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Otis Wows 'Em Out West

What do the records “California Dreaming” and “The Rain the Park and Other Things” have in common? Besides being the first big hits for their respective bands, The Mamas & the Papas and The Cowsills, they generated lots of money for songwriters, John Phillips and Artie Kornfeld. Those songwriters would eventually fund two of the major rock music festivals of the 1960s: Monterey Pop and Woodstock.

When John Phillips and promoter Lou Adler envisioned the Monterey Pop Festival, they saw it as a current music analog of the existing Monterey Jazz and Folk festivals.  Memory paints it as a rock show, but the lineup actually featured a cross-section of performers.  Still, there a feeling of trepidation when a contingent of Memphis talent headed for the stage Saturday night, June 17, 1967.

There was fear that the matching suits and choreographed steps of Booker T. & the MG’s and the Mar-Keys' horns might bomb with the hippie crowd.  The reality was 180 degrees opposite.  The “summer of love” was born with Otis Redding taking his place as the attending physician.  Otis had success with his previous shows at LA’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go, but nothing prepared him for the universal acceptance he received in Monterey.

Back in Memphis, a new band was knocking on the door at Stax.  The label had a history of groups with car-inspired names.  Chips Moman produced the first single for their subsidiary Volt records for a band called The Triumphs, named after the sports car.  The MG’s were the core act for the label, not only cranking out hit singles of their own, but also providing the instrumental backing on most other releases.  But when The Impalas showed up, they almost didn’t find a place to park.  As with so many acts, they were drawn to Stax by the open doors of Estelle Axton’s record shop in the studio‘s lobby.  They had made their way past the curtains back to the studio, and watched seasoned veterans make hits.  They were just high school kids, but the talented musicians managed to get a gigs across the river in West Memphis night clubs and on Beale Street, where they honed their sound covering the tunes they saw and heard at Stax.  By the time they secured an audition with Steve Cropper, they had swapped The Impalas name for a new one, the Bar-Kays.

Cropper gave the band a listen and turned the Bar-Kays down.  But according to Robert Gordon’s book, "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion,"  label owner Jim Stewart told the guys to come back that weekend and audition for him.  They played their rehearsed cover tunes, and Jim listened, and stepped away for a moment.  Now, at this point, the old Memphis music story repeats itself.  Just like Elvis, Scotty, and Bill in that fateful 1954 audition for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, when the tape stopped and the pressure was off, they started goofing around and jamming on their own.  And, as Sam Phillips did years earlier, Jim Stewart said those same fateful words.  “What was that?”

“That,” in this case, was a jam that would become the first hit for the Bar-Kays.  Ben Cauley, Phalon Jones, Carl Cunningham, James Alexander and Ronnie Caldwell would break the top 20 with that jam.  It needed one more ingredient, however.  Staff writer David Porter heard the track and had a great idea.  He grabbed a case of Cokes, rounded up a bunch of neighborhood teens, and had them chatter and carry on in the background as he dubbed them into the track.  When he cued them, they would chant “Soul Finger,” and a new party tune launched the Bar-Kays on their way.

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.