When planning his new book on Memphis soul label Stax Records, local music historian Robert Gordon knew he would be devoting a lot of ink to the usual suspects — Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs. But in actually writing “Express Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion,” to be published Nov. 12, another act surprisingly came to the forefront.
“They’re the secret heroes of the book,” Gordon says of the Bar-Kays, the group that, while still teenagers, backed Otis Redding in his final days before rebuilding themselves out of tragedy into soul-funk superstars. “They’ve existed so long and never tired of challenging themselves and changing. I just feel like that’s the ultimate artistic achievement.”
The latest chapter in the ever-evolving saga of the Bar-Kays plays out Friday night at Minglewood Hall when the legendary R&B group plays a rare headlining show in their hometown.
Band bassist and sole remaining original member James Alexander says the show was inspired by an encounter with a fan in the cereal aisle of a local store. The fan complained about only catching the tail end of the group’s most recent Mid-South appearance at Southaven’s Landers Center, opening for Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, a situation that convinced Alexander it was time to do an all-Bar-Kays show.
“This is going to be all of it,” says Alexander, describing a show that will survey the band’s entire 43-year career, from Stax to its funk days on Mercury Records to its life today as independent purveyors of modern “grown and sexy” R&B. “We’re going to play two hours so we can play whatever we want. The fact of the matter is we’ve got 30 albums to choose from. You’ve got people around here, die-hard fans, who know songs from all those albums.”
Among the songs the band has been working on and may play are many of the band’s more than 20 Top 10 hits, including their first “Soul Finger,” as well as favorite deep cuts like the 1983 B side “Anticipation” and “Freaky Behavior” off 1981’s Nightcruising. Alexander hints the band may also pull some songs from its recent Stax revue shows, and you can almost certainly expect to hear their latest single, “Grown Folks,” which is currently No. 8 on local radio station V101.1’s rotation chart.
“We’ve never rehearsed this much for a show, but we wanted to be sure we covered all the bases,” he says. “We’re almost like politicians. We’re supposed to be working for the people. We have to give the people what they want so they’ll keep coming back again and again and again.”
Born right next door to the future home of Stax on East McLemore Avenue, Alexander was part of the original lineup of South Memphis teens (originally called the Imperials) who hung around the studio until founder Jim Stewart finally let them in to record the seminal dance tune “Soul Finger” in 1967. Soon after the Bar-Kays were picked to replace their heroes, Booker T. & the MGs, as Redding’s backing band, but in December the plane carrying the singer and the group crashed in a lake outside Madison, Wis. Only trumpeter Ben Cauley survived. Alexander had missed the plane.
By April 1968, however, the band had re-formed for a concert at the Auditorium North Hall. Vocalist Larry Dodson, a member of Stax label mates the Temprees, soon came on board and remains Alexander’s partner in the group to this day.
Previously a promising group in the vein of the Mar-Keys and the MGs, the new Bar-Kays quickly showed hints of becoming something greater. They backed Isaac Hayes on his classic 1969 Hot Buttered Soul album. When Stax folded in 1975, the Bar-Kays jumped to Mercury Records and began what is the most successful stage of their career, logging such floor fillers as “Shake Your Rump to the Funk,” “Sexomatic” and “Boogie Body Land.”
“I feel like James and Larry and them were inspired by the loss of their good friends to never rest and to always pursue new creative challenges, and they’ve done it remarkably,” says Gordon of the group’s transformations. “Their songs can be so different that you couldn’t imagine that one band was creating all these different sounds and that they were all so good.”
After a period when grown, skilled musicians were shunted aside in favor of hip-hop sound collages and teen acts, the Bar-Kays are riding a wave of resurgence in mature, classically rooted R&B that also includes Charlie Wilson as well as newer acts like John Legend and Raphael Saadiq.
Working with Alexander’s son, acclaimed producer Phalon “Jazze Pha” Alexander, who helmed both “Grown Folks” and the August single “Soap Opera Love,” the group’s latest iteration has captured ears all the way to the nation’s Capitol. After previously being invited to play one of the balls for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, in April Alexander joined Booker T. Jones, Justin Timberlake and Steve Cropper in a televised Stax tribute at the White House.
“We got to meet the president and his wife, and Michelle Obama said, ‘I just put ‘Grown Folks’ on Barack’s iPhone yesterday,’ ” Alexander recalls with a little shock still in his voice. “It’s exciting because we still have new music in us. We really enjoy what we’re doing. We still can’t wait to perform. We have a slogan that we still have one more hit left in us. While the blood still runs warm in our veins, we want people to hear it.”
Friday, Minglewood Hall, 1555 Madison. Doors: 7 p.m. Tickets: $40 and $75. Tickets available at the box office and online at minglewoodhall.com. Call 901-312-6058.