It's just after 9 o'clock on a balmy Thursday night, and the View Sports Bar & Grill located inside the Executive Inn, near the runways of Memphis International Airport, is beginning to fill up with regulars. The space, run by Indian immigrant Satinder Sharma, an avowed soul-music fan, has a unique décor: fake street lamps, a mirrored ceiling panel, and decorations from last year's New Year's Eve celebration on the wall.
Outside, the Lil' Howlin' Wolf tour bus sits idle, near a portable sign that directs highway sinners toward the Sunday church services offered at the hotel. Inside, Ben Cauley and his eponymous revue tear through a chitlin-circuit take on B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone," the panes of glass pulsing with the onslaught of sound bending off the dropped ceiling's perfect acoustics. Cauley — the only survivor of the 1967 plane crash that killed the majority of his fellow bandmates, the Bar-Kays, and their mentor, soul legend Otis Redding — stands front and center, looking sharp in a black suit and matching felt fedora. Behind him, in the bar's bay window, a loose amalgamation of musicians, which grows exponentially as the night rolls on, rip through a heart-stopping set of blues standards and slinky R&B.
By 11 p.m., Cauley has stripped off his coat and rolled up his shirtsleeves. Sweat pours down his face as he works to appease the female booty dancers in front of the stage. A man from the audience sings an earthy rendition of "I Stand Accused," and a harmonica player bounces up for an agile run through Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic." He's followed by regional soul-blues star Booker Brown, who rips through a pair of Stax anthems, Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" and Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose." The latter, of course, was one of the Big O's greatest songs, and it's incredible to witness Cauley's performance as he plays with an integrated band that spans three generations.
This is the current state of Memphis soul — an update on the heady 1960s, when footloose white teenagers would head across downtown's mile-long bridge to hear black musicians at clubs like the Plantation Inn, located on the wild Arkansas side of the Mississippi River.
Wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, guitarist Cory Bickham, a Baton Rouge native who also mans the hotel's front desk, bristles with energy as he backs his idols with stinging electric riffs. "I'm just a white boy trying to keep up with these legends," he says.
And the legends keep showing up. Stax session player (and Blues Brothers percussionist) Willie Hall is here, along with Brown and juke-joint drummer Don Valentine. Baby-voiced singer Carla Thomas has been known to show up and spend the evening crooning into the microphone, keeping the crowd on its feet all night long. Gene Mason — who managed Stax artists such as the Bar-Kays and William Bell and who owned numerous Memphis nightclubs — plans to bolster the summer's entertainment schedule with out-of-town acts, including Atlanta soul man Harvey Scales.
For now, there's plenty of live music to choose from: Joyce Henderson and Booker Brown perform on Mondays, Willie Covington and Willie Hall on Tuesdays, the Ben Cauley Revue on Thursdays, the Total Package Band on Fridays, and Don Valentine and the Hollywood All-Stars on Sundays. (Wednesday is a DJ night, while on Saturdays, the facility is rented out for private parties.)
Showtime is 8 p.m.; admission is $5.
The View Sports Bar & Grill is located inside the Executive Inn at 3222 Airways Blvd. For more information, call 332-3800.