Ben Cauley was the ultimate survivor. He lived through an infamous plane crash, and later recovered from what doctors assumed would be a fatal stroke.
Late Monday night on Sept. 21, 2015, however, the great trumpeter – a member of legendary Stax Records group the Bar-Kays and a Memphis Music Hall of Famer – died at Methodist South Hospital, where he’d been taken because of ongoing health issues. His passing was confirmed by his daughter, Shuronda Cauley-Oliver. Mr. Cauley was 67.
For many, Mr. Cauley’s name was the answer to a tragic trivia question: the trumpeter was the sole survivor of the plane crash Dec. 10, 1967, outside Madison, Wis., that claimed eight people, including Stax Records star Otis Redding, and Cauley’s Bar-Kays bandmates Phalon Jones, Carl Cunningham, Jimmy King and Ronnie Caldwell.
Yet Mr. Cauley’s life was not defined by tragedy, but rather triumph.
“Ben was a strong spirit. You could hear it in his horn, you could feel it in his presence,” said Stax Records historian and author Robert Gordon. “He survived the plane crash, he wasn’t stopped by the debilitating stroke. That zest for life could be heard in the high notes he hit so casually, and also the hint of humor in his phrasing. He was humble in an almost Zen-like way, in a way that represented the best of the Stax. He didn’t take his accomplishments for granted, and he seemed able to personally appreciate the joy he brought to people, like each smiling face was distinct to him.”
“He had that happy-go-lucky personality that was contagious, just contagious,” said Mr. Cauley’s longtime Bar-Kays bandmate James Alexander. “He was always the guy that showed out. Just a hell of a musician, a hell of an entertainer, a brother and a friend.”
Born in 1947 in South Memphis, Ben Cauley’s musical grounding came as a child at the New Friendship Baptist Church, where and he and his mother sang in the choir.
He first picked up the trumpet in the seventh grade and soon fell in with a group of neighborhood kids and Booker T. Washington high school students, including guitarist Jimmy King, saxophonist Phalon Jones, drummer Carl Cunningham, keyboardist Ronnie Caldwell, and bassist James Alexander. They formed a group called the Imperials, later changing their name to the Bar-Kays.
Mr. Cauley, who was a couple of years older than his bandmates, began attending LeMoyne College in 1965. At the same time, the mostly underage band became a favorite at late-night clubs such as the Hippodrome, adding their flashy steps and dance moves into a repertoire of R&B songs.
Released in the spring of 1967, the group’s debut single for Stax, “Soul Finger,” would reach No. 3 on the Billboard R&B charts. Before long, the young Bar-Kays — most of them still in high school — were a hit act, and being groomed to become Stax’s second house band alongside Booker T. & the MGs.
It was around this same period that Stax’s signature star, Otis Redding, caught the Bar-Kays in concert, and was taken by their sound. “After our show he ran backstage, and said, ‘Y’all bad!'” said Mr. Cauley in a 2007 interview with The Commercial Appeal. “He asked about us doing some gigs. And we said we’re still in school, so we can’t go on weekdays. He said, ‘I’ll take care of that, I’ll pick you up in my plane on Fridays.'”
In the summer of ’67, the Bar-Kays started their work backing Redding with a 10-night stand at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and then proceeded to tour the country. The young, energetic Bar-Kays and the tireless Redding proved a perfect musical fit. “It was a match made in heaven,” said Mr. Cauley.
That fall, Redding paused from the road to have some polyps removed from his throat, and to write and record what would prove to be his swan song, “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.” In early December, Redding and the Bar-Kays were back out on the road, doing weekenders at colleges. They had three gigs booked between Dec. 8 and 10, 1967, and most of the entourage was traveling on Redding’s new twin engine Beechcraft. After a gig in Cleveland, they boarded the plane to Madison, Wisconsin. Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander, who’d volunteered to return the band’s rental car in Cleveland and hop a commercial flight, dropped them off at the hangar.
Flying on little rest from the previous night, the passengers soon drifted off to sleep. At around 3:30 p.m., just a few minutes outside of Madison, Mr. Cauley woke to the plane’s violent shaking. What happened next,” he said, “is something I can never erase.”
