There have been few bands who have reached the durability and longevity as the Bar-Kays. Starting out in a time when funk was just beginning to gain its sea legs, this group has scored a multitude of hits, survived a plane crash that could have devastated them, and became trendsetters for the electro-funk movement of the early 1980s.
The Bar-Kays hail from Memphis, Tennessee, where they were just a backing band for legendary Stax Records. In 1967, the group was chosen by Otis Redding to play as his backing band, and that same year the Bar-Kays released their own single in “Soul Finger,” which surprisingly got to number three on the R&B Charts, and number seven on the Hot 100.
With a hit under their belt and trained up to back Redding, the group, which at the time consisted of Jimmy King (guitar), Ronnie Caldwell (electric organ), Phalon Jones (drums), Carl Cunningham (drums), Ben Cauley (trumpet), and James Alexander (bass) set out with Redding, and his manager to a concert in Madison, Wisconsin on December 10 of that year.
But the plane never got there, as it crashed into Lake Monona while trying to land at Truax Field. Everyone excluding Cauley died in the crash. Alexander was on another plane.
The plane crash could have brought the Bar-Kays to a screeching halt, but to their credit, Alexander and Cauley decided to solider on and rebuild the band. The new edition of the Bar-Kays would now include Cauley, Alexander, Harvey Henderson (saxophone), Michael Toles (guitar), Ronnie Gorden (organ), Willie Hall (drums), and in 1970, Larry Dodson (lead vocals).
This lineup wouldn’t survive long, as everybody sans Alexander, Dodson and Henderson would leave the group in 1971, leaving the two remaining members to once again rebuild the band basically from scratch. The third incarnation of the Bar-Kays would include Alexander, Dodson, Henderson, Barry Wilkins (guitar), Winston Stewart (keyboards), Charles “Scoops” Allen (trumpet), and Alvin Hunter (drums), and this would be the lineup that would produce the group’s debut album, Black Rock, in 1972.
A year later, Lloyd Smith would jump on as the band changed musical strategy and decided that funk would be their ticket to the top. But before they could get the ball rolling, the band received another blow when Stax Records folded in 1975. The spent nearly a year searching for another deal, and they found one in Mercury Records, while they were shopping for a new label home, the group added Frank Thompson (Trombone), and replaced Hunter with Mike Beard on drums.
This would be the lineup that would point the way to great success for the Bar-Kays, as they finally returned to the upper echelon of the R&B charts that year with “Shake Your Rump to the Funk.” The group would dabble in disco for the rest of the ‘70s, culminating with the amazing Injoy, but once the ‘80s rolled around, they would shift their sound and add a new groove to the mix – synthesizers.
The Bar-Kays were one of the pioneers of the electro-funk movement, as their first three albums of the ‘80s, 1980’s As One, 1981’s Nightcrusing, and 1982’s Propositions, all had a strong electronic vibe to them. Propositions, in particular, were the template that many other electro copycats tried to replicate, as the album pulsated to a beat made up of synths, keyboards, and drum machines.
All three albums were hits, and but that couldn’t really punch their way through on the pop charts. That all changed in 1984 when the group released “Freak Show on the Dance Floor,” a parody of Midnight Star’s 1983 hit “No Parking on the Dancefloor, was a smash, just missing out on the top spot of the R&B charts and becoming a crossover sensation.
But “Freak Show on the Dance Floor” would prove to be a climax for the group commercially, as the band became a victim of changing taste in music. Through they would land moderate hits on the charts, they couldn’t land another monster hit, and in 1988, they called it a career.
The Bar-Kays never really went out-of-style though, as they released two more albums of new material and are now touring the oldies circuit to fans who want to relive the days where they created a freak show on the dance floor.