Celebrating the life of the late, great Stax Records maestro
Stax Records was in a bind in 1968. They’d lost one of their star artists — Otis Redding– in a plane crash at the end of the previous year.
Just over six months later, the label, which had only been in existence for a little over a decade, had its distribution deal with Atlantic terminated.
Not only did Stax suddenly have no rights to its back catalogue, it also lost another one of its big acts — Sam & Dave, who were actually signed to Atlantic even though their music came out on Stax.
Al Bell, then running the label, knew one thing for sure — Stax needed a new catalogue. And so he directed massive amounts of recording take place — 27 albums in the coming year.
Isaac Hayes, who would have been 80 today, was known more as a writer, producer and musician at that point.
Sam & Dave’s hits were basically the product of Hayes and his songwriting partner Dave Porter, who’d pushed for him to be added as a writer for the label years before.
Hayes had put out an album the year before — Presenting Isaac Hayes — that was more of an accident. He had been wanting to do a record. One night he and bassist Duck Dunn snuck away with some champagne that was for someone’s birthday at the Stax offices. The two were drunk when Bell asked if he wanted to do the album right then. Hayes, feeling no pain, said “Sure.”
He and the other musicians — Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr. didn’t have any material prepared. The whole affair was improvised.
About three weeks after the session told Hayes he had an appointment with a photographer for the album cover. Hayes’ immediate response? “You’re kidding.”
Now, a year later, Bell needed material. And Hayes had leverage.
According to Hayes, in the 1994 documentary Soul of Stax, the exchange went like this —
Hayes: “What about me?’ Can I do an album?”
Hayes: “Can I do it the way I want to do it?”
Bell: “You’ve got carte blanche. However you want to do it.”
The resulting album would be 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul, the hit that estabished Hayes as an innovator as well as a star in his own right.
While Stax would go on to be plagued with bad luck that would kill the label by 1975 (a terrible deal with CBS Records being the ultimately fatal blow), Hayes would be its star with a series of influential hit albums over a five-year span.
Hayes doing it the way he wanted to do it meant songs about love and lust, often doing covers stretched way past their original length.
It was nearly all about the emotions of love, intercourse and the foreplay in between: Man lustily eyes woman and wants to make sweet, sweet love. Man feels bad about wanting a friend’s woman, but not so bad that he won’t make sweet, sweet love. Man sad about woman making sweet, sweet love to other men. Man finds woman, man loses woman, woman finds man, man remembers woman, woman dies in tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Okay, the latter didn’t happen, but it if had, Hayes would have talked about it for at least five minutes to kick off the song.
For his success as a songwriter before Hot Buttered Soul, his writing skills took a backseat with the run. It was Isaac Hayes, producer and arranger, who took the wheel, effectively making many of the covers feel like Hayes originals.
He could go full-blown cinematic, with strings bursting forth. Or he could keep it Memphis bar funky. And his smooth, commanding voice kept it all supremely soulful.
In contrast to a lot of artists at the time, Hayes’ wasn’t as political in song, mostly sticking to explorations of matters of the heart and groin. But it’s not as if Hayes didn’t make a statement. Here was a young Black man, yet to turn 30, who grew up in poverty in Memphis, now with full creative control.
Offstage and out of the studio, he worked to register Black voters and set up a community food bank. He also co-founded the Black Knights, a community organization that fought agains things that, sadly, are still concerns over 50 years later — police brutality and discrimination in employment and housing.
In October 1971, police officers beat teenager Elton Hayes (no relation) to death with repeated blows to the head after a chase , then tried to claim the boy died in a “traffic accident.”
In the face of community outrage, Isaac Hayes came out to try to keep peace, if for no other reason than protecting others from meeting Elton Hayes’ fate. He said in Rob Bowman’s 1997 book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, “They [the police] were trying to provoke Blacks into doing something so they could shoot them like dogs.”
The peace held and two years later, in completely unsurprising fashion, an all-white jury acquitted Elton Hayes’ killers.
A Christian at the time as well as a man who wanted to stay humble, he balked a bit at Black Moses’ title and packaging (the album unfolded in the shape of a cross). But his view changed with time, saying in Bowman’s book, “Black men could finally stand up and be men because here’s Black Moses; he’s the epitome of black masculinity. Chains that once represented bondage and slavery now can be a sign of power and strength and sexuality and virility.”
That empowered image was on full display on the cover of Hot Buttered Soul, with Hayes’ shaved head predominant, looking down with the trademark shades and chains, shirtless as a matter of practicality (stage suits were hot) as aesthetics.
The contents within made their own strong statement.
The style had its origins onstage. Hayes really connected with the emotions of Glen Campbell’s hit with Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” after hearing it on the radio. Others in the Stax studios when he arrived there didn’t feel the same connection.
The Bar-Kays were doing a show that night and invited Hayes to sit in. He asked them if they could pick up the song to play it that night. They could.
Hayes wanted the club audience to feel the heartbreak he felt in the song. He told the band to just stay on the opening note and he’d cue them with the changes.
He started a long rap, much the same as what appeared on the album (“There’s a deep meaning to this tune because it shows you what the power of love can do/Now I should attempt it to do it my way, my own interpretation of it/Like I said, everybody’s got it’s own thing/I’m gonna bring it on down to Soulsville/Now I want you to bear along with me for a few minutes while I set it up”).
Hayes noticed that about halfway through his rap, the audience started to get quiet and by the end of it, they were in rapt attention. When he started singing “By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising”, he got a huge reaction from the audience.
The next night, the Bar-Kays were playing a club with a much whiter audience. Hayes did the song the same way again, drawing the same positive reaction.
