The Bar-Kays

The Bar-Kays were recently called the “founding fathers of funk” by Soul magazine. This rather bold claim may have come as a surprise to those who only discovered the Memphis band through their hits of the past two years, but an examination of the Bar-Kays’ history and a listen to Money Talks, their fantastic “new” Stax album, supports the plausibility of the statement.

Back in the early Seventies, the Bar-Kays pioneered what was then called “black rock,” a style now known simply as “funk.” Dressed eccentrically (singer Larry Dodson even wore a live boa around his neck), the seven-man unit played louder than other soul bands, added heavy doses of rock guitar, and featured exaggerated vocal pronunciations by Dodson. Their self-contained style had a lot in common with sounds that would later be popularized by groups like the Ohio Players and the Commodores.

Many music lovers who only remembered the earlier Bar-Kays from their 1967 smash, “Soul Finger” (the instrumental of that summer), weren’t aware of the group’s new direction, unless they happened to catch a live performance. For the most part, the band was buried in the studio playing brilliant but usually anonymous backups for other Stax/Volt artists, particularly Isaac Hayes. Then, during their most innovative period, their recordings were barred from being issued due to a legal dispute between Stax and its distributor, CBS. Consequently, there were no Bar-Kays releases on the market from 1973 until they joined Mercury in 1976 and rose on the charts once more.

Their “lost” period is now open for examination. Stax has just issued Money Talks, an album of previously unreleased sides cut in Memphis between 1973 and 1975 which prove to have been years ahead of their time, comparable to their current output and on a par with the work of today’s other funk super-groups. Produced by their longtime manager Allen Jones, the album’s personnel—vocalist Larry Dodson, trumpeter Charles Allen, tenor saxophonist Harvey Henderson, keyboard player Winston Stewart, guitarist Lloyd Smith, bassist James Alexander, and drummer Michael Beard—is the same as today’s, except for trombonist Frank Thompson, second keyboard man Mark Bynum, and percussionist Sherman Gray who have since joined to make the Bar-Kays’ present lineup an even ten. Ace studio percussionist Ralph MacDonald also lent his deft touch to the sessions.

As the tracks couldn’t be released at the time of their recording, some were only partially finished and additional polishing had to be added this year. Fantasy’s Phil Kaffel did a brilliant job of adding extra horn parts that were arranged by Dale O. Warren, vocals arranged by Leon Ndugu Chancier, percussion by Bill Summers, synthesizer by Paul Smith, guitar and bass by Greg Crockett, and keyboards by Warren.

Leader James Alexander is the only founding member still with the Bar-Kays. The others, excluding trumpeter Ben Cauley, died in the tragic 1967 Wisconsin plane crash that also claimed the life of soul superstar Otis Redding. “Some of the guys in the Bar-Kays used to work in a barber shop that was right next door to Stax,” Alexander told Black Stars’ Connie Johnson, “and they used to shine Otis Redding’s shoes all the time. So, in the process of taking his shoes to him one day, Otis suggested that they hang around and watch him record ‘cause he knew they were heavily into music.” It wasn’t easy after the crash, but Alexander kept on pushing and put together the nucleus of the present Bar-Kays. “It took a lot of stamina and drive to just start all over again,” he told Johnson.