I’ve lived in Memphis for more than 20 years now. One of the things I really like about living here is that you get to rub elbows with everybody. Our most prominent people are not hiding away at the Hunt & Polo Club. They’re just living here, like the rest of us.
At Midtown Kroger, I regularly see Grizzlies players, Mayor Wharton, prominent local musicians, community leaders, etc. Through the years, in one way or another, I’ve gotten to meet Sam Phillips, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore, Roland Janes, Scotty Moore, and many other music legends. I’ve hung out at a banquet table next to Jerry Lee Lewis and played golf with David Porter. I called Sid Selvidge a friend and got to know Jim Dickinson a little, too.
They were all good people, not a pretentious man among them. It’s a Memphis thing — and a good thing it is.
Which brings me to Ben Cauley, who passed away this week at 67, about 47 years after he should have died in one of the most famous plane crashes in music history. He was the sole survivor of the plane crash that killed Otis Redding and everyone else on board, including several of Cauley’s Bar-Kays bandmates.
After the crash, Cauley continued his music career, re-forming the Bar-Kays with bass player James Alexander. He played on the iconic Isaac Hayes album Hot Buttered Soul and toured with Aretha Franklin and the Doobie Brothers, among others.
I met Ben Cauley in 1994, through my yard man, a guy I knew only as Virgil. Virgil mowed everybody’s lawn in my neighborhood when I first moved to town. He approached me about doing my yard and I said, sure. I’d never had a yard man before, but what the heck.
Virgil was personable and talkative. He said he liked to sing and had a little band that played at the Admiral Benbow on Summer. He wondered if I might want to come hear them. Sure, I said.
The Admiral Benbow music lounge was a quiet little room, kind of seedy and dark. There weren’t many people there. Virgil’s backing “band” consisted of a young guy mostly playing prerecorded tracks on a Casio keyboard and an older guy playing trumpet. They did covers, Marvin Gaye and Al Green and other classic soul tunes.
At the first break, I bought the band drinks and sat down to chat. Virgil introduced me to his nephew, Michael, who played keyboards, and his trumpet-playing friend, Ben, who turned out to be the legendary Ben Cauley. He was down to earth, friendly, not a pretentious bone in his body. The guy who played with Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, and the Doobie Brothers was playing trumpet at the Benbow on Summer with his pal, Virgil, my yard man.
If there’s a more Memphis story than this one, I don’t know it. RIP Ben.