“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” the saying goes. But where there’s smoke and fire, it just may be a live performance by The Bar-Kays. The funk-o-matic Memphis group has been setting audiences ablaze for the past four decades.
Originating as the Stax Records’ house band in 1966, The Bar-Kays were born from soul music and turbulent times. At the end of Jim Crow’s reign, these young Memphians were finding their musical voice and offering listeners a safe haven from the racial unrest surrounding them. In a city known for singing the blues and birthing rock n roll, the sound of soul offered a raw, and real-deal, relevance to a young African American community seeking a sound of its own. The Bar-Kays were the epicentre of this fertile creativity.
The Bar-Kays have a career total of 29 albums, including 1 platinum album, 5 gold albums, and 20 top ten singles. The Bar-Kays music has been sampled by everyone, from Coolio to Will Smith, to old schoolers like Cameo. Their career has been documented in music institutions such as The Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. The Bar-Kays recently were asked to donate iconic stage garb and musical equipment to the esteemed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Bar-Kays’ purposeful soulfulness first carried them to a chart-topping perch in 1967 with the hit, “Soulfinger.” The vibrancy of their approach landed them the plum backup spot for the legendary Otis Redding on his final worldwide tour. The tour, however, had a disastrous finale with Otis Redding and four band members perishing in a tragic plane accident.
The spirited band soldiered on, recruiting vocalist Larry Dodson and the new Bar-Kays became the premier house band for Stax Records. This edition of the Bar-Kays went on to play on records behind such artists as Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Soul Children and Isaac Hayes. They were integral to Isaac Hayes’ landmarks such as “Hot Buttered Soul,” “Black Moses,” and the GRAMMY Award-winning album Shaft.
Though the group had many successes in the studio, they felt most at home burning it up live. “Our stage show was important because when we came back, we only had one hit with ‘Soulfinger,’” says founding member James Alexander. “However, we came up in an era where you didn’t need a record to work. If you had a great show you could work. We were a great opening band because everyone knew we would get the show started off right. We ended up opening for everyone, from the Temptations to Parliament Funkadelic.”
Throughout the 70’s the group evolved into a funk powerhouse and continued to score hits on the R&B charts throughout the '80s. During this era, the Bar-Kays had hits with “Shake Your Rump To The Funk,” “Move Your Boogie Body,” “Sex-o-Matic,” “Anticipation,” “Freakshow On The Dance Floor,” “Hit and Run,” “She talks To Me With Her Body,” among many others. Their booty-shaking tracks were backed up by an electric live show that featured a bold sense of fashion. “Prince, Rick James, they were coming to our shows, checking out our wardrobe,” Alexander notes with a smile.
Alexander and Dodson joined forces again in 1991 with a fresh backing band. They found relevancy in the hip-hop pioneering 1990s and took their prowess back to the stage. They also broke new ground with the single, “The Slide,” which was widely accepted by enthusiastic dance fans and garnered strong chart action. A stint with Curb Records saw a hit with “Everybody Wants That Love.” In 2011 they had radio success with “Return of the Mack.” “James and I are old pros but our band is very youthful,” states Larry Dodson reflecting on the Bar-Kays recent successes. “As a result, we have always been able to bridge the gap between old and new and reach many people.”
Recently, the Bar-Kays have been producing acts for their own record label, JEA Right Now Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Their current buzz artist is J Blackfoot. They’ve also launched a gospel label, Testimony Records, and released music from Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith, Perfection, and Apostle Bill Adkins.
The Bar-Kays’ are currently working on their 30th album. “Grown Folks,” the first single, features highly sought after hip-hop producer, and son of James Alexander, Jazze Pha. Just as the Bar-Kays have always been able to inject their sound with the style of the day, they are using the technology of the day to fund their forthcoming album. A Pledge Music campaign was a launched in August and campaign incentives include Bar-Kays memorabilia, performance opportunities, and even a chance to name the album.
Throughout their career the Bar-Kays have always taken time to give back to the community, whether through performing for US Troops in Kuwait and Iraq or volunteering with students at the Stax Music Academy. They’ve had many tragedies and triumphs, and many lesser acts would have called it quits after that fateful plane crash. “Believe it or not, even though we were youngsters, we had wisdom beyond our years. As 17 and 18 year olds, we all agreed that if something happened to any of us, whoever remained would carry on the band. I made a promise and kept it,” James Alexander says; “And the legend continues” says Larry Dodson.