If you had asked Larry Dodson and James Alexander a few decades ago if they planned to still be recording music in 2014, their answer would have been no. But on December 4th, the two leading members of legendary funk and soul collective the Bar-Kays will be honored for their 50th year in the music industry.
It's been a long road for the Bar-Kays to get to the point where they are today.
The journey began in South Memphis in 1964. Long before the group received global attention and contributed significantly to the genres of funk, soul, and R&B, they were six high school friends who played in Booker T. Washington's band together.
The original lineup consisted of drummer Carl Cunningham, trumpeter Ben Cauley, bassist James Alexander, organist Ronnie Caldwell, saxophonist Phalon Jones, and guitarist Jimmie King. The collective banded together and began playing at nightspots around Memphis like the Hippodrome, Blue Stallion, and Flamingo Room.
Their unique sound managed to capture the ears of legendary label Stax/Volt Records. Subsequently, the Bar-Kays became the official house band for the label, playing backup for acts like Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, and the Staple Singers.
In 1967, the group shook up the world with the release of their debut single "Soulfinger," a Billboard-charting hit boasting a funky sound, a sample of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and a catchy chant. In the midst of the record's success, soul icon and labelmate Otis Redding selected the Bar-Kays to serve as his backup band for his nationwide tour.
What had seemed like a dream come true for the young musicians became a nightmare on December 10, 1967. Redding, along with five of the group's members — King, Jones, Cunningham, Cauley, and Caldwell — boarded his twin-engine Beechcraft 18 en route to Madison, Wisconsin, for a performance.
Traveling through poor weather conditions, Redding's plane began to shake and around 3:30 p.m. plunged into the Squaw Bay area of Lake Monona, a couple of miles shy of their intended destination at Truax Field.
Cauley was the crash's sole survivor. He managed to survive by clutching onto a seat cushion while watching his friends cry for help before disappearing into the lake's frigid water.
Alexander happened to avoid the horrific incident altogether. Due to Redding's plane only boasting eight seats, he took a commercial flight. Fifty years later, Alexander is still bothered by the tragic occurrence that claimed his friends' lives.
"To be with some people you really care about one day and the next minute you hear that they all perished in a plane crash, it was a devastating experience," Alexander reminisced. "I'm glad that the Lord gave me enough strength to go on."
After coping with the deaths of their friends, Alexander and Cauley reassembled the Bar-Kays in 1968. And shortly after reemerging, the group transitioned from being an instrumental band to adding a lead singer, Larry Dodson.
A straight-haired, raspy voiced crooner with a unique fashion sense, Dodson helped the Bar-Kays take things to the next level, acquiring five gold plaques as well as one platinum effort in the process.
Although music has changed significantly since the Bar-Kays' glory years, the group continues to maintain relevance by adapting to current sounds. But they still manage to incorporate an old-school essence.
Still passionate about creating music and traveling the world, in 2015 the group will tour Europe and release a yet-to-be-titled album. "We're still having so much fun; it's almost like we just started again," Dodson said. "We're reinventing ourselves. James and I could do this forever."
The Bar-Kays' star-studded celebration on December 4th starts at 8 p.m. at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts and features performances by George Clinton, Con Funk Shun, the Dazz Band, Eddie Levert, Dougie Fresh, DJ Quik, and many more. "[People] are going to get the chance to be entertained by a plethora of artists that they don't normally get to see in one night," Dodson said. "It's going to be a night that people won't forget."
Dodson and Alexander will be recognized for their profound career, which includes more than 30 albums, 20 Billboard-charting singles, and several million records sold.
A portion of the event's proceeds will be divided among the Bar-Kays' Fab Five Charities: the Down Syndrome Association of Memphis, United Way of the Mid-South, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Stax Music Academy, and the Allen Jones/Marjorie Barrenger/Bar-Kays scholarship fund.