ON DECEMBER 10th, 1967, Otis Redding’s private plane smashed into Wisconsin’s Lake Monona, killing Redding, the plane’s pilot and Redding’s traveling band, the Bar-Kays, a young Memphis, Tennessee soul group. All but one of the plane’s passengers died in the crash. At the time, the Bar-Kays debut, Soul Finger, burned up the radio waves, powered by the choogling eponymously titled single. One month after the crash, Stax Records released Redding’s posthumous blockbuster The Dock of the Bay.
You Don’t Miss Your Water
There were two Bar-Kays left alive: sole crash survivor Ben Cauley, the Bar-Kays trumpet player, and James Alexander, the band’s bass player. While Cauley had plunged into the icy waters with the rest of the band, Alexander managed to escape the crash. Redding’s Beechcraft twin-engine aircraft couldn’t seat the whole band. For each trip, two members had to fly commercial. The night of the crash Alexander and Redding’s backup singer drew the short straws.
In the wintry aftermath, Causey and Alexander measured out their musical future. During the recording of Soul Finger, most of the Bar-Kays were still in high school. But that didn’t mean their skills weren’t honed. The adolescent band had already well established itself as Stax’s second in-house band, funkifying the studio just as easy, just as natural as Booker T. and the M.G.’s before them.
Willing to fly the too-young-to-be-on-the-road-all-week band from weekend show to weekend show in his private plane, Redding tapped the Bar-Kays for his backing band. Cauley had recently turned twenty. Alexander was nineteen. What they knew about life was what they knew about music – friendship, devotion, work, and calamity. They agreed to give up only that last one.
On the 45th anniversary of the crash, Alexander remembered the experience for a Memphis TV station. “It’s a very numb, empty feeling. It’s a very empty feeling just to wake up and guys earlier in that day you were laughing and talking with, all of a sudden those guys aren’t around.”
Most other bands would have quit, started new bands, or given music a rest. Cauley and Alexander realized early after the crash that the only cure for the pain in their hearts was music, specifically the music of the Bar-Kays. With the jive kicking bravado of their youthful band still ringing in their heads, the two jumpstarted a new version of the band that first brought them fame.
Memphis dispatched a sly counterpunch to the walloping manufactured soul of Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Not just through Stax/Volt. Quinton Claunch’s Goldwax opened in 1964, scoring big at the end of the decade with soul balladeer James Carr. Hi Records put out its shingle a few years earlier, in the late Fifties, eventually making Al Green a household name.
The region’s rambling delta blues mixed well with the polyrhythmic shimmy of New Orleans jazz. Both were featured right alongside their commingled offspring by performers on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ a loose affiliation of clubs that catered to black audiences in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and on into Mississippi and the rest of the dirty south. Those sounds dovetailed perfectly with the irreverent rockabilly skronk of Sam Phillips’s Memphis based Sun Records. And because Elvis Presley’s early meteoric success exploded out of the region, all ears were open to the next big thing, all musicians readied to launch. Unsophisticated bands that would otherwise have dried on the vine of less musically developed places found in Memphis a music scene willing to let them refine the kinks in their sound.
High school marching bands by day split into rival R&B revues by night, crossing the river into West Memphis, Arkansas arriving, likely as not, at the Plantation Inn, or PI, a club that featured music by black artists and often leaving its doors open to local music hungry teenagers. PI was Chitlin Circuit personified and overdriven. Horn sections kicked toward the ceiling and dipped to the floor while the crooners they backed delivered merciless acrobatics without missing a beat, dropping a note, or falling free of tune.
As the stripped instrumentation of the Beatles dominated radio, any pop band with a shade of sense discarded their horn sections in favor of the more primitive guitar, bass and drum attack. Memphis proved no different. Stax’s first house band, the Mar-Keys, dropped the horn section led by Packy Axton, son and nephew of Stax’s owners. Tightening up into a four-piece organ/guitar outfit, they changed their name to Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Their song “Green Onions” helped the band to become one of the first integrated bands to hit it big, ably challenging the Beatles reigning supremacy, whether on their own or as the Stax house band, backing Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, Eddie Floyd and Otis Redding among others.
By the middle of the decade even the Beatles added horn parts to their songs. And click your fingers, horn sections magically rejoined Memphis bands as local rockers thankfully realized that the sound of the musically fertile region could not survive on guitars alone.
