December 10 - A Tragic Day in Memphis Music History
Just a happy go-lucky bunch of kids. They played clubs they could not get into legally, sometimes being hidden backstage when police showed up looking for underage drinkers. Just six kids from Memphis, high school students and neighborhood kids. They worked shining shoes and learned how to play music in their high school band. One night a hit-making singer saw their show and was floored. He asked the kids to come to the studio where he was recording. They were given a break and mentored by the singer and his usual backing band - a group that had helped found “The Memphis Sound.” Just a bunch of kids - and one young college man - whose parents finally gave in and allowed them to be tutored through the rest of high school, so they left Booker T Washington. Just a bunch of kids who had been practicing and jamming in the studio when producer and label founder heard something different - real funky - and told them to go back in and record the instrumental jam. When the singer started a country-wide tour that summer, the youngsters were chosen to accompany him as his backing band, He said they were ready, they knew the songs, even though they had never rehearsed with him! Just a bunch of kids who only owned one suit, so when fans saw them on multiple nights of a 10 performance stretch at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, they were heckled about it. The fun-loving kids, though, were riding high. During that stretch James Brown got on stage with them. While they were on that tour, that instrumental, with neighborhood children recorded while yelling the title (paid in Cokes) went to #3 on Billboard’s R&B chart and #17 on the Hot 100. They were having the time of their lives. The singer took some time off to record what was destined to be another hit and they were back on the road, driving when they could, flying in his plane when money was good and time short.
Just a bunch of kids, talking and napping on that plane, on their way to a show in Madison Wisconsin. They never made it. The group’s elder remembered waking up with the aircraft shaking violently just a few miles from the airport while over a partially frozen lake. The next thing he remembered was holding onto a seat cushion, floating in that icy cold water and hearing a couple of his friends crying out. A rescue boat pulled him out and he woke again in the hospital, still asking for his friends. At the commercial airport in Madison, the one band member who had flown on a commercial flight was wondering what happened. He was called out to identify the recovered bodies. The Bar-Kays were just a bunch of Memphis kids - guitarist Jimmie King, 18; organist Ronnie Caldwell, 18; sax man Phalon Jones, 19; drummer Carl Cunningham, 19 - didn’t make it home again, dying from the crash and hypothermia or drowning in Lake Monona. Nor did their friend and assistant Matthew Kelly; or the pilot, Richard Fraser. The singer’s body was never found. Sole survivor of the crash and exposure, trumpet player Ben Cauley, did. So did bass player James Alexander, who had planned to meet the rest of the group after catching a regular flight from Cleveland that morning.
The legacy of that day? The two surviving “kids” went on to re-form The Bar-Kays. Though Cauley left in 1972, they continued to back Stax artists until the studio went bankrupt. They had another string of hits that helped define ‘70’s funk and soul. Their work has been sampled by generations of rappers and hip-hop artists. Steve Cropper, co-writer and guitarist on the singer’s last work - still unfinished - went back into Stax Studio, arranged horns, and added what may be the most famous whistling solo in modern music - captured in the studio because the singer whistled all the time - and produced his best known work to this day. Both survivors of The Bar-Kays named their first born sons after saxophonist Phalon Jones - Phalon Cauley and Phalon “Jazzy Pha” Alexander, hip-hop performer and producer, and chief executive officer of Sho'nuff Records. Cauley survived a devastating stroke and recovered to keep playing and singing until his death last year. Alexander continues to lead The Bar-Kays with Larry Dodson, recruited in 1970 to change the band from instrumental to a full act.
Oh, and everyone knows the singer, the man from Macon Georgia who once left his home and “headed for the Frisco Bay.” In 1962 he drove his band’s guitarist to Stax and asked for a chance with some spare studio time after those sessions. That spare time created “These Arms of Mine”. Some say the studio never recovered from his death. No telling what superstar Otis Redding might have accomplished, but it would have been as phenomenal as his early hits - “Arms”, “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Respect,” a classic later reworked by another great soul singer - Aretha Franklin - and of course that great song unfinished at the time of the crash “Sittin’ on The Dock of the Bay.”