*As the literal and musical birthplace of B.B. King, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash, Memphis is considered the home of the King of Blues, Rock ‘N Roll, and Country, respectively, but the town is also home of some Princes of Funk known as the Bar-Kays. (Scroll down to watch a clip.)
The group is the latest focus of TV One’s “UnSung” music biography series, which sheds some light on some of the most influential artists whose time in the spotlight was a bit short in some respects.
The story of the Bar-Kays began in 1967 when the group was chosen by legendary soulster Otis Redding to be his band. But later that year, Redding, along with his manager and six of the band members died in a tragic plane crash.
Bassist James Alexander, the still-touring band’s remaining original member told EUR’s Lee Bailey that he remembers that day like yesterday.
“We all grew up together. The original band went through junior high to high school together. We were like family; like brothers. It was a hell of a blow,” he said. “However, even before the accident happened, we always talked about if something was to happen to a member of the group, we would want the group to carry on.”
Alexander said that almost immediately after the crash, their label, Stax Records, asked if the two survivors – Alexander and trumpeter and Ben Cauley, wanted to continue with the group. The duo said yes and rebuilt the group with new members and changed their musical direction, from a straight-laced back-up band to a funk troupe. By April of 1968, the Bar-Kays debuted the new band.
“We were an instrumental band at first,” Alexander explained. “One of our biggest songs of all time we were privileged to have was ‘Soul Finger.’ When we reformed the group, we thought it would be a good idea to add vocals. That would broaden our scope and make us more well-rounded. That’s why we added Larry Dodson. When Dodson came, we felt the need to change the whole thing.”
Alexander said that the group started to meld into a funk sound that they called black rock. Their look changed quite a bit, too.
“We were just a continuation of what the original Bar-Kays were. Back in those days, everybody wore like a uniform, everybody wore the same thing. When we transformed, nobody wore the same thing. Everybody had on something weird. We were trying stuff because we were trying to get noticed, too. George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic and The Bar-Kays were the first bands that started doing that ‘weird’ sort of stuff.”
The group merged from classic soul to funk, but Alexander shared that rap – considered the reason for the group’s and the genre’s demise – actually boosted their later career.
“Rap helped the Bar-Kays,” he said. “Right when rap first started, right when the Bar-Kays were coming into their prime – late 70s, early 80s, Joe Robinson asked if we would put the Sugar Hill Gang on some shows we had coming up on the West Coast. He even offered to pay us to put the group on the show.”
Alexander presented the idea to the group, which at first was against it.
“Do you know that putting the Sugar Hill Gang on that particular run was the difference between us doing 7,000 people and selling out? I am convinced that they made the difference. The West Coast accepted it with open arms,” he said.
Currently, the Bar-Kays are still touring with some adoring fans. In the late ’90s the group teamed up with Charlie Wilson, the SOS Band, Confunkshun, and the Dazz Band who toured as the United We Funk All-stars. The tour later became the Legends of Funk, and then the Masters of Funk with the group, Confunkshun, Dazz Band, and now Sugar Foot, the Ohio Players.
“We do about 20 to 30 shows as the Masters of Funk, which is in addition to the Bar-Kays touring by themselves. We’re keeping busy,” he said. “The Bar-Kays are still alive and well and living in Memphis, TN.”
Tune in tonight at 9 pm/ET on TV One for the Bar-Kays story.
Watch a clip of the Bar-Kays’ ‘UnSung’: