A Bar-Kays Primer

On January 24th 2020 » By Andrew Winistorfer

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To help people who bought VMP Anthology: The Story Of Stax Records dive deep into the catalogs of the artists featured in our box set, we’ve created primers for every artist featured.

Once Stax turned into a veritable hit machine, it became clear that the label couldn’t solely rely on the house band of the M.G.’s. That would lead to burnout at best and defection at worst — both of which would happen eventually. So when a group of teenagers called the Impalas came into the Stax orbit — by virtue of being pests around the studio and asking to help however they could — it seemed like the perfect opportunity to expand the Stax house band roster. It would take a name change inspired by a Bacardi billboard first, but for a brief couple years, the hottest road band and studio band at Stax was the Bar-Kays, an integrated crew of local high schoolers who wanted nothing more than to be the new M.G.’s. That they’d mostly get their wish is a testament to their powers.

The Bar-Kays were favorites of Estelle Axton, who encouraged them to keep working on their music, and set them up with multiple auditions with M.G. member and staff producer Steve Cropper. Cropper famously turned the band down multiple times, claiming to not hear whatever people wanted to hear, and it took fortuitous timing for the band to get signed to Stax’s Volt imprint: Jim Stewart walked in on the group rehearsing, heard them laying down a groove, and demanded they record it instantly. It would be released as “Soul Finger” and would be a smash hit: It hit number three on the R&B chart, and number 17 on the pop. Not only were the Bar-Kay’s signed to Stax, now they were stars.

The boys in the band still had to finish high school, while simultaneously recording material that would become their debut LP, Soul Finger, included in VMP anthology. They had a regular club date in Memphis to attend to as well, playing the city’s bars before they could even get in legally. After his famous early 1967 tour in Europe with the M.G.’s, Otis Redding was back in Memphis recording and gearing up for a U.S. tour in the spring of 1967. Knowing that the M.G.’s would be tied up in the studio throughout ’67 and ’68, Redding decided to go check out the Bar-Kays play a club, and he was blown away. He jumped onstage and performed a couple songs with the band, and decided then and there they needed to be his. He offered the band to back him on a couple spot dates in the spring of ’67, but the band’s parents wouldn’t let them; they needed to finish school first. The day that the band graduated high school, they boarded a plane to play with Otis at the Apollo in New York City. Otis took the Bar-Kays around North America, playing everywhere from Montreal to L.A., and points between. He bought a big plane to tour with the six piece band; though one of them always had to fly commercial since the plane didn’t seat all of them.

Somewhere in between the dates with Otis, and graduating, the band recorded the rest of their debut LP, Soul Finger, which captured their hazy, raucous soul rock, a looser-limbed affair than the M.G.’s albums. It boasted 11 songs, some covers and some originals, and we chose it for this anthology because, like Soul Dressing, it captures how vital even the instrumental albums on Stax could be; there’s no other rock or soul label that was committed to proving their bands could make awesome instrumental albums like Stax was.

It’s also the only album we could pair with Otis Redding in our Anthology rollout: In the winter of 1967, Otis Redding’s plane would go down over Madison, Wisconsin’s Lake Monona — a lake four blocks from Vinyl Me, Please’s Midwest HQ — and kill four of the Bar-Kays, ending the band’s first iteration less than a year after they arrived on Stax. Trumpeter Ben Cauley (who, horrifically, floated in Lake Monona on a seat he was holding while sleeping when the plane crashed) and bassist James Alexander (who was flying commercial, as it was his turn on the rotation) would eventually reform the Bar-Kays as a studio band and then a popular funk band around vocalist Larry Dodson.

Since we featured the group’s debut, Soul Finger, in our Stax box set, all of these six albums came from the band’s still-running recording career.

Gotta Groove (1969)

Reforming the Bar-Kays after their tragic plane crash couldn’t have been easy for Ben Cauley and James Alexander, but they hit the ground running with this funky instrumental album that imagines Funkadelic if they never had anyone who could sing. Come for the funk, stay for the delirious cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” that, given the album’s context, feels like a funeral processional.

Black Rock (1971)

It’s not a clever title: Like Sly Stone before them, the Bar-Kays set out in the ’70s to make a version of rock music that incorporated funk, soul, and the blues into “black rock.” Their first album with a vocalist, this builds by its end into some new vision of the Bar-Kays, who’d become Stax’s house band of the ’70s: Muscular, funky, and fun, this album is in desperate need of a reissue.

Coldblooded (1974)

Worth it for the album cover alone, but also worth it for the hazy proto-disco the Bar-Kays lay down on this album. “Smiling, Styling and Profiling” feels like it’s overdue for a rediscovery; it’s basically every Ric Flair promo before Flair was even a big deal. Another album that hasn’t had a reissue in too long.

You can buy the VMP edition of this album right here.

Too Hot To Stop (1976)

The Bar-Kays’ first post-Stax album is maybe their most iconic after adding a singer: “Too Hot To Stop Pt. 1” became a smash, a song so iconic it would have multiple cycles of relevance, including as the opening song of Superbad. The rest of this album is just as nasty and bouncy, an all-time classic.

Money Talks (1978)

When Stax closed in 1975, the label’s assets were bought by Fantasy Records. They hired David Porter — by then a solo artist who’d also been working for the label as an A&R person when it closed — to scour the catalog of the label and release a handful of new albums. He looked through the Stax vaults and found enough material to release this new Bar-Kays album, which was fortuitous timing, since the band was just blowing up on the charts thanks to their Mercury albums. That pedigree would make you think this album is slapdash and inessential, but it might have the best Bar-Kays song outside of “Soul Finger”: “Holy Ghost” is so good, it’s on this album twice in different forms. It’s weirdly and mistakenly labeled as an EP on streaming services, but get yourself to this slab of hot funk ASAP.

You can get the VMP edition of this album right here.

Nightcruising (1981)

This underrated gem has the Bar-Kays updating their sound to a slick Rick James-esque sheen for maybe their most poppy album. It became their third gold album, and the title track is ’80s sleaze perfection. The saxophone on this album feels like it’s being played from the Miami Vice set.

Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Editorial Director, VMP Classics A&R, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes booklets for 14 Vinyl Me, Please Classics releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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