50 Years of Funk: James Alexander and Larry Dodson on the Bar-Kays' golden year
April 02--After 50 years as one of soul, R and funk's most enduring outfits, the Bar-Kays' James Alexander and Larry Dodson know that the sum is often greater than its parts.
"If there's an 'it' factor for the Bar-Kays, it's the power of the group," says Dodson. "None of us individually are powerful, but together we know we're great. Nobody can bother the Bar-Kays on a good night. Nobody can bother us."
It's an early April day in South Memphis as Alexander and Dodson meet at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music to talk about their plans for 2014. The Memphis group will mark its 50th anniversary this year with a slate of activities, including the release of a new album, a star-studded concert
celebration at the Cannon Center in December and a charity effort. But, before all that, they'll play a rare hometown show at Minglewood Hall on Friday. "We don't often get a chance to do it," says Dodson. "Last year we played [at Minglewood] and had to turn away 200-300 people. We ended up playing two and half hours; they wouldn't leave."
The Bar-Kays announced their 50th anniversary plans during a press conference last month, in which they also debuted the first single of the forthcoming album. "The city has just been on fire for us," says Dodson. "James and I are excited, we're humbled by the attention. Even though this is our 50th, we are genuinely putting the Fab Five first."
The Bar-Kays Fab Five charitable initiative is a major component of their anniversary celebration. For nearly a decade, the group has helped fund the college educations of young Memphians through a scholarship program at LeMoyne-Owen. "We felt it would be a great idea to increase our giving," says Alexander. "That's how the Fab Five concept was born."
The Bar-Kays will be contributing to a coalition of causes, including The Down Syndrome Association of Memphis, United Way of the Mid-South, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Stax Music Academy and their Allen Jones/Marjorie Barringer/Bar-Kays Scholarship Fund. Alexander has long been involved with United Way, and Dodson's daughter was born with Down syndrome. "We have ties with all of the organizations, so it was just a natural for us," says Dodson.
Standing in the lobby of Stax, the Bar-Kays don't need to look far to look back. "I grew up a block from here on Stafford Avenue," says Alexander. "In fact, I was born directly across the street. There was a hospital right down the street called McLemore Clinic. It was actually at 925 East McLemore -- and Stax is at 926 East McLemore"
Though they initially went by some other names (including the Imperials) the Bar-Kays -- bassist Alexander, Ronnie Caldwell (organ), Ben Cauley (trumpet), Phalon Jones (sax), Carl Cunningham (drums) and Jimmy King (guitar) -- solidified in 1964. "That's when the band was birthed. But our coming-out party was at a thing Booker Washington [High School] used to throw at Ellis Auditorium. It was a big talent show," says Alexander. "That was the first time we went on stage in uniforms, which Bernard Lansky, god rest his soul, dressed us in. We had our $29.95 maroon shiny suits on, patent leather shoes, shirts to match. We came out, and we turned it out. That got the ball rolling.
"Then we got to playing sock hops, fraternity parties, high school proms, black and white," says Alexander. The group was so popular that they decided split up the band and have two versions of the Bar-Kays performing. The plan backfired when people began to realize they weren't getting the "real" Bar-Kays.
Eventually, the group signed with its neighborhood label, Stax/Volt, where they were groomed by Booker T. Jones and scored a hit with the delirious 1967 instrumental single "Soul Finger." They backed Sam Dave, Otis Redding and others and were on their way to becoming second house band -- after Booker T. the MGs -- at the label when tragedy struck.
In early December '67, the Bar-Kays were backing Redding on the road, doing weekenders at colleges. They had three gigs booked in the Midwest and most of the entourage was traveling on Redding's new twin engine Beechcraft. Alexander, who'd volunteered to return the band's rental car in Cleveland and hop a commercial flight to Wisconsin, dropped them off at the hangar. But the plane never made it to the next show, crashing into water outside Madison, Wisconsin. Cauley would be the only one to live through the ordeal.
Alexander and Cauley felt duty-bound to preserve the band, and the following year they reformed the Bar-Kays. "Even being young guys -- and I was the youngest -- we had some real deep guys in the band," said Alexander. "We always talked about things philosophically. The thing that resonates and sticks out in my mind, is we talked about 'If something happens with the band or the group, if anybody's left, please keep the group going.'"
The reconstituted Bar-Kays helped anchor the new Stax sound, backing Rufus Thomas, Albert King, the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes. The charismatic Dodson would join the revived outfit as lead singer in 1970 (Cauley would leave the band in 1972, but remains close and performs with them occasionally). A former singer for the Temprees, Dodson helped usher in the Bar-Kays second era along with their producer and manager Allen Jones.
With the help of Jones, not only did the band survive the fall of Stax Records in 1975, but they flourished into the '70s and '80s, adopting a funkier sound and style and scoring a succession of hits with Mercury Records. "Allen had a knack for always looking ahead, seeing what the next thing would be or could be or should be for a group like the Bar-Kays. He just kept us a step ahead of the game," says Dodson. "When the disco era came, we had picked it apart, and knew what to take from it and what not to take, and to keep our identity. Thus we were leading instead of following the changes."
The band has continued to make its way amid the many changes in the music business. The Bar-Kays have long operated their own label and on their last album, 2012's Grown Folks, the band worked with a group of younger collaborators, including Alexander's son, noted hip-hop producer Jazze Pha. "With Grown Folks we picked up a whole other audience, younger kids," says Dodson. "I think we get that because our records don't sound old."
The band is currently wrapping up its next album -- which promises plenty of guests and cutting-edge production -- in time for the 50th celebration. The first single, "Up and Down," came out last month and the full album will be out at the end of August. "It an urban record, but it's got a [crossover] potential. I think we want to have an openness with our career, to where we can create any kind of music: up-tempo songs, ballads, old school, new school, whatever," says Dodson.
The Bar-Kays continue to tour, performing a variety of different shows for different audiences. They do a Memphis Soul Revue -- a tribute to their early Stax legacy -- and are frequently as part of the "Masters of Funk" package (which includes acts like the Dazz Band, Ohio Players, Con Funk Shun) in addition to playing own headlining shows.
"Here we are 50 years later," says Alexander. "We not on walkers or crutches or wheelchairs or scooters, and we're still playing music, and still trooping along."
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Friday, Minglewood Hall, 1555 Madison Avenue.
Doors open at 7 p.m. This is a fully seated show.
General admission tickets are $40. VIP tickets (which include seating in the first eight rows and entry to the afterparty at the 1884 Lounge) are $75.
Available at the box office, minglewoodhall.com or (901) 312-6058.