Memphis, TN – This month, as U.S. forces are reduced in Iraq to 50,000, a troupe of another kind is just starting its final tour of duty in the war-torn country.
The Bar-Kays, the pioneering funk band founded in Memphis in 1966, recently set out on what officials say is the last scheduled tour of a musical group to military bases in Iraq.
Most people are familiar with the Bar-Kays' original hit, "Soul Finger," released in 1967. That was the same year the great singer Otis Redding hired the group as his touring band. Shortly after, Redding was killed in a plane crash, along with four of the group's original members. But the survivors rebuilt the group, and by the early 1970s, the Bar-Kays had become one of the era's leading funk bands, turning out a string of hit records like "Son of Shaft" in 1972.
Almost 40 years later, bass player James Alexander and singer Larry Dodson are still writing new songs and touring.
On Saturday, they left Memphis to play concerts at four military bases in Iraq, and one in Kuwait.
"This time I'm not going to take hardly anything because it's just too hot man," Dodson said. "I have a friend who just got back and he said on the average day it's like 128 degrees. We dress in shorts, very, very light, and you know, we stay out of the sun."
Though circumstances have changed since their first trip in 2008, security is still tight. They don't even know where they're going until they get there, usually in a military cargo plane. The band still has to wear flak jackets and helmets when they travel. They've been taught different alarms, and what to do in case of incoming fire. But even with the precautions, their first trip took them to some surprising places.
"When we got there, we saw everything there was to see," Dodson said. "We went to command centers, hospitals, sang at bedsides. We talked to nurses, doctors. Saw casualties brought in... We had meetings with the generals in every camp. We went to Saddam Hussein's palaces, which they had turned into headquarters, which was just kind of to say, "We got you now.'"
The environment poses unique challenges for a band used to amenities like high-tech lighting and sound systems. Dodson says that in Iraq they had to adapt to whatever stage they were asked to play on.
"It wasn't shabby, but it wasn't, you know, your glitzy stuff," he said. "Sometimes we would play and there would only be two lights and the lights would go out. Someone had knocked the power cord out, and you'd have to wait for someone to turn the lights back on. But it was still cool. When the light came back on, they'd cheer. Sometimes there weren't that many people. They were out in the field fighting. Other times there were lots of people."
The rewards of playing for men and women in uniform, Dodson says, far outnumber the risks, which is one reason the Bar-Kays wanted to return.
"Man, to actually see their faces and to know we're doing something very special," he said. "You don't understand how special it is till you get there. Handshake after handshake after handshake. You can see it on their faces. They just do not believe the Bar-Kays are actually here doing this. It's a very good feeling. It's rewarding."
This month, the Bar-Kays will release their 30th studio album, "Live and More." Their latest single, "Return of the Mack," recently reached number 37 on the Mediabase Urban Adult Contemporary Chart.