The plane went into Lake Monona, on the banks of Madison, at a sharp 35-degree angle. Mr. Cauley was separated from the plane and thrown out an opening in the fuselage. Surviving the impact of the crash was only the first hurdle. Mr. Cauley, who’d never learned to swim, was now struggling in the waters of the frigid lake. Somehow, in between blacking out and rising to the surface of the water, he’d found a seat cushion, which was keeping him afloat. Amid the waves, he lost his hold on the cushion, but then another floated by and he grabbed it.
In the chaos, confusion and cold, he glimpsed some of his fellow passengers: Carl Cunningham surfaced for a moment without speaking; Ronnie Caldwell cried out for help. Mr. Cauley urged him to hold on, but his attempts to get to his bandmates were defeated by the hard, lapping waters.
The speed of the rescue team — which got to the crash site in 17 minutes — was probably the thing that saved Mr. Cauley. His body was perhaps a couple minutes from going into hypothermia when he was pulled from the waters. The cause of the crash was never determined. Mr. Cauley had escaped with relatively minor cuts on his head and his foot; the others — including Redding and pilot Richard Fraser — had not been so fortunate.
Taken to the hospital, Mr. Cauley was finally told that he’d been the only one to survive. “I kept asking, ‘Are they all right?’ And this guy just looked at me and said, ‘Well, son, you’re the only one alive.’ Once he said that, I couldn’t talk. I’d never been that way before in my life. I tried. I couldn’t talk.”
In the wake of the accident, the entire Stax family was shaken to its core. The loss of Redding and the promising Bar-Kays was a devastating blow. As label co-founder Jim Stewart later put it, “The company was never the same to me after that.”
After months of shock and mourning, Mr. Cauley and Alexander decided to try and pick up the pieces and re-form the band. Debuting in 1968, the reconstituted Bar-Kays became a successful group, recording and playing sessions at Stax and frequently heading out on tour with groups like the Temptations. But Mr. Cauley, who had a growing family, left the band in 1972.
Despite the lingering scars of his past, Mr. Cauley continued to work and perform, his horn in demand for sessions in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville. Over the years, he would appear on recordings by B.B. King, Al Green, the Doobie Brothers, Hank Williams Jr., the Replacements, and many others
As the years passed, there was more sadness at Stax — the company went bankrupt in 1975, and in 1989 they bulldozed the studio. That day, Mr. Cauley, stood outside playing a requiem on his trumpet.
Later that same year, he faced another brush with death when he suffered an aneurysm and massive stroke. Doctors told his family he would not survive more than a couple days. On the third day, he had recovered dramatically enough to leave the intensive care unit. Having lost much of his motor function, Mr. Cauley would have to relearn how to walk and talk and function. Returning home after months in a rehab facility, he saw his trumpet lying on the couch. “Honestly, I didn’t even know what it was,” he said. “But I went over and picked it up and started playing” – out came the first roaring notes of “Soul Finger.”
In the early ’90s, Mr. Cauley, by then fully recovered, would become a presence at the Memphis airport. He performed regularly at Da’ Blues Restaurant and helped to put the imprimatur of Stax and Memphis music on the airport.
“In a weird way, his efforts as a solo act for years in the airport lounge were the epitome of his work — that drive to share the music, share the spirit, share the feeling,” said Robert Gordon. “There couldn’t have been a more transient audience, and he quietly imbued them with a sense of Memphis’ permanence, asking for nothing in return, appreciating each nod of the head and tapping of the foot.”
In later years, he would become an important presence at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, appearing at anniversary concerts and events, and teaching the kids of the Stax Music Academy.
He also continued to perform, frequently with the throwback R&B band the Bo-Keys and in various combos on Beale Street. Mr. Cauley would remain an in-demand session man until the end. His final appearances came on 2015 albums by Boz Scaggs and Keith Richards.
Mr. Cauley is survived by his daughters, Shuronda Cauley-Oliver, Chekita Cauley-Campbell, Miriam Cauley-Crisp, Monica Cauley-Johnson, Kimberly Garrett and sons Phalon Richmond and Ben Wells. Plans for a memorial service are pending.