Ben Cauley

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Ben Cauley
Born (1947-10-03)October 3, 1947
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Genres Soul
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter, arranger
Instruments Trumpet
Years active 1960s–2015
Labels Stax
Associated acts The Bar-Kays
External video
video icon Oral History, Ben Cauley recalls his first musical experiences. Interview date July 15, 2015, NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Oral History Library

Ben Cauley (October 3, 1947 – September 21, 2015) was an American trumpet player, vocalist, songwriter, and founding member of the Stax recording group, The Bar-Kays. He was the sole survivor of the 1967 plane crash that claimed the lives of soul singer Otis Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays.

Early years

Cauley was born in South Memphis, Tennessee. He learned to play trumpet when at school, and formed a band with guitarist Jimmy King, saxophonist Phalon Jones, drummer Carl Cunningham, keyboardist Ronnie Caldwell, and bassist James Alexander. The group was originally named the Imperials, and later changed to the Bar-Kays in the mid-1960s. Cauley started attending LeMoyne College in 1965, before becoming a professional musician.[1]

The Bar-Kays

The Bar-Kays joined the Stax studio by 1966, and were signed on to Stax's subsidiary Volt Records in the beginning of 1967. According to James Alexander, Cauley was the best dressed of the group, always known to wear a suit, no matter the occasion.

Al Jackson, Jr. the drummer with Booker T & the MGs, took a particular interest in the young members of the Bar-Kays and groomed them to become the second house band for Stax after Booker T and the MGs.[2] As such they appeared as the backing band on numerous recordings for Stax artists such as Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and Sam and Dave. In fact, Otis Redding took such a liking to the band that he chose them to be his touring back-up band in the summer of 1967.

Plane crash

On December 8, 1967, Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays flew in Redding's twin engine Beechcraft plane to Nashville, Tennessee for three weekend gigs and used that city as a base to commute to additional gigs.[citation needed] The following day, December 9, they took the Beechcraft to Cleveland where they appeared on Don Webster's 'Upbeat' TV show with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Later that same evening they played at a popular Cleveland club, Leo's Casino. It was on December 10, on their commute to Madison, Wisconsin, that the men would meet their fate.

At 3:28 in the afternoon, the plane carrying Otis Redding, his valet, and the majority of the Bar-Kays crashed into the icy waters of the Squaw Bay area of Lake Monona, just outside Madison. Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander had taken a different flight as there was not enough room left on Redding's plane.[2][3] Cauley, who was sitting directly behind Otis Redding in the co-pilot's seat, had fallen asleep on the flight clutching his seat cushion. He awoke when he realized he could not breathe. He said that he then saw band mate Phalon Jones look out of a window and say "Oh, no!"[3]

Cauley then unbuckled his safety belt which ultimately allowed him to separate himself from the wreckage. Other victims, including Redding, were found still attached to their seats.[4] As the impact tore a wing off the small Beechcraft, the fuselage was torn open and Cauley was able to bob to the surface as he clutched his seat cushion.

While bobbing and trying to swim to his band mates who weren't able to free themselves from the fuselage, Cauley witnessed their cries for help before they were pulled under the frigid water. A nearby resident of Lake Monona heard the crash and called the authorities who responded quickly with a police boat. Approximately 20 minutes after the crash, Cauley was pulled into the police boat, suffering from hypothermia and shock. According to Jet magazine, which interviewed Cauley and the authorities who assisted in the rescue attempt, the rescue divers could not be in the water for more than 15 minutes at a time due to the freezing temperature of the water. Madison Police Inspector John Harrington was quoted as saying that a person without insulated SCUBA gear "wouldn't live longer than 20 or so minutes" in the icy water. When asked why he survived, Cauley told Jet, "I guess God was with me." Cauley claimed to suffer from nightmares about the accident until his death.

After the crash

Ben Cauley and James Alexander reformed the Bar-Kays and went on to record with Stax artists such as Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, and The Staple Singers, as well as appear at Wattstax, "The Black Woodstock". However, the band made little money, as they did not have much work outside of being a house band for Stax, and frequently needed to tour with the artists they backed. Cauley had two young daughters to support, so he left the group in 1971, allowing him to continue performing on his own while being able to remain home with his family.

Cauley suffered a debilitating stroke in 1989, but eventually recovered fully, aside from occasional problems with slightly slurred speech.

Into the 2000s, Cauley could be heard backing up Liz Lottmann,[5] jazz and blues singer, or performing live at the Memphis club, Rum Boogie, located downtown on Beale Street. He also directed the choir of Calvary Longview United Methodist Church, attended by him and his wife Shirley.

On September 9, 2008, Attorney B.J. Wade donated $100,000 to Stax Records that would be used to create the Ben Cauley scholarship, in his honor and to shed light on his accomplishments. On September 12, 2008, the scholarship was founded. On June 6, 2015 Cauley was on hand to be inducted into the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in Clarksdale, MS. Along with other Bar-Kays.

He died on September 21, 2015 at the age of 67.[6][7]


  1. Bob Mehr, "Bar-Kays hornman Ben Cauley is a survivor", The Commercial Appeal, December 9, 2007. Retrieved September 22, 2015
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  5. [1][dead link]
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  7. "Ben Cauley, Sole Survivor of Otis Redding Crash, Dies at 67". The New York Times, September 24, 2015. Accessed September 25, 2015.

External links