Sometimes you want to hear smooth, silky soul, and other times you're just in the mood for something funky, down, and dirty. Few tracks fit the bill better than the Bar-Kays' 1978 single "Holy Ghost." This incredible jam shows how the group could just play for the sheer love of it, which was true for most of their catalog. This joy still amazes, particularly since the Bar-Kays suffered a major tragedy which almost ended the band.
The Bar-Kays, formed in Memphis in 1966, became one of Stax's house bands in 1967. That year the band scored their first major hit with "Soul Finger," a horn-filled instrumental that established them as an R&B band on the rise. Further success came when Stax star Otis Redding hired them as his backing band for an upcoming tour. But tragedy struck on December 10, 1967, when Redding and four out of six Bar-Kays members perished in a plane crash. Trumpeter Ben Cauley survived the crash, and bassist James Alexander had not been on the flight. Thus the two had to rebuild the band with new members; astonishingly they did so, and they resumed recording for Stax. Failing to chart another single like "Soul Finger," the Bar-Kays later changed their sound by adding vocalist Larry Dodson, creating polished productions, and becoming a bit grittier. After experiencing a career resurgence with their 1972 hit "Son of Shaft" and playing a much buzzed-about set at the legendary Wattstax Music Festival, the Bar-Kays began the next phase of their career by signing with Mercury Records in 1976, merging soul, funk, and disco to create a danceable yet bass-popping brand of music. Once again the Bar-Kays made a comeback with another single, 1976's "Shake Your Rump to the Funk," and continued racking up hits well into the 1980s.
Capitalizing on their renewed success, Stax decided to compile previously unreleased Bar-Kays material recorded between 1974-1976. Titled Money Talks, the album sold an impressive number of copies due to that hard-grooving track "Holy Ghost." It contains all the right ingredients: a relentless beat, snapping and popping bass, a distorted synthesizer-driven bass line, and a growling lead vocal by Dodson. "Well, your love is like the Holy Ghost/ And I feel like I've been born a second time," Dodson howls, the massive horn section punctuating the song's sexy grooves. As if that wasn't enough to entice people to the dance floor, they added a killer drum break featuring some intricate percussion. The Bar-Kays' roots as a southern soul instrumental band come through in the song, yet the heavy bass updates their sound for the funky, George Clinton-eque late 1970s.
Although "Holy Ghost" reached number nine on Billboard's R&B charts in 1978, the song rarely receives radio airplay today. That fact amazes, as the song ranks as one of the funkiest pieces of music to emerge out of the 1970s. While the Bar-Kays scored more hits until they disbanded in 1988, this single represents some of their best work, and is a testament to their perseverance and ability to reinvent themselves.
Below is the 12-inch version of "Holy Ghost," which includes the entire drum break and extended, not-to-be-missed jamming.