There is a powerful story behind this band that involves race, talent, and tragedy. This story tells how the worst of these things can be overcome with music, tenacity, and sheer faith. I would like to thank Richard Reid for bringing this band to my attention through his published article in The Times and Democrat, which I have provided a link to in the launch bar below. Mr. Reid is president of the Orangeburg Historical and Genealogical Society. His mission is researching Orangeburg history, with a particular emphasis on the role of African-Americans in that history.
The Exotics band formed in the early 1960’s while they were students at Wilkinson High School in Orangeburg, SC. They were music students who studied under James “JB” Hunt who was the High School band director at that time and would go on to become a South Carolina Band Directors Association Hall of Fame member himself. The original members of the group were Dwight McMillan, Walter Bowers, Francis Thompson, Levi McDonald, Johnny Sabb, Stewart Thompson, Harry Palmer and Rogers Jarvis.
Starting out playing locally in the Orangeburg area the band quickly became popular with their live performance prowess and their funk/horn driven sound. It was not long before they found themselves in great demand across the state as one of the leading black powerhouse entertainment groups playing venues like the Green Door in Columbia, the Robin Hood in Spartanburg, County Hall Auditorium in Charleston, the Ghana Motel in Greenville, the Ponderosa in Neeses, and Club 400 in Orangeburg.
In 1967 they wrote and released a single, “Boogaloo Investigator”, backed with a “B” side titled, “I’m Gonna Never Stop Loving You”, with both cuts becoming the number one requested play across the state on all black radio stations. This and the bands rising reputation as a powerful performance act caught the attention of the Ted Hall Booking Agency in Charlotte, NC. Ted Hall was one of the leading white entertainment promoters in the southeast at that time. Through the Ted Hall Agency the band’s performance landscape widened to include many white college campus’s across the south including the University of Mississippi, Georgia Tech, and the University of South Carolina.
On October 3, 1969 tragedy struck the Exotics while in route to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC to perform for Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. Just ten miles outside of Cullowhee the driver of the band bus, Levi McDonald, lost control as the brakes failed on the winding road and the bus plummeted 90 feet down into a ravine coming to rest against three trees killing two and injuring eight.
Exotics singer John Riley, 24, and guitarist Lemuel Austin, 17, both lost their lives in the accident while the remaining members of the band sustained varying degrees of injuries. Harry Palmer, 25, lost both legs and suffered a fractured thigh. The driver of the bus, Levi McDonald, 26, lost one leg and suffered a fractured thigh. Francis Thompson, 24, suffered a fractured thigh and forearm. Coleman Sistrunk, 20, suffered a fractured thigh. Clayton Fogle, 18, suffered a laceration of the left arm. Russell Kennedy, 20, suffered a laceration of the right arm. Dwight McMillan, 23, suffered back and neck injuries. James A. Stroman, 20, suffered abdominal injuries.
Such a traumatic experience in the career of any band would crush all hope or aspirations to perform live music ever again but not so with The Exotics. The remaining members healed and decided to carry on and for the past fifty years plus they continue to come together and play for fans, friends, and family alike. Even those members who suffered loss of limb have made a way to play their instrument that goes above and beyond the simple love of playing and transcends into a realm of deep desire and absolute faith.