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VOL. 125 | NO. 75 | Monday, April 19, 2010

Unsung Heroes

Bar-Kays’ legend makes Memphis proud

NICKY ROBERTSHAW HITCHING | Special to The Daily News

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It’s often said that Memphis takes its musical talent for granted.

That certainly wasn’t true Thursday night at Studio on the Square, where an overflow crowd celebrated the Bar-Kays, the Stax back-up band and funkmasters who’ve survived tragedy and setbacks during their 40-year career.

The crowd, which included a squad of current and former Bar-Kays and legendary former Stax boss Al Bell, got to preview a documentary about the band, which airs nationally Monday on the TV One network.

It’s part of Unsung, a television series about R&B, gospel and other musicians who didn’t have the success that would have been expected. The show has featured Rose Royce of “Car Wash” fame and chanteuse Minnie Riperton, among others.

“It was easy to choose the Bar-Kays,” said TV One director of programming and production Jubba Seyyid, who pointed to the music and the story of the 1967 plane crash that killed Otis Redding and most of the original band members.

“You don’t find many groups that have been together 40 years, and have made it through all of the five major shifts in black music during that period. The Bar-Kays just seem to roll with the flow.”

Memphians can be proud, both of their native sons and the documentary that tells their story.

The original Bar-Kays were teenagers when they started recording for Stax, backing up Redding and others, and scoring a hit early on with “Soul Finger.”

The young musicians took off with Redding to New York’s famed Apollo Theater just after their high school graduation, to tour nationally.

Elation turned to tragedy in December 1967, when a plane crash killed Redding and most of the Bar-Kays.

The documentary pulls no punches when it focuses on a tearful Ben Cauley, the trumpeter and the sole survivor of the crash. He describes blacking out, waking up in ice-cold water, hearing his friends cry out and helplessly trying to save them until eventually, the water was silent.

The only other surviving Bar-Kay was bassist James Alexander. Someone in the entourage always had to take a commercial flight when they moved on to the next city since Redding’s plane would not hold everyone. It happened to be Alexander’s turn.

“That should have been the end of the Bar-Kays, but it was the beginning,” said Belma Michael Johnson, producer of the documentary.

He said he was struck at how Alexander and Cauley were able to immediately re-form the Bar-Kays, despite the crash and despite Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in Memphis just a few months later. Yet the band produced music to make people feel good despite the dark times, he said.

The band that emerged in 1968 worked at Stax, backing The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and others.

A few years later, the Bar-Kays recruited Larry Dodson as a lead singer, and became a flamboyant stage band. The Wattstax concert of 1972 served as their coming-out party, where they performed in Los Angeles for a crowd of more than 100,000 people.

From then on, the Bar-Kays wrote the book on what Alexander calls “live, sweaty funk,” keeping up as funk morphed into disco and scoring such hits as “Holy Ghost” and “Freakshow on the Dance Floor.”

The Bar-Kays stayed together throughout, Dodson recalled, even though band members came and went.

The documentary, which is rich with performance footage, benefits from the storytelling talents of Dodson, Alexander and Cauley, whose accounts are in turn funny, heartbreaking and as gritty as the Stax sound they created.

The film’s production company, A. Smith & Co., tapped Joe Incardona, president of Bartlett-based Media Source, to film on location in Memphis.

He assembled a team of Memphis-based filmmakers, including Craig Leake, known for such works as Babyland, an ABC 20/20 piece about infant mortality in Memphis, and Richard Copley, a former NBC News cameraman, who early in his career photographed the teenage Bar-Kays.

“I felt this story, because it had never been told, had to have the best creative team I could put together, as far as the visuals and sound,” Incardona said.

Even after 40 years, the Bar-Kays continue to be full of surprises. They do 75 to 100 performances a year, including entertaining troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They soon will release a DVD of Memphis music, with proceeds going to Haiti.

The Bar-Kays episode airs Monday on the TV One network, carried locally by Comcast, DirecTV and Channel 67. Clips can be seen at www.tvoneonline.com/shows.

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