Ben Cauley and the Music that Lives On in Memphis

Words: Berlin Howell, Images: Servando Mireles

Before I ever crossed paths with Crockett Hall, one of our mutual friends had mentioned a David Bowie tribute concert where he’d be playing drums in a new band. Given the buzz surrounding Memphis Does Bowie, I knew I had to look him up when I saw Crockett Hall on the lineup.

A video of their performance on Local Memphis Live had been the only accessible music online. Only the song “Movin’ West” could be found, which made determining who they were as a band difficult. But any fan of Memphis music—present and past—would be struck by the names listed on the band’s roster: Jana Misener of The Memphis Dawls on cello, Stax Records musician Tommy Lee playing saxophone, and trumpeter Ben Cauley, former member of The Bar-Kays.

Crockett Hall’s primary member is Daniel Clarke (26), vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. I followed up with a pitch from my editor not too long ago and reached out to Daniel via phone, where we originally made plans to meet at Otherlands Coffee Shop, but at the last minute Daniel called and said he had a far better idea: grab a drink at the venue where a fated collaboration had originated.

A few days later, I found myself on the sidewalk outside Neil’s Music Room, the venue where I was to meet Daniel. I entered to find a skinny, younger guy who stood out from the majority of clientele populating the dark space-a guy I instantly recognized from the live music videos as Daniel.

“I picked some songs on the jukebox I used to hear on Wednesday nights here,” said Daniel after we shook hands. “Some songs Ben played on, some songs Elmo and the Shades would play.” As we walked to the table the song began to play. The tune was “Soul Finger,” The Bar-Kay’s most iconic hit. “Ben’s horn part is absolutely what makes this such a memorable song,” Daniel said.

Near the end of 2014, the Memphis Flyer published an article called “R&B Royalty” about Elmo and the Shades, which piqued Daniel’s interest.

“I was living in Olive Branch, at the time, and my friends invited me to this place to enjoy some local music. I had seen the article and was blown away by the lineup of Elmo and the Shades.”

The next song on the jukebox after “Soul Finger” was Elvis’ “Kentucky Rain.”

“Ben played on this too!” Daniel said excitedly, and in awe we both grew quiet and looked over to the stage on the far wall. Playing on a song with Elvis Presley is as prestigious as it gets, especially one as notable as “Kentucky Rain.” Neither of us uttered a syllable for most of the song.

Ben Cauley is perhaps most tragically known for being the sole survivor of the 1967 plane crash that killed members of the original Bar-Kays (minus bassist James Alexander, who took a separate flight the day of the crash) and music legend Otis Redding. Earlier that year, The Bar-Kays released “Soul Finger,” the song that would propel them to the top of music charts across the World. Ben continued to play with the newly formed Bar-Kays along with famous artists like Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, and The Staple Singers.

Photo: Isaac Singleton

“I saw Ben play in Elmo and the Shades right there,” Daniel said as we continued to look at the empty stage, “every Wednesday night for the better part of a year. I’m a true believer that if you genuinely enjoy someone’s work, you’re obligated in some sense to let them know—if you get the chance.”

Daniel approached Ben after the third or fourth week of watching him play to confess his adoration for his horn and the music that emanated from it. “After talking to him that one time, every week after that Ben would go out of his way to talk to me,” Daniel said.

Their collaboration began early on, starting from the moment when Ben asked Daniel to come up on the stage to sing some songs with them.

“That was wild for me, I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Daniel. After playing with Elmo and the Shades, Daniel asked Ben if he would play with his band at the time, One Word. Ben played trumpet with them during a show at Neil’s and Daniel said it was went majestically.

“One Word had been a band forever and I was really hoping to try something new so I started Crockett Hall then, around the beginning of 2015,” said Daniel. “One of the first opportunities we got was to record with Ephriam Wilkinson at his house on Tanglewood near Cooper-Young. I asked Ben if he could record on some songs and that’s how we got 'I’ll Be True'.

The recording setup was modest, filling Wilkinson’s living room and bedroom to its maximum capacity. “We recorded the song last summer, right after playing on the news together.”

I’ll Be True” is especially significant to Danielbecause it’s one of the last songs that Ben Cauley ever recorded. Daniel feels indebted to Ben for his contribution and humbled by the musician’s presence on the song, so all of the proceeds from the single are going to the Soulsville Foundation.

“My goal is to honor Ben’s name and his history,” said Daniel. Soulsville is an organization whose mission is to “Uplift and invigorate the music and heritage of Stax Records to develop young people for lifelong success, and continue to inspire and transform the world through the power of soul music.”

Preserving music history is a difficult task that goes well beyond simply cataloguing records on a shelf—even beyond saving files in a database. You can hear past and present colliding on Crockett Hall’s newest song, a continuance of Ben Cauley’s indomitable legacy.

WATCH: I'll Be True [OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO] Crockett Hall

Berlin Howell is a Sophomore Creative Writing major at Christian Brothers University, an avid music critic, and a staff writer for the Galleon.

Posted by Josh Colfer at 11:00 AM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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