‘The Bar-Kays: The Definitive Collection’ reviewed

Paul Abbott reviews a triple-decker slab of Funk from Cherry Red’s Robinsongs label.

If Funkiness manifested itself in the weight of the records onto which the music was pressed, then you’d probably give yourself a hernia trying to pick up this 3-CD collection of songs from the masters of the groove, The Bar-Kays. This compilation contains all of their Top 10 R&B hits and much more beside, from the years 1967 – 1989. The band still exists now, having taken a short break in the early Nineties, but this compilation captures their most fruitful Funk period with a nod, via the exquisite soul party-anthems, Soul Finger and Bar-Kays Boogaloo, to their early days as one of Stax Records’ in-house bands, then as artist-in-their-own-right. The group was considered sufficiently hip and forceful enough to get the gig as Otis Redding’s backing band and it was the plane crash which claimed Redding’s life and the lives of four of the group, Jimmie King, Ronnie Caldwell, Phalon Jones and Carl Cunningham, that ended the first phase of The Bar-Kays’ career in such a tragic way.

Bassist James Alexander and Trumpeter Ben Cauley, the only survivor of the crash, reformed the Bar-Kays with a line-up that featured the drummer Willie Hall, now one of the more well-known of the members, having featured as himself in The Blues Brothers movie, and the band went on not only to have a successful recording career as themselves, but continued to back-up some of the greatest Soul artists of the period, notably Isaac Hayes on Hot Buttered Soul (1969) and, having performed on Hayes’s Theme from Shaft, scored their own hit on the R&B charts with Son Of Shaft – a track that surely must be featured in the upcoming film Shaft this year, the entire premise of which is based on the Son Of Shaft reconnecting with his father, and featuring original Shaft-actor Richard Roundtree to take the family tree back another generation.

By the 1970s the Bar-Kays signature sound was not the high-octane party-soul sound of their early days but a groove-laden funk and this compilation takes a deep dive into this world. Everything that is expected of funk records, including everything that has since become a cliché, can be found here, from the horn stabs, the grounding ‘one’ of the bass and a variety of synth, string and vocal sounds that can only come from this genre – CD 2 opens with Give It Up, four and a half minutes, of one chord, one riff and more-and-more layers of rhythmic patterns that goes nowhere and doesn’t need to. If you want to work out how funky and influential the band were, then a quick visit to internet rabbit-hole, Whosampled.com/bar-kays/ will provide evidence of how much of their groove has been extracted and used elsewhere by the likes of De La Soul, Public Enemy, Mos Def and, er, Will Smith.

By the mid-seventies, Stax Records were no more and the Bar-Kays were at home on Mercury Records and were turning out hits such as Shake Your Rump To The Funk, Boogie Body Land and Freaky Behaviour. If they were less successful anywhere in their approach it was perhaps that the more ballad like vocal driven numbers don’t always appeal quite as much as the more groove driven ones do – the insistent calls to move various parts of your body in various ways are more compelling than the falsetto heartbreak songs. Most of the joy of funk is its somatic appeal – as song-titles such as Do It (Let Me See You Shake) and Freakshow On The Dancefloor speak to.

This compilation features a fascinating accompanying booklet essay by Christian John Wikane which illustrates the discographic history of the band from the early days right through to the end of their eighties career and provides fascinating glimpses of the development of a group who more or less defined the Funk sound. This is a set of songs that compels you to turn up the bass EQ on your hi-fi, shut the funk up and start to move your Boogie Body. Be warned though – there’s over three hours of grooves across these discs – Cherry Red and Robinsongs aren’t responsible for any Funk/Groove related injuries you might acquire whilst you Get Up ‘N Do It.

The Bar-Kays: ‘Bar-Kays: The Definitive Collection’ (ROBIN37CDT) is available now from Robinsongs/Cherry Red Records, RRP £14.99. Click here to buy.

 Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.

Become a patron at Patreon!