Dictionary of Soul
The Bar-Kays originated as a gaggle of teenaged musicians at Memphis’s Booker T. Washington high school. Lost in the fury of adolescence, time on their hands, the friends massaged the noise of their instruments into something more powerful than their individual components. It’s an old trick of worthwhile musical equations, sums outdistancing their mathematical means. First the band called themselves the Imperials. Soon they discovered that a host of other bands performed under the name, and so the Imperials – presto change-o – became the Bar-Kays.
Once ensconced as house band for Stax, the Bar-Kays worked up their live show. After a burn-the-house down performance, Redding approached them. As Cauley told an interviewer in late 2012, “Otis went wild. After the show was over… he came back to where we was and said, ‘Man! Y’all bad.’ He asked what we were doing? We said we was in school.” Redding’s spirit lingered well after the crash. Adding to his loss and to the loss of their bandmates, not quite a year after Soul Finger’s initial release, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel, a short car ride away from Stax/Volt offices and recording studio at 926 E. McLemore Avenue.
Undeterred by the psychic wounds brought by Redding and King’s shocking deaths, perhaps even inspired by them, Cauley and Alexander headed into the studio with a new band. Harvey Henderson took over on saxophone, Michael Toles on guitar, Ronnie Gordon on the keys, with the drumming duties undertaken by the tag team of Willie Hall and Roy Cunningham. Stax writer, producer and engineer Allen Jones ran the knobs, solidified arrangements, and took over as band manager, guiding the youth from the pooling grief of the past year.
Jones pushed the band hard, and the results shined a bright funk light out into the world. Taking note of the recent success of Sly and the Family Stone, Jones ran his charges through the new tracks over and over and over again until the band members shucked off any miscues. The record included four covers among its eleven jams; three from outside sources – two of them from the Beatles, one from Marvin Gaye – and one co-written by Stax writers William Bell and Steve Cropper.
Divided into two parts, both sides of the recording begin with the defiant boogie of “Don’t Stop Dancing to the Music.” Essentially the same song broken into sections, each one sets the tone for the songs that follow it. While the album should be taken as a whole, it’s this keen split that gives each side of the album its personality. While the song might not surge the way “Soul Finger” did, it creates a cocksure funk you can’t ignore. Side one rumbles good-naturedly with the band catcalling shout outs. Side two delivers waves of gutbucket funk.
After DSDTTM closes, the trumpet driven ballad “If This World Was Mine” swings hesitatingly over Cauley’s unspoken experience going down with the plane. Rather than crashing down into the waters of Lake Monona once again, the ballad twists free of its fuselage and heads skywards at the fade out.
From there the slow soul fury of “In the Hole” firmly plants the Bar-Kays back where they started, as a mature beyond their years band able to make you dance, and alter your mood with one quick blast. Squiggles of guitar blurt out beneath the horn lines. Lockstep bass and drums bribe a bouncy refusal while the Cauley and Alexander recreate the sounds they first made backing Redding.
Side one’s last three numbers prove this new Bar-Kays charged as hard as the first version. Jones’s production and task mastering shook them free of mistakes, allowing the band the freedom to groove on timeless shivers of soul satisfaction replete with cow bell, cartoony grumbles and screen siren shrieks. So much of dance music, then as now, revolves on the axis of repetition, the Bar-Kays bring to that slinking horns and deceptive guitar lines, weaving unexpected notes over well memorialized riffs. Youthful over confidence rallied to tamp down its folly, yielding scorching results.
Side two lifts off with DSDTTM pt. two. By the second song, Toles’s fuzzed out noise underpins the unified theme with a rocking ballast. The double drummers build a fleet footed bottom end as the organ raises a rock and roll flag. Make no mistake, the Memphis scene rocked, and rocked hard. The Beatles chose Memphis’s own Bill Black Combo as openers for their first American tour. On Gotta Groove’s second side, the Bar-Kays bring some rock and roll raunch with their soul-come-funk. Guitars wah and hammer, the bass and organ skitter with abandon, horns roar to life. The songs are solid and the music busts your chops. And then, without so much as a mention, a singularity appears, that fickle unnamable quality that makes a song into a soul song as it down shifts on a dime and spins to an end, so fully fleshed out, so intricately demonstrated you’d think anyone could make it sound as such. But no, anyone can’t. The Bar-Kays can. On Gotta Groove they do it again and again.
