Mid-South News
6:00 am
Mon December 10, 2012

After Plane Crash, Stroke, Bar Kays’ Ben Cauley Still Fingering Soul

Ben Cauley warming up before the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival on September 4, 2011.
Ben Cauley warming up before the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival on September 4, 2011.
Credit Isaac Singleton

Bar-Kays’ trumpet player Ben Cauley celebrated his 65th birthday this year, and he has much to celebrate. Cauley was the sole survivor of the plane crash that claimed the lives of Otis Redding and four band members of the Bar-Kays outside of Madison, Wisconsin, on December 10, 1967. With resilience and an undeniable exuberance for music, Cauley continued his career, in spite of a number of hurdles, including a massive stroke. 

Cauley got his musical start singing in church with his mother and picked up the trumpet in seventh grade. He formed the Bar-Kays at Booker T. Washington High School with friends: James Alexander, Ronnie Caldwell, Carl Cunningham, Jimmy King, and Phalon Jones. The teen group was in high demand at clubs, like the Hippodrome.

As Cauley recalls, Otis Redding followed the band there to offer them a gig, “We played at the Coliseum,” said Cauley. “Otis went wild. After the show was over, we went down to the Hippodrome. He came back to where we was and said, ‘Man! Y’all bad.’ He asked what we were doing? We said we was in school.”   

By the spring of 1967, the group was Redding’s backing band and recording at Stax Records. The Bar-Kays’ first release was supposed to be “You Can’t Sit Down”, but when Stax founder Jim Stewart stepped out of the room during the recording session, the band had an impromptu jam. They created their signature song, “Soul Finger.”

The Bar-Kays with Otis Redding. Top row (Left to Right): Ben Cauley, Carl Cunningham, Ronnie Caldwell, Jimmy King and James Alexander. Bottom row (Left to Right): Phalon Jones and Otis Redding.
The Bar-Kays with Otis Redding. Top row (Left to Right): Ben Cauley, Carl Cunningham, Ronnie Caldwell, Jimmy King and James Alexander. Bottom row (Left to Right): Phalon Jones and Otis Redding.
Credit Courtesy of the Stax Museum.

“[Jim Stewart] came back and said, ‘What’s that y’all played?’” Cauley said. “He said, ‘Man, that’s a hit. Y’all don’t know, but y’all just cut a hit.’”

The group’s debut single reached No. 3 on Billboard’s R&B chart. With a hit single and a tour with Redding, Cauley said the young band felt they were on their way, “Things started looking up, from that point on.”

But six months later, five Bar-Kays and Otis Redding climbed aboard a small plane to fly from a show in Cleveland to Madison, Wisconsin. The plane crashed in icy Lake Monona. Cauley was thrown into the freezing water. He didn’t know how to swim, but he held on to a seat cushion, “I couldn’t swim,” Cauley said, “I didn’t try.”

The cushion kept the musician afloat until a police boat arrived. Cauley suffered hypothermia and shock, but he survived.

Since the crash, Cauley has played with numerous bands, including a reconstituted Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, and the Muscle Schoals Band.

In 1989, Cauley suffered a massive stroke and aneurysm. Doctors gave him three days to live. Miraculously, he survived. Although initially paralyzed, he relearned how to walk and talk (with occasional speech difficulty), and read and write. He was soon back playing his horn and performing, something doctors said he would never do.

Although he continued to tour, Cauley didn’t return to the site of the plane crash until 40 years later. He sang Redding’s “(Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay” as part of a ceremony at the Monona Terrace on the banks of the lake.

Cauley evaded one more close brush with death when he avoided a diabetic coma. At 65, he still writes and records songs at his home and gigs with the Bo-Keys.

Every Sunday, Cauley attends Calvary Longview United Methodist Church where he sings with the choir. He’s been with the church for more than 20 years. On a recent Sunday, the church’s Hammond B-3 organ was broken. Instead of playing the organ, Cauley shuffled up to the microphone and performed an impromptu trumpet solo. Then, he sang “He Knows Just How Much You Can Bear.”

“Having gone through all those changes, my music was something I had in my life. And it hadn’t gone,” Cauley said. “I always kept on.”

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