The legendary Bar-Kays, featuring James Alexander and Larry Dodson, spent 2014 celebrating 50 years of blaring horns, soulful rhythms and infectious vibes. Coming down from their star-studded 50th anniversary gala at the Cannon Center, the Bar-Kays are saying thanks and reflecting on their roots before moving into the new year.
“The Bar-Kays started in ’64 as a backyard band,” Dodson says, chuckling as he adds, “They auditioned twice for Stax, and both times they got turned down!” But as the old saying goes, the third time was the charm for the Bar-Kays, and they got the gig as Stax’s house band. “It was about the time that Booker T. & the MGs got big, and they were away from the studio more,” he says. “The Bar-Kays just slipped in.” With a mischievous grin, Dodson goes on to say, “They were out playing golf, and we were playing music.”
The group soon caught the attention of Otis Redding, and later went on to sing backup for him. “One night at a club, he called out a song — he didn’t think they’d know it, but they did,” Dodson says. “He fell in love with the band.” Redding wanted the band to go on the road with him, but they were still in high school. “The day they graduated, they left, and they went to The Apollo Theater.”
But in ’67, tragedy struck in the form of a plane crash. Redding and the Bar-Kays were en route to Madison, Wisconsin, when poor weather conditions overwhelmed the aircraft. The plane plunged into the Squaw Bay area of Lake Monona, where the frigid water claimed the lives of all but one: Bar-Kays trumpeter Ben Cauley. “I’ve always thought that God had his hand on the band,” Dodson says. “After the plane crash and even before.”
Cauley and Alexander brought the Bar-Kays back together in 1968 with a new lineup, and returned to their former position at Stax. Although they released their second album the following year, the group didn’t quite get its groove back until they brought Dodson on in 1970. “They had been watching me, and I didn’t know it,” he says. “I used to see (producer) Allen Jones changing buses downtown and different places, and he would say ‘I got my eye on you, we’re gonna get you,’ and I never knew what he meant.”
At the time, Dodson sang for the doo-wop group the Temprees. His switch to the Bar-Kays marked the band’s transition to a singing group, as Dodson was their first and, to date, only lead vocalist. “I fell right into the middle of an album. They were already workin’ on it, they just didn’t have a singer,” he says. “I had never recorded. I didn’t really know anything about the studio. So they put all this trust in me to kinda take them to another level, and that just started the ball a rollin’. It was probably one of the best albums we ever did — it’s called Black Rock.”
The group went on to release two more albums on Stax Records before the label’s bankruptcy. “We were the last act to leave Stax, which was in 1975 when they locked the doors.” From there, the Bar-Kays began performing at the Family Affair nightclub in Memphis and later signed with Mercury Records. They brought the funk on label debut Too Hot to Stop, and the 1977 follow up, Flying High on Your Love, earned the group their first gold record. Regardless of lineup or label, the Bar-Kays have churned out hit after hit over the course of their career. They’ve released a total of 30 albums, including one platinum album and five gold albums, and have had close to two dozen singles chart in the top 10.
“When you’re doing it, I’m tellin’ you, you don’t really realize it,” Dodson says. “We’re so involved in it, until we do it and we just move on to the next. Of course we try to make sure we do it as good as we can.” It wasn’t until the 50th anniversary celebration started coming together that he really had a chance to reflect on the group’s illustrious achievements. “Over the last four to five months, it has really dawned on me how much good music we’ve actually made and how much we’ve contributed to the music business,” he says, adding, “It’s really amazing, and it’s such a blessing.”
The Bar-Kays continue to bridge musical barriers, connecting audiences of all ages to their unique brand of soul and R&B. Dodson says he’s putting the finishing touches on the Bar-Kays’ new record, due out early 2015. “We’ve got people like George Clinton on it and Doug E. Fresh. It’s very cool, and it’s not offensive to our older audience, but the kids are gonna like it.”
Memphis Legends Live On
Soul sensations The Bar-Kays celebrate 50 years of stirring music
Story by Tess Catlett