One of the greatest bands to emerge from the Memphis music scene of the 1960s was the Bar-Kays. Musically, they are best remembered for their 1967 smash “Soul Finger,” which reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #3 on the R&B chart. Unfortunately, they are also remembered for the tragedy that took the lives of all but two members of the band.
In 1967 the Bar-Kays were chosen as the touring band for Otis Redding. Redding was the crown jewel in the Stax firmament, and the assignment was a powerful recognition of the band’s greatness. As we know, it was an honor that ended in tears when Redding’s plane went down in Lake Monona in Wisconsin on December 10, 1967, killing Redding and all of the band members on board, except for trumpeter Ben Cauley, who survived the wreck. Bass player James Alexander also survived because a lack of room on the Redding plane forced him to take another flight.
Cauley and Alexander rebuilt the band, and by 1969 they were backing Stax’s newest superstar, Isaac Hayes, on his classic Hot Buttered Soul album. The Bar-Kays have weathered many lineup changes, and eventually Alexander was the only remaining original member, but they have continued working, and recorded an album as recently as 2012.
There is a direct connection between the Bar-Kays and the Bo-Keys that goes beyond the similarities in their names, and I’ll get to that shortly. But the origins of the Bo-Keys date back to 1998 when Scott Bomar was asked to assembled a backing band for Memphis legend Sir Mack Rice. The first musicians he turned to were Skip Pitts, the brilliant guitarist whose “wah-wah” sound you hear all over the Isaac Hayes hit “Shaft,” and Ben Cauley, the lone survivor of the Otis Redding plane crash.
In 2003 the Bo-Keys released their debut album, The Royal Sessions. The album was recorded at Willie Mitchell’s revered Royal Studio in Memphis which had produced so many hits for Al Green among others. Since then the Bo-Keys have been heard on the Hustle & Flow soundtrack, and made an appearance next to Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac in the film Soul Men. More recently the Bo-Keys backed Cindy Lauper on her Grammy-nominated Memphis Blues album in 2010. Their own second album, Got to Get Back!, was released in 2011.
Sadly, Skip Pitts passed away in 2012, and we lost Ben Cauley last year.
Now the Bo-Keys are back with a third album called Heartache by the Number. Still led by bassist Bomar, the band these days includes vocalist Percy Wiggins who recorded for RCA and ATCO in the ’60s, with a band that included Billy Cox and Larry Lee, who would later join Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. Drummer Howard Grimes was a member of the Hi Rhythm Section that appeared on all of those Al Green hits, as well as others by Ann Peebles, and Syl Johnson. Keyboard player Hubbie Turner was also a member of the Hi Rhythm Section.
As you might imagine, these musicians, joined by guitarist Joe Restivo, organist Al Gamble, trumpet players Marc Franklin and Scott Thompson, sax players Kirk Smothers and Art Edmaiston, and a host of special guests, make a great sound, and you would be right to think that.
It has often been said that there is just a fine line between southern soul and country music. Over the years we’ve heard many soul artists take on a distinctly country sound, beginning with Ray Charles and his classic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962. On Heartache by the Number, the Bo-Keys put their distinct seal on country-flavored classics like Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Bob Dylan’s “I Threw it all Away,” and the title track, a soulful recreation of Guy Mitchell’s 1959 hit, which was written by Harlan Howard.
The standout track on the album is the Bo-Keys take on Merle Haggard’s “The Longer You Wait.” Haggard’s version appeared on the B-side of his 1966 hit, “The Bottle Let Me Down.” Yes, there’s still some readily identifiable pedal steel guitar on the track, but there’s also some a propulsive horn section, and a soulful Hammond B3 to be heard, along with an earthy vocal from Wiggins. In short, it’s the perfect combination of country and soul. Listen for yourself below.