If you asked anyone who has heard The Exciters’ “Tell Him” what they liked about it, they might note the bright intro, which twinkles a little thanks to what sounds someone merrily tapping on a one of those baby xylophones. They’d almost certainly bring up the vocals, belted out by lead singer Brenda Reid with a clarity that borders on digital/ABBA quality (so fresh, so clean). “Tell Him” wasn’t The Exciters only big hit, but it’s the only one they got to themselves.
When you go deeper into their catalog, though, and listen to more songs, you also hear the same thing over and over again: these ladies really want love. It wouldn’t be unfair to phrase it as Reid and her back-up singers, Carolyn Johnson and Lillian Walker, throwing themselves at the men they want. It sounds desperate at first, but, if you put some thought into when this song came out - 1963 - that flips the dynamic on its head. Reid doesn’t just “know something about love,” she’s doing something about it. Dammit. Girl is gonna go get it.
That cultural reversal didn’t go unnoticed: it’s The Exciters’ gift to pop culture. As one biography put it:
“’Tell Him’ boasted an intensity that signified a sea change in the presentation and perception of femininity in popular music, paving the way for such tough, sexy acts as the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes.”
The Exciters’ planted a bigger footprint in pop culture than “Tell Him,” and another, eager review highlights the injustice of making light of their impact: “in the USA they are lumped together with acts both sublime and ridiculous as ‘One Hit Wonders.’” They don’t deserve the cultural downgrade, because if you look, you see The Exciters slip into some curious places. “Tell Him” did more than pop up all over pop culture, and inspire multiple covers (not always good ones (and just plain weird ones*), it also inspired Dusty Springfield to go solo and switch up her sound (Wikipedia’s history includes a fantastic quote from her). Moreover, they had one more massive hit - just one they lost to a version put out by another act. If you know Manfred Mann (with or without his Earth Band), now you know he didn’t record the original of “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”; The Exciters did, a year earlier, and with one less “Diddy.”