Many people have heard of Otis Redding — the aptly named “King of Soul” — but we’d wager that the name Ben Cauley doesn’t ring as much of a bell. Cauley, a trumpeter, was a passenger on the same doomed flight that crashed and claimed the lives of Redding and four other promising musicians. In fact, Cauley was the sole survivor of that terrible disaster. And it wouldn’t be the last time that he defied death in the course of his incredible, storied life.
Forming the Bar-Kays
In 1964 in Memphis, Tennessee, Cauley and five Booker T. Washington High School buddies formed the Bar-Kays. Cauley played the trumpet, while Phalon Jones provided saxophone, and Jimmy King was their guitarist.
James Alexander played bass, Ronnie Caldwell tinkled the ivories, and Carl Cunningham pounded the drums. The R&B group soon became all the rage at local clubs such as the Hippodrome, despite every single one of them being underage!
The group soon signed to Stax Records and their first single “Soul Finger” hit the airwaves in ’67. As it climbed to number three on the Billboard R&B chart, the band continued to play shows and grow in popularity.
This was when, one fateful night, a genuine Stax legend attended one of their gigs and came backstage to tell them how much he loved their sound. The starstruck teens probably couldn’t believe what was happening.
Otis Redding sees the Bar-Kays potential
You see, Otis Redding was already an R&B mainstream crossover star at that point, having released an incredible six studio albums on Stax between ’64 and ’67. He saw huge potential in the Bar-Kays.
Cauley told Memphis Commercial Appeal, “He asked about us doing some gigs,” and continued, “We said we're still in school, so we can’t go on weekdays. He said, ‘I’ll take care of that. I’ll pick you up in my plane on Fridays.’”
“A match made in Heaven”
Yes, that’s right: within a few short years, the teenage band had gone from school gigs to backing Redding for his ten-night engagement at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. They soon began being whisked around the country in Redding’s private plane to play shows.
Cauley remembered that period fondly: he and his buddies were having the time of their lives being associated with Redding. He smiled, “It was a match made in Heaven.”