Bar-Kays celebrate Golden Anniversary in music at the Cannon Center

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- In the 1960s, if Memphis was the soulful city that gave voice and rhythm to legendary singers and musicians, then Stax Records on the corner of College and McLemore was the studio that gave birth to musicians like James Alexander hoping for their big break into music.

"Alex, I started off as a gopher. You had Al Jackson, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper and Booker T.  I ended up being a gopher for Duck," Alexander said.

Alexander turned being a gopher into playing bass guitar for some of Stax's biggest artists like Isaac Hayes, David Porter, and Carla Thomas, and eventually he formed his own integrated instrumental band made up of black and white musicians called the Bar-Kays.

"When we walked through those doors, you wouldn't believe it, we didn't think about black or white. We just wanted to come in and create some good down home music," Alexander said.

The original Bar-Kays were James Alexander, Ben Cauley, Phalon Jones, Ronnie Caldwell, Carl Cunningham, and Jimmy King.

They represented the integrated mindset at Stax, despite being located in a thoroughly segregated city, a city dealing with issues that attracted the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"The day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, we were in the studio. In fact, we had to spend the night in the studio because they had the National Guard posted right outside Stax," Alexander said.

As the nation watched the racial tension in Memphis and other southern cities, the Bar-Kays were getting noticed on the charts with its hit called "Soulfinger," and they were tapped to go on tour and perform with Stax's biggest star, Otis Redding.

But with success came unthinkable tragedy.

"That was probably, looking back on it, was one of the trying times of my entire life. Just to be with those guys on one day laughing and talking like we always did, and the next day, it's all gone," Alexander said.

The plane carrying Redding and many of the Bar-Kays crashed in Wisconsin. Trumpet player Ben Cauley was the only survivor.

Alexander was not on the flight, but was devastated nonetheless.

"That was a dramatic, traumatic experience I wouldn't wish that on anyone. But there's an old saying, 'The man upstairs doesn't put anything on you that you can't handle,'" Alexander said.

For months, Stax and the city were in mourning. But Cauley and Alexander vowed to put together a new Bar-Kays band, and later added a singer named Larry Dodson of a group called The Temprees.

"I was surprised at first they even wanted a lead singer. I didn't know I was good enough. I had no experience in the studio and didn't know they were planning to record an album," Dodson said.

The album was called "Black Rock," and the band's popularity took flight, especially after they were featured center stage at the Wattstax concert in Los Angeles.

"We were always edgy. You don't what they these are going to look like when we come out and musically we were edgy," Dodson said.

The Bar-Kays were edgy and their music could push the envelope, like their controversial song called "Holy Ghost."

"'Holy Ghost' got us in a lot of trouble. The preachers, the men of the cloth and ministers, didn't like us doing that and that song stayed on the shelf for years. We couldn't release it," Dodson

When it was released, it went to the top of the charts, along with dozens of other hits such a "Shake Your Rump to the Funk," "Freak Show," "Anticipation," "Hit and Run," "Sexomatic," and others. Now 50 years later, the Bar-Kays haven't missed a step. They're touring, recording, and performing classic and new hits such as "Grown Folks" and "Up and Down."

"We're still having a funky good time, man," Dodson said.

"Here I am still doing it, and I thank God has me here for a reason," Alexander said.

The Bar-Kays 50th anniversary concert featuring George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic,  Eddie Levert of the O'Jays, the MaryJane Girls, and other guests is this Thursday at the Cannon Center for the performing arts. The red carpet reception is at 7 and showtime is at 8 . Tickets are $85 and can be bought through Ticketmaster.

WREG News Channel 3 is a proud sponsor of this event.