We Can All Learn Something From the Bar-Kays’ Story
On Dec. 10, 1967, the private plane carrying soul singer Otis Redding and five members of the Bar-Kays band who backed him up crashed while attempting to land near Madison, Wisconsin. The plane went down in the frigid waters of Lake Monona.
All but the trumpeter, Ben Cauley, died. Cauley could not swim, but somehow he survived. All the Bar-Kays had been students at Booker T. Washington High School. This included Ronnie Caldwell, the only white member of the band. He transferred from the all-white Central High School to be with his friends, where he was “truly loved.”
The plane could only carry seven passengers, so James Alexander, the bass player for the band, flew separately on a commercial flight.
Although they were only teenagers, band members had talked about what to do if any of them were to die. They all agreed “the band must go on.”
It would not be easy to rebuild such a talented and remarkable group, but by April 1968, Alexander and Cauley had reconstituted the Bar-Kays. Under James’ leadership, they kept recording with Stax Records but with a new style. At first just an instrumental band, they added a lead singer and began as “black rock ‘n’ roll.” This style did not fit them, so they quickly became what the Bar-Kays are famous for — funk. All was good until suddenly, in 1975, Stax shut down. For the next year, the Bar-Kays played in a local club just to keep the band together.
Finally, they signed a contract with Mercury Records and were recording again. Throughout the 1980s, the gigs kept coming, but in the late ’80s, it was a struggle. A few band members changed, but Alexander kept at it. In 2004, he took a part-time job at FedEx to make sure that he and his family had health insurance.
And then — no surprise to Alexander — people returned to the Bar-Kays. In 2014, they played their 50th anniversary concert at the Cannon Center in Downtown Memphis. In 2015, Cauley died. But Alexander kept his oath of keeping the band going.
The Bar-Kays have recorded 29 albums. They’ve played all over world. Alexander remains the bass player and promoter.
When asked, “How have you kept it going all these years?”— Alexander remembers what his grandmother used to say: “She would quote from the Psalms, ‘The Lord is my help and my strength.’”
He also believes, “The more I give of myself, the more I get back.” The Bar-Kays give two or three scholarships a year to LeMoyne-Owen College, and every year they give to the “Fab Five,” five charities they choose to support.
Anyone who loves Memphis music is familiar with the songs of the Bar-Kays from their early years, including their first single, “Soul Finger,” and a few years later, “Son of Shaft.” But the fact that Alexander has managed to keep the beat going through tragedy and loss is what impresses me.
Just recently I heard the Bar-Kays play, and they have a new lead singer. He is really good, and I could see joy in Alexander’s face. His head was bobbing; he still feels the beat. All the band members, though no longer teenagers, still have their moves. They work hard, and you can feel their love of the music.
This kind of perseverance, through good times and bad, is something all of us can learn. None of this came easy. To keep the funk going took passion and drive and — Alexander would add — a little help from God. This is a quintessential Memphis story, and one we can remember with pride and hold onto when times get tough.