Few bands have had to suffer the unimaginable tragedy that The Bar-Kays faced, and even fewer have arisen to such heights after such a horror. But they soldiered on, returning to music in quick time, and have since become one of the pillars of funk music. Bar-Kays: The Definitive Collection is a three-disc set that documents the band’s glory days, from the promising Soul sextet of the debut, to the funk collective that helped define the sound of the Seventies.
When they released their debut single, “Soul Finger,” the future seems quite promising. The single was a hit, as was the album that shared its name. Yet the unimaginable happened in December 1967, when all but two members of the six-piece band were killed alongside Otis Redding when their plane crashed. Miraculously, trumpeter Ben Cauley survived the accident, while bassist James Alexander had taken a commercial flight that night. It seemed like the promising young band would simply be another tale in the annals of music history of a talent cut short prematurely.
Perhaps it was because of his survival that Cauley and Alexander quickly put together a new version of the band. The joie de vivre inspired by escaping death fueled their new material; come back single, “Don’t Stop Dancing (To The Music)” is both a call to the dance floor and a statement of intent. It is joyous, it is relentless, it is a powerful return from the shadow of death. Heck, one might even make a case that the “nah-nah-nah” chorus on follow-up single “Sang And Dance” is in its own way a taunt of the Grim Reaper. The group would also increase its profile in 1971 with its work on Isaac Hayes’ score to the groundbreaking Blaxploitation film Shaft, which inspired their own take, the humorous “Son Of Shaft,” which became a hit in its own right.
Yet shortly after its release, Cauley left the band as he had a family to raise and was unable to tour. Once again, instead of taking the loss of a foundational member to Heart, the group doubled down and began cranking out albums at an impressive rate. In 1976, they struck gold with “Shake Your Rump To The Funk,” a crossover hit that began an impressive run on the R&B charts, with nearly every single over the next thirteen years hitting the upper reaches of the charts. It’s easy understand, too; it’s hard to deny the appeal of the potent grooves on “Freak Show On The Dance Floor,” “Do It (Let Me See You Dance),” and “Boogie Body Land.” They weren’t afraid to slow down the tempo, turning in some fine ballads like “Anticipation,” “Attitudes,” and “Today Is The Day.”
In 1989, two decades after their rebirth, they took a much-needed hiatus, but that didn’t mean they were out of the spotlight. With the advent of sampling, a new generation of R&B and hip-hop artists found much gold in the Bar-Kays’ back catalogue, with M/A/R/R/S’ “Pump Up The Volume” using 1978 hit “Holy Ghost” as a foundational rhythm, Will Smith’s massive “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” being built around “Sang And Dance,” Hammer’s “Too Legit To Quit” utilizing 1987’s “Certified True,” and De La Soul’s “Plug Tunin’” using “Son Of Shaft.” Not that the Bar-Kays didn’t do their own sampling, as witnessed in the Rick James-borrowing “Freaky Behavior” or the Midnight Star-referencing “Freakshow On The Dance Floor.”)
Although they’re not as prolific as they were in their heyday, the Bar-Kays continue on to this day, lead by Alexander, original members of the second incarnation drummer Willie Hall and vocalist Larry Dodson, along with a rotating cast of younger players. Bar-Kays: The Definitive Collection is evidence of their importance and musical influence, but more than that, it’s simply a collection of some of the finest funk ever made.