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STREETSEEN  |  JAmes Alexander

Photo by Steve Roberts

James Alexander: Still Making Soulful Music

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

You might think that growing up across the street from Stax recording studio would almost guarantee that James Alexander was headed towards a career in music — but it didn’t start out that way. “I wasn’t musically inclined,” said Alexander. “However, my brother, Ben, exposed me to great music because he was a jazz buff.”

By the time Alexander started Porter Junior High School, he had decided that he wanted music to be a part of his life. But it wasn’t as easy as he thought.

“I wanted to play snare drums in the school’s marching band, so my mother borrowed money from a finance company so she could buy me a parade drum,” recalled Alexander. “But on our way to the music store she was pick-pocketed. My heart just sank. Then the school’s band director said he didn’t need any more drums.” Instead, Alexander was guided towards playing the sousaphone (a marching band tuba). “Although the bell of most sousaphones and tubas are fiberglass now, back then they were all metal,” explained Alexander. “I had to take it home every day to practice. It was very awkward trying to carry it home on a bus. I thought about giving up.”

But things turned around for Alexander. He caught onto playing the tuba, playing so well that he made All-State and had the chance to study at a summer program at Belmont College in Nashville. “It was there I discovered I really loved playing music,” said Alexander. “Later I switched to upright bass, and then to electric bass. I started meeting people, including the guy who turned out to be my best friend, Phalon Jones. We formed a junior high jazz band and started practicing at Porter Junior High’s gym.”

Alexander continued, “As time went on, a group came together called ‘The Imperials.’ Their bass player didn’t have a bass. So I would ride my bike, carrying my bass, to meet them at someone’s house so they could rehearse. One day I rode over and their bass player didn’t show up. Since I was the one with the bass, the other guys invited me to play with them — but at that time I couldn’t play bass. They offered to show me some basics and by the time the original bass player came back, the guys in the band said that he wasn’t the bass player anymore — I was.”

The Imperials played together in the early 1960s and by 1964 they morphed into The Bar-Kays. Alexander credits David Porter, Isaac Hayes and Booker T. Jones as being instrumental in getting The Bar-Kays signed with Stax.

Alexander explained, “The original band consisted of Jimmie King (guitar), Ronnie Caldwell (Hammond B3 electric organ), Ben Cauley (trumpet), Phalon Jones (saxophone), Carl Cunningham (drums) and me (bass). We signed with Stax Records in 1967 as a recording act and as an alternative studio session band for when Booker T. and the MG’s were unavailable. And even though they were young at the time themselves, Booker T. and the MG’s were our mentors. We were headed up the charts and had secured the spot as back-up band for the legendary Otis Redding on his American tour.”

However, that trip ended in a tragic finale. Otis Redding and four members of The Bar-Kays perished in a plane crash. 

“The only reason I’m still here is because there had not been enough room on that plane and it was my turn to fly separately,” said Alexander. “After the crash, Ben Cauley, the sole survivor among those who were aboard the downed plane, worked with me to reform the band. Subsequently, the Bar-Kays’ work was featured on the soundtrack recording of the Academy Award-winning theme song from the 1971 feature film, ‘Shaft’ — with me playing bass guitar.”

As of 2010, Alexander is the only original member still alive in the still-active Bar-Kays. The group continues with an influx of new members, including a new lead singer, Chris J. The band travels the world, continuing to chart their musical legacy with a soulful purpose. 


STREETSEEN  |  Karen Bottle Capps

Photo by Steve Roberts

Karen Bottle Capps: Creative Collages are her Brand of Art

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

Karen Bottle Capps grew up surrounded by several generations of her family in a small community just outside of Hot Springs, AR. Each relative had his or her own influence on Capps' life and her distinctive form of art. “My paternal grandfather made wood carvings and carved puppets out of wood,” recalled Capps. “My mother’s father was a welder and was very creative. And my father built underground structures out of rock and was good at landscaping. My mother made quilts and crocheted.”

Capps continued, ”It was my maternal grandmother who taught me to be aware of nature. We’d go fishing every chance we got.” Growing up in a rural setting, Capps and her siblings were able to roam the land, which included numerous trips to the local dump. For Capps, this was a wonderland where trash could be transformed into treasures.

“I began making object collages with the odds and ends I found,” said Capps. “It might not have been ‘art’ in the strictest sense of the word, but it was the springboard to my being an artist today. My mother supported my creative side, taking me to art lessons with a watercolorist in Hot Springs. There I learned about color and composition and how to use the different brushes. I’m still very grateful for those lessons.”

Capps discovered early on that art was her passion. That calling that led her to Memphis in the mid-1980s when she enrolled as a student at the Memphis College of Art. “I was a print-making major, but I only completed three semesters,” said Capps. “With no financial backing, I had to leave school and go to work.”

Capps worked in screen-printing for a variety of companies in Memphis, including Nike, which produced 1 million prints per month. The experience is still a component of the work she produces today, often utilizing painting and screen-printed backgrounds. Although her main interest was making collages, she “had to let it slide while trying to make a living.”

However, in 1999 Capps began working on collages again and took on the name Karen Bottle Capps. “I started making collages that featured cars with blues artists in them, pairing the model of the car with the year of the musician’s biggest hit,” explained Capps. “Then I branched out into house portraits. To personalize these collages, I would ask people to bring me things from their junk drawers — items they hung onto because they couldn’t bear to throw them away. Some of those objects included keys, broken pieces of jewelry, etc.”

When asked where she now finds most of the objects for her collages, Capps said that she is still drawn to places on the river. Favorite items include river glass, rusty nails, vintage toys, cigarette lighters, shotgun shells and, of course, bottle caps — the item for which she is most noted.

“McKellar Lake, and areas off Norris Road yield consistent finds,” said Capps. “And I like to kayak waterways and backwater areas. Going to those places reminds me of the time I spent fishing with my grandmother. She was the one responsible for my love of nature and my love of bright colors. In fact, I feel like she still lives on through my art.”

Capps’ upbringing is reflected in her work today, with her images of fish, chickens and pigs, as well as vintage cars and old houses. You can also sense the influences of other regional artists like Carroll Cloar. “My work has roots in aspects of the Southern experience, with much of it drawing on my childhood spent in the wilds of Arkansas,” said Capps. “And my environment continues to influence my work. I live in the colorful Cooper-Young neighborhood where I have a studio and a screen-printing work space.”

To see more art by Karen Bottle Capps, visit karenbottlecapps.com.