I’ve written about the Exciters before in this column, back in 2013. But that story was more of a reminiscence about my first band and a song called “Do-Wah-Diddy” that we included in our set. It just so happened that the song was originally recorded by the Exciters in 1963. I can’t claim that we were aware of their recording and in truth, we were inspired by the hit version of the song by Manfred Mann that rocketed up the charts a few months after the Exciters version.
In 1961, Brenda Reid, Carolyn Johnson, Lillian Walker, and Sylvia Wilbur were high school classmates in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York. At the time, there was a male vocal group at school called the Masters so the four young women decided to become the Masterettes. Wilbur left the group early on and she was replaced by Penny Carter but Carter didn’t last long either and to replace her the Masterettes enlisted one of the Masters, Herb Rooney. The quartet managed to wrangle an audition with hit songwriter/producers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller in 1962.
One of the first orders of business for Lieber and Stoller was to change the group’s name to the Exciters. Signed to United Artists, the group entered the studio in 1962 to record “Tell Him.” The song was written by another legendary producer and songwriter, Bert Berns, under his Bert Russell pen name. In fact, it was Berns who produced the first recording of the song by Gil Hamilton, who was also known as Johnny Thunder, in 1962. Subsequently, “Tell Him” was also recorded by Ed Townsend. But it was the third version, the Lieber and Stoller-produced Exciters version, that proved to be the charm. Their record was released in October 1964 and quickly rose up the charts until it eventually reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1963.
There is a story about Dusty Springfield and the first time she heard the Exciters version of “Tell Him.” Dusty was in New York and on her way to Nashville to record a country music album with her group, the Springfields. When she heard “Tell Him” blaring from the speaker outside of Colony Records while she was taking a walk, it changed everything for her.
“The Exciters sort of got you by the throat … out of the blue comes blasting at you “I know something about love,” and that’s it,” Springfield recalled in an interview. “That’s what I wanna do.”
From that point on, Springfield pursued a highly successful career as a pop/soul singing solo artist.
The Exciters continued to put records in the charts including “He’s Got the Power,” “Get Him,” the aforementioned “Do-Wah-Diddy,” “I Want You to Be My Boy,” and “A Little Bit of Soap” but none of them had anything like the kind of success that “Tell Him” enjoyed. In 1965, the group ended their partnership with Lieber and Stoller and left United Artists. They signed with Roulette Records, then moved on to Berns’ Bang! and Shout labels, and finally landed at RCA. It didn’t matter where they went or what they released. The Exciters would never match the massive success of “Tell Him.” The group broke up in 1974.
In the summer of 1964, the Beatles had embarked on their first full North American tour. On August 30 of that year, the tour arrived in Atlantic City. The show that was headlined by the Liverpool quartet also included the Bill Black Combo, the Righteous Brothers, Jackie DeShannon, and the Exciters. I was in the balcony at Convention Hall for that night and while the Beatles were obviously the main draw, I vividly recall the four Exciters performing their big hit “Tell Him.”