On December 10, 1967, a plane carrying Otis Redding to a gig in Madison, WI crashed into Lake Monona. Redding was killed along with his manager and four members of The Bar-Kays, who were touring as Redding’s backing band.
The Bar-Kays emerged in Memphis in 1966, coming out of a local band called the Imperials. Their goal was to follow the lead of successful Memphis instrumental groups like Booker T & the MGs, and the Mar-Keys. Sure enough, Stax/Volt got wind of them and signed the band in early 1967. The band’s first single, “Soul Finger”, was released on April 14.
The record opens with the band’s take on “Mary Had A Little Lamb” before roaring into the song’s main riff, which features the sound of screaming trumpets. “Soul Finger” is not strictly an instrumental affair however. The title shout-out is performed by neighborhood kids who were found hanging out outside the studio. Their reward for the immortal vocalizing? Coca-Colas all around.
The combination of the kids and the funky Bar-Kays took the record to #3 on Billboard’s Black Singles chart, and #17 on the Hot 100. A few months later guitar player Jimmy King, organist Ronnie Caldwell, sax player Phalon Jones, and drummer Carl Cunningham were dead.
Trumpeter Ben Cauley survived the crash, and along with bass player James Alexander (who was on another plane because of space limitations on Redding’s plane) he rebuilt the band. Cauley and Alexander, along with new members Harvey Henderson on sax, guitarist Michael Toles, Ronnie Gorden on the organ, and drummers Roy Cunningham and Willie Hall backed the cream of the crop of Stax artists. Among their credits was the classic Isaac Hayes album Hot Buttered Soul.
Against all odds, the Bar-Kays had been reborn, but they found it difficult to have another hit of their own. Lineup changes brought only minor success, but in 1972 the band had another Top Ten R&B hit with “Son of Shaft.” That same year they played a fondly remembered set at Wattstax in LA, but by then Stax was circling the drain.
In 1976 the band signed with Mercury Records and had an R&B hit with “Shake Your Rump to the Funk.” They also embarked on a long tour with George Clinton and P-Funk, which tells you something about where the band was at, funk-wise, at that point. They slid into the disco era easily, and released one hit album after another.
The Bar-Kays kept recording for Mercury through the ’80s, and one gold album followed another. But by the end of the decade things were changing in the music world, and the hits started to dry up. They had their last Top Ten R&B hit with “Certified True” in 1987, and release their final Mercury album, Animal, the following year.
As a band, the Bar-Kays survived a plane crash, numerous lineup makeovers, and changing musical tastes. Through it all they managed to not only persevere, but to have numerous hit records over a 20 year period. Still, it was for that first single, “Soul Finger,” that they will always be most remembered.