It’s no mistake then that near the end of the album when the Beatles songs arrive, whatever owed acknowledgment the Bar-Kays might have felt is instantly liberated. “Yesterday,” a delicacy in the hands of its writers, here is stewed into a greasy requiem, Gordon’s stop-ground organ holding court until a middle eight eruption by the rest of the band dances along for a few bars before disappearing quick as it came.
For the last song, the band recasts “Hey Jude” as a mini symphony, erasing all vocals but for the refrain. Mingling its sections, Jones and band strip away the original’s pop-isms at the outset and so the song begins instead with a languidly accented keyboard that spills into Causey’s elegiac trumpet. Slowly, the rest of the band kicks in, punctuating each measure with a syncopated crispness. Barrelhouse piano delivers an off-kilter salute to the new incarnation of Bar-Kays. En-masse, the band belt out the refrain; their united instruments capitalizing on eternal now-ness bubbling inside. This is the kind of creation that started out as an in-studio jam, something to promote ass wiggle. In the hands of the Bar-Kays and Jones, it became a memory, a tidal pool of emotional crescendo buttressing the music’s healing force. A rhythmic grumble as undulating as it is unpredictable illuminates a depth rare in instrumental covers of lyrical songs. By song’s end, the band comps melodic furies up and down the its spine, fading out just as their potency reaches full magnitude and crests back to silence. And that’s the end. If you’d been watching it on stage, no one would ask for another song. Nothing could come after it. Nothing should. Maybe it’s true about the Beatles music, that in every country on every continent, the people know their music enough to sing, or hum along. What they should really know is the dynamic endowment a group of young Memphians produced despite of the loss of their band members, their champion Redding, and their King.
Coffee and Cigarettes
Odds against them, the Bar-Kays made a record commensurate to or better than their first. Both band and management felt that Stax’s dedication to the recording waned, that the label did not push the record much as it could. True enough, Stax released Gotta Groove on the Volt subsidiary. Years later, producer and manager Jones stated in an interview, “ I thought our contributions to Stax could have been different… We were always just a little on the outside… there was more Stax could have done.” To the label’s credit, after Redding’s death, Stax/Volt almost succumbed to financial strain. Unable to fully recuperate through the dedicated efforts of new co-owner Al Bell, the label closed in 1975, before being resuscitated by Fantasy and Atlantic.
When Gotta Groove didn’t score the success of the Bar-Kay’s debut sending them out on an endless tour, Isaac Hayes employed the band to record his Hot Buttered Soul. That album went to number one on the jazz and r&b charts, reaching eight on the Billboard 200. Hot Buttered Soul is often considered the bench mark for soul music, and it gave the Bar-Kays their first number one hit, if only as the backing band. That album closes with an enigmatic eighteen minute version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” but it’s the musical mind of Hayes, not the Bar-Kays, and benchmark or not, Gotta Groove’s innards deliver just as urgent a funk as Hayes’s issue, maybe more so.
The band’s next record, 1971’s anemic Black Rock, introduced a full time singer to the band. Cauley left soon after. James Alexander still performs with the Bar-Kays, the only member to have played in most every version of the band. Cauley never returned, finding a permanent spot with the Memphis Horns and recording with homegrown singers gone stratospheric like Green, Hayes, and Elvis Presley. A burning Bar-Kays set at Wattstax is required listening if only for the bands roasting calisthenic take on Redding’s show stopper “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Still, Gotta Groove offers some of the best music the Bar-Kays ever made, new era funk abstractions layered right over top of their wound tight soul beginnings, providing categorically undeniable ass-wiggling goodness that’s all at once tender, compassionate and furious.
Essential reading, once again.
I get more out of a single Hank Cherry piece than a month’s subscription to the classic rock archives.
Thanks for the education!
Thank ye kindly brother Joe!!!
I had the honor kof performing with Ben at Graceland this 2014 Elvis Week. Ben is a really nice guy and his musicial ability is still great. I wish to thank new friends at STAX for this pleasure. They also brought To Tall Hall too. Thanks so much for the high honor of being on stage with such talent.
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