Event of the year celebration Dec. 4th.
by Tony Jones
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Of all the musical icons and careers built in Memphis, no one – and no group – has embodied the history of this city and its African-American population like the Bar-Kays, who will be celebrating their 50th Anniversary with a huge benefit gala at the Cannon Center on Dec. 4th.
Just as the Grizzlies’ “Grit and Grind” now captures our modern groove, the Bar-Kays were our home team when it seemed like we would never have anything to cheer for collectively.
As it was with their first sellout of the old Mid-South Coliseum decades ago, expect an emotional moment that no Memphis music fan should miss, if at all possible, when founding member James Alexander and lead singer Larry Dodson take the stage to close out the performance at the anniversary show.
More than 15 industry peers are scheduled for the salute, including George Clinton and a reunion of the United We Funk All Stars, which includes the S.O.S. Band, ConFunkShun and The Dazz Band. The event has been structured under the Bar-Kays Foundation to benefit their “Fab Five” community service organizations: Down Syndrome Association of Memphis, United Way of the Mid-South, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Stax Music Academy, and the Allen Jones/Marjorie Barringer/Bar-Kays Scholarship Fund.
The fatigue of seemingly a million details connected with the upcoming gala was masked well by Dodson during a recent conversation with The New Tri State Defender.
“This is not your normal day on the ranch, but it’s going well. Ticket sales are good, and being involved with the five charities has kept us very busy, but it’s very rewarding. The media has supported us very well,” said Dodson.
“We’ve never seen Memphis respond like this. From the mayor’s office to the governor’s office to the congressman’s office, it’s unbelievable how everyone has come on board to help make this happen. We’ve been through so much. We’ve seen so much. And to still be healthy and performing and to still be relevant after all these years. James and I have just been very humbled by all of this. I’m just…grateful.”
‘We chose to go forward’
The Bar-Kays’ first big hit record, “Soul Finger,” reflected the masterstroke of producer David Porter pulling in kids off the street to shout on the record. Later, our hearts sank when we heard the news that several of the original members of the group had died in a plane crash with Stax superstar Otis Redding.
The flame was relit when the documentary film “WattStax” not only showed our boys were rebuilt and strong, but from the way they tore up the stage, about to burn it up again. It was here that the Bar-Kays whose music we came to know and love were introduced. The performance was a major breakthrough.
Decked out all in white, the sound was black but beyond R&B, foreshadowing possibilities evident from the energy Dodson used to kick off the now iconic show. Then tragedy struck again as Stax closed, tugging on the Memphis community’s heartstrings.
Decades later, Stax has resurfaced in a new form and the Bar-Kays, now comprised of Alexander, Dodson and a formidable backup band, are riding the wave of another major hit record as they prepare to throw the show of the year, again.
Dodson said the group owes much to deceased mentor and great manager, Allen Jones.
“We were there on the very day Stax closed. Literally, the IRS came and shut the doors. Allen came to us and said, bluntly, ‘Well, you have two options. You can break up, or you can go forward. We chose to go forward.”
Swallowing it all was tough. Original member Alexander had lost his best friends (in the plane crash) before he was 20. His fellow original member Ben Cauley, who survived the crash, had decided he could not continue. Alexander and Dodson, who had been brought in to core the second formation, forged on past the IRS debacle. They were barely into their twenties.
‘We’re going to pull out all the stops’
With a weekly gig at a nightclub called the Family Affair, the Bar-Kays legend started to build.
“It was literally a hole in the wall, tiny. We also rented a place on Cooper and it was between those two places that we wrote the album “Too Hot To Stop” (1976 release) and we were signed with Mercury Records one year later,” said Dodson.
“We had a saying, one day we would go from the Family Affair to Madison Square, and it became so ironic. We were playing at Madison Square Garden when we were interrupted by our record label and they gave us our first gold album.”
Led by the single “Shake Your Rump To The Funk,” the Bar-Kays were off and running, burning up stages across the country as the premiere opening act in R&B.
“Every other album went gold, and the album with “Freakshow” has been our only platinum album. We’re recording our 31st album now. We have enough material for it, but we’re not rushing it,” said Dodson.
“‘Grown Folks’ went Top Ten in the nation, and our new single “Up And Down” is doing pretty well. We knew it was a record (his way of describing a hit) when we finished it, but we didn’t know how big it would become. We didn’t know if our audience would accept it because it’s so different. There’s a lot of people that don’t know it’s us to this very day.
“We wanted to sound different to appeal to a younger audience,” said Dodson. “It shows that we are still relevant after being in the business this long, and pretty wise about the music that we’re putting out. We’ve been selective about our producers and the sound we are making and a lot of artists are not open to that.”
Harking back to that first time they packed the Coliseum, Dodson shares another memory.
“That was just an amazing night. We had just played in Dallas, so we had all bought cowboy outfits, everybody. We learned on the way home that we had sold out, and also that we had broke the attendance record, which I believe had been held by Elvis. It (the anniversary gala) is going to be one of those nights. We’re going to pull out all stops, believe me.”
'Still relevant and…'
Now 63, Dodson is looking forward to his next birthday, which he plans to celebrate at the 2015 Trumpet Awards. And on June 14, 2015, the Bar-Kays tare to be inducted into the R&B Hall Of Fame.
“People ask me am I too old to be doing this. Never! We’re a brand. We have our own label. God has given us good health and good strength, wonderful wives, family and a support team,” said Dodson.
“Our sons are successful and they keep us and the sound young. James’s son – Jazze Pha – is one of the top producers in the industry. He gave us ‘Grown Folks’ and he has another one for us now he’s working on. My son, Larry, is a marketing professional. We have our own booking agency and we own the Master of Funk Tour, which is doing very well. They keep us young,” he said.
“So no, we’re not stopping. You can’t stop us. It’s just wonderful to be still around. Still relevant and,” he pauses, “pretty smart I believe.”
Yeah, but where’s Cecil, his snake?
“Oh, he’s going to be there, trust me! Believe me, we’re going to pull out all the Bar-Kays’ bell and whistles. This performance is going to be very, very special.”
- Written by Tony Jones
- Hits: 190