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The Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander treasures the legacy of Stax Records

James Alexander is the bassist for The Bar-Kays and a Stax Records veteran
Courtesy of the artist
James Alexander is the bassist for the Bar-Kays and a Stax Records veteran

WBGO continues to celebrate Stax Records through a unique partnership with Concord. Someone who truly knows the legacy of the label and its iconic artists is The Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander.

Alexander was born at McLemore Clinic in Memphis, Tennessee. That clinic was across the street from Stax Records. Ironically, James would become of a big part of the legendary recording studio.

James Alexander would eventually get the opportunity to play with greats like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes.

He talks about both artists in HBO Original Documentary miniseries “STAX: Soulsville U.S.A”, which is now available on HBO Max. Alexander spoke with WBGO's Doug Doyle about how he and the other members of the Bar-Kays caught the attention of Stax founder Jim Stewart.

"We thought we were pretty hot, playing in clubs and we auditioned for Steve Cropper a couple of times. Steve turned us down. As we were leaving the second time a little short guy by the name of Jim Stewart who said he saw what had been happening and asked us if we would come back to the studio one more time and play for him. The first thing that came to our mind was this little groove we had been playing in the clubs. He ran up in the control room. Our horn player came up with a nursery rhyme and literally 30 minutes later we had 'Soul Finger' which out of our 350 song-catalog, is still our number one hit some 50 years later."

STAX: SOULSVILLE U.S.A. is now available on HBO Max
Stax Records
STAX: SOULSVILLE U.S.A. is now available on HBO Max

Alexander praised Stewart for creating so many opportunities for musicians in Memphis.

"Had it not been for Jim Stewart, there probably would not be a Bar-Kays."

The Bar-Kays, all teenagers at the time, would catch the attention of Stax Records' rising star soul singer and songwriter Otis Redding. They would eventually go on the road with Redding. But on December 10, 1967, plane crash in Wisconsin took the lives of 26-year-old Otis Redding and four members of The Bar-Kays. One member of The Bar-Kays survived the crash, trumpeter Ben Cauley.

James Alexander was not on the plane that did not have enough room for everyone in the band. The bassist says he thinks about the crash every day.

"I think about it now and I smile because even as young kids that was something special about us. We had always said that if anything happened to any of us, whoever is left would carry on. That resonated with me and stuck in my mind. Little did I know that I would be the person that I would be the one who would keep carrying on because I was the last person to enter The Bar-Kays."

The Bar-Kays in 1967
Stax Records
The Bar-Kays in 1967

The Bar-Kays started when they were in junior high school and members of the marching band. Alexander wanted to play drums but was told the marching band needed tuba players. Eventually, he would start playing the bass guitar his dad had bought for him.

The original Bar-Kays also idolized Stax sensation Booker T. And the MG’s. What did they learn in the studios from the members of that group?

"We learned from them they always played simple. Sometimes if you just play something real simple it will end up the greatest thing that you've ever done.

After the crash in 1967, Alexander and Cauley would form a revamped version of The Bar-Kays. Another major highlight for Alexander would be playing the bass on the mega hit "Theme from Shaft," written and recorded by Isaac Hayes in 1971. Alexander says he had no idea when they started to put the song together that it would win Grammy and Academy Awards.

"It was a process, and it was a long boring process (laughs)."

James Alexander is still leading The Bar-Kays. He's the only original member but still loves to play and record. His son "Jazze Pha" is a big-time hip-hop and R & B producer.

You can SEE the entire interview with James Alexander here.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 250 awards from organizations like PRNDI (now PMJA), AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.