stopped to eat there were times where they weren’t allowed in. I remember on one occasion at a dance at BGA, The Spidells appeared on stage. After one song, the headmaster stopped their performance and made them leave. He was a racist and didn’t like their dancing. We had to continue as the band for that night, but never played there again.”
During this period The Spidells appeared regularly on the Night Train WLAC Channel 5 TV show, singing both their own songs and cover versions of records by The Impressions, Del Vikings and The Valentinos. Within a couple of years, popularity brought about by The Spidells’ media appearances, radio airtime and live performances was enough to warrant the attention from Coral, no doubt helped by Jerry Crutchfield’s increasing status in Nashville and beyond. In April 1967, The Tennessean newspaper carried a short piece on a forthcoming concert appearance by The Standells, in which The Spidells and The Exotics were also to perform. The article indicated that at this stage The Spidells were a four man act. James, Nathaniel and Lee Roy had left the group, to be replaced by Wallace Brown and Frank Pillow. All were still students at the now re-named Tennessee State University.
Two records were released, and in northern soul terms, both possibly the best showcase of late 1960s danceable soul from the group. “Pushed Out Of The Picture” (Coral 62508) was recorded in December 1966. “I don’t remember the recording, but do remember the song” says Mark Barkan, co-writer with Ben Raleigh. “I remember it had a sort of Bacharachian flavour to it, with a touch of the blues”. The second Coral release included “If It Ain’t One Thing (It’s Another)” as a B side (Coral 62531), released in August the following year. Crutchfield had a major hand in the production of both.
Both records are popular among rare soul collectors. DJ Guy Hennigan was probably first to play “Pushed Out Of The Picture” on the UK northern soul scene. The artist was initially covered up as James and the Four Souls. Guy explains: “I bought The Spidells’ 45 from Ady Connelly at a Leicester all-nighter. It wasn't Ady's record; he was selling off the records previously owned by Jamie Saul who had died tragically a few weeks before. Jamie was a lovely bloke who was one of the main young lads out of Derby at the time who went everywhere. Hence the cover-up group lead singer approach, named after him. I'm not sure if I titled it "Pushed out"? I also had "If It Ain't One Thing" for years already, so was immediately interested upon seeing the "Pushed out..." record by them. Think I paid £3 to £4 for it, blind... Jamie had never mentioned it, I assume he'd just accumulated it.”
Of particular interest, Lawrence “Larry” Lee (b. 1943, d. 2007) appears on writing credits of “If It Ain’t One Thing (It’s Another)”. Lee was originally the rhythm guitarist for Earl Gaines. He had also previously written two of the Monza sides for The Spidells. Larry Lee holds a wider interest for rock historians not only through his association with Billy Cox and Jimi Hendrix in the early 1960s but also in 1969 when Hendrix asked Lee and Cox to join him in forming Gypsy Sun and Rainbows – cementing their immortality through a now legendary performance at Woodstock. Lee made the move to Memphis after the demise of Hendrix and continued notable musical activities such as band leader for Al Green and Albert King.
What became of The Spidells? Billy Lockridge at last check was still actively signing with an events band. It appears that the reason for Lee Roy Cunningham’s departure was due to military drafting in 1968, though he continued to sing and briefly formed a group by the same name at an army base in Florida. Save a studio session cut for personal enjoyment in recent years, The Exotics never released a record, preferring to focus on performing. In the sixties this was for driveway combos, summer pool events, high school dances and frat parties, playing Stax and Motown covers; in more recent years more for private functions, music events and street festivals. Billy Adair of the Exotics passed away in 2014 but the rest of the band continue to perform. In June 2014, The Exotics celebrated fifty years of being together and were honoured at a performance in Franklin by Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the Governor of Tennessee and the Mayor of Franklin, Tennessee.
Copyright 2017, 2018. Modified chapter from House of Broken Hearts by E. Mark Windle. Available to order in the new book section.