When a talented group of Memphis musicians became the session group at Stax Records in 1966 (behind Booker T. & The MGs), they did not know they would birth a musical dynasty. Their name was a play on their favorite drink (Bacardi), but audiences would enjoy their funk-ahol for years. Now decades later, the last descendants of the Bar-Kays legacy, Larry Dodson and James Alexander continue to do their mentors proud.
Most of the original members perished in a tragic accident on December 10, 1967. Otis Redding had just selected the group as his backup band. They were on their way to a concert in Madison Wisconsin when their plane crashed into Lake Manona. Redding, his manager, and Bar-Kays members Jimmy King (guitarist), Ronnie Caldwell (organist), Phalon Jones (saxophonist) and (drummer) Carl Cunningham were killed. Trumpeter Ben Cauley survived the crash. Bassist James Alexander missed the plane trying to return a rental car.
When the work of rebuilding was needed Cauley, Alexander, and producer Allen Jones assembled a new lineup. Guitarist Michael Toles, keyboardist Ronnie Gordon, saxophonist Harvey Henderson and drummers Roy Cunningham and Willie Hall were chosen. The new ensemble had a sound much like the previous troupe and they were the house band on numerous Stax/Volt recording sessions, including Isaac Hayes' ground breaking Hot Buttered Soul. But, the group could never find its musical muse, unable to produce a hit on their own. Disheartened, Cunningham and Gordon left the group. When Winston Stewart joined on keyboards, a new direction was discovered as the band entered the 70s.
In 1971, the Bar-Kays debuted their first lead vocalist in Larry Dobson. The album, Black Rock, fused the rock and funk influences of Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic to a noteworthy level. In August of 1972, the Stax label sponsored Wattstax, a summer concert series in Watts that included the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and most of the Stax roster. The revitalized band was received enthusiastically. Shortly after playing on Isaac Hayes' Academy Award winning soundtrack, Shaft, Cauley and Toles defected to Hayes' back-up band. Trumpeter Scoop Allen and guitarist Vernon Burch replaced them.
The group scored a hit with "Copycat," a take-off on the Jimmi Hendrix hit, "Foxy Lady". They would then musically channel the Shaft hit for "Son of Shaft" in 1972, their first Top Ten R&B hit since "Soul Finger." However while their commercial success faltered again professionally they were fortified. Burch left in 1973 replaced by guitarist Lloyd Smith, drummer Michael Beard and trombonist Frank Thompson. They became more commercial, writing their own material and using more synthesizers. After Stax spiraled into bankruptcy in 1975, the band signed with Mercury and achieved commercial success. Their 1976 album, Too Hot To Stop, was a hit powered by the single, "Shake Your Rump to the Funk." They toured with George Clinton's P-Funk entourage on an extensive tour that summer and established their own brand of Bar-Kay funk. Their first gold record, Flying High on Your Love, came in 1977. Money Talks, a reissue of unreleased Stax material produced another Top Ten Hit, "Holy Ghost," in 1978. With the addition of drummer Sherman Guy and keyboardist Mark Bynum, the Bar-Kays were on a creative hot streak.
In 1979 Injoy single, "Move Your Boogie Body," hit Top Five on the R&B charts. In 1981 the album, Nightcruising spawned standouts "Hit &Run and "Freaky Behavior." In 1982, Propositions saw hits in "Do It (Let Me See You Shake)" and "She Talks With Her Body". During the 1980s, the album As One was their only album not to go gold.
When drummer Sherman Guy and trumpeter Charles Allen left in 1983, the group deftly adapted to the growing influences of the dance era. Their 1984 release Dangerous produced several hits that remain signature Bar-Kay moments: "Freakshow on the Dance Floor", "Dirty Dancer", and "Sex-O-Matic". As the heyday of funk passed, future Bar-Kay releases on Mercury would fall by the wayside. By 1987, Larry Dodson, James Alexander, Harvey Henderson and Winston Stewart were the remaining members struck by tragedy again when longtime producer Allen Jones died of a heart attack. Their last release for Mercury was Animal in 1988. It rendered their final Top Ten single of the decade, "Certified True," their last recording with friend Allen.
Lead singer Larry Dodson and bassist James Alexander rekindled the group for the 1994 album, 48 Hours on the independent Basix label. Their release of The Real Thing in 2003 showed promise for a Bar-Kay resurgence, but received little attention. The 2007 release House Party highlights the best of the unheard gems on the earlier CDs and adds six new tracks that show why the Bar-Kays are still masters of the funk.
A 40-year musical odyssey has taken the Bar-Kays through understudying Booker T & the MGs and ten reincarnations. The Bar-Kays have left an indelible mark on American music. With a career that includes 27 albums (5 gold and 1 platinum), 37 singles (28 in the Top Ten) and an invitation into the Rock'n'roll Hall of Fame, the BAR-KAYS are well ready for musical immortality.
By Arnold W. Stovell
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