And when I say “stretched”, I mean it. Campbell’s hit clocked in at 2:44. Hayes’ intro rap alone went over eight minutes. He proceeds to wring even more emotion out of the evocative original by outlining the stakes, all to backing that marries orchestral strings with a rhtyhmic soul underpinning. It all builds to an extended outro where the horns, piano and organ become more insistent as Hayes informs the woman who repeatedly wronged him that she wouldn’t get to take advantage again.
It was the dramatic closer matched by an equally dramatic start.
Hayes was a fan of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s songs with Dionne Warwick. Here, her 1964 hit “Walk On By” gets the dramatic treatment.
The opening sounds almost Biblical, the strings, choral vocals and wah-guitar heralding something new. The emotions under the surface of the original are put front and center, first over a soft funk groove with fuzzy guitar before building to an extended outro that pulls from gospel as much as Hollywood.
The one song that isn’t a cover — “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” is unapolagetically groovy funk with Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander and drummer Willie Hall fully locked in. It’s also a tour through the dictionary — modus operandi, medulla oblongata and phalanges (the latter rhyming with “squeeze”, well played, sir).
The Isaac Hayes Movement holds to the four songs with the two longest at front and back structure. Here, he starts the album with the long rap, turning Jerry Butler’s “I Stand Accused” into an agonized come-on as he badly wants another man’s woman while actually making one feel the guilt and pain his desire’s causing him.
The final track replaces awkward lust with deep love, as he turns the Beatles’ “Something” into a gorgeously orchestral (woodwinds here, John Blair’s terrific violin solo there) and soulful ode to devotion. In between, he dips into the Bacharach/David well again for a lovely cover of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” that underscores his skill at keeping the arrangements tasteful without dissolving into saccharine.
1970’s …To Be Continued’s Bacharach/David selection is a languid run through “The Look of Love”, preceded by a shorter, lovely cover of Ruby & The Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come.”
The centerpiece, though, is “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” with the instrumental “Ike’s Mood” as a lead-in, replacing the Wall of Sound production of the original with the by-now trademark blend of lush arrangements underpinned by a soulful groove. It might not be as definitive as “Look of Love”, but it’s a masterful breakdown and expansion of the original.
The Shaft soundtrack was birthed out of some quick work in Los Angeles. When Hayes and the rest of the musicians showed up in New York, they were asked where the charts were.
“Charts? What charts?”
The band had the music down by memory and recorded the score that way, later adding charts when Hayes expanded things for the proper album.
The classic theme song came from Hayes watching footage of the film’s opening where Richard Roundtree, as the titular character, walks through Manhattan. He had the rhythm pop into his head fairly quickly, including the instantly-recognizable hi-hat and guitar– the latter being a line Hayes hadn’t used in a song yet, only played with wah-wah.
The iconic lyrics –“Who’s the cat who won’t cop out/When there’s danger all about?”, “They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother-/(Shut your mouth!)”, etc. came later. It was destined to be remembered in pop culture for decades. There were multiple parodic references including, it could be argued, future Shaft film themes (“He’s cool dude and trouble’s his food” from O.C. Smith’s “Blowin’ Your Mind” from the following year’s Shaft’s Big Score).
The song would net him an Oscar for best original song, making him only the third Black Oscar winner at the time (following Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier) and first in a non-acting category.
The soundtrack would be the biggest seller of his career, even though the bulk of it was instrumental, with only the swaying social commentary “Soulsville” (with an intro that owes a bit to Aretha’s “I Never Loved a Man”) and the funkily blistering “Do Your Thing” also featuring vocals. And even the latter was instrumental for the majority of its 19-plus minute runtime.
VIDEO: Shaft “Where You Going?” scene
The instrumental tracks act as a reel of Hayes’ career to that point, not just the avenues he’d explored since Hot Buttered Soul. In other context, pieces like “Shaft’s Cab Ride” and “Be Yourself” could have been worked into Stax hits from his days writing with Porter.
Black Moses opens with the sumptuous “Never Can Say Goodbye”, the song that feels like it was written for him even with the hit original by the Jackson 5 and future hit covers by Gloria Gaynor and the Communards.
If Shaft was the Isaac Hayes sampler platter in service of an early blaxploitation classic, Black Moses was the platter detailing the emotions with the end of his second marriage.
His version of “(They Long to Be) Close to You)” proved the song was durable to translate into passionately cool Memphis soul as well as it did as ’70s pop from a couple of white kids from Downey.
Little Johnny Taylor’s “Part Time Love” plays musically like its own blaxploitation theme with a grittier vocal. “Good Love 6-9-9-6-9”, a rare Hayes-written track and delivered with a sense of humor was as funky as he’d been since “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic”.
It being a double album, listeners got three times the raps — the abuser’s plea before “Help Me Love”, the possessive man with the love jones in “Your Love Is So Doggone Good” and the pledging intro to “A Brand New Me.”
Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” turns into a sumptious slow jam at a comparatively brief 5:22. And the pairing of Hayes’ voice with Curtis Mayfield’s songs works quite well with “Man’s Temptation” and “Need to Belong to Someone” (aided by orchestrations from long-tme collaborator Johnny Allen).
It’s hard to believe now that, initially, Hayes had a hard time getting a chance to record himself because his voice was viewed as “too smooth.” And make no mistake, he was very, very smooth. But he also had plenty of heft that carried things that could have seemed over-the-top or even kitschy in others’ hands. His confidence in his skills was not misplaced.
Joy was a rarity in the classic run with nary a cover to be found. Four of its five songs were written by Hayes.
Once again, its best moments were long tracks at the front and back. The title song is groovily sensual, no doubt a soundtrack for events that resulted in a child nine months later for more than one listener.
The final song, “I’m Gonna Make It (With You)” is delivered with a winning vulnerability that suits its lyrics better than angry defiance would.
Things weren’t going as well for Stax, and thus between the label and Hayes. That and the sheer pace he’d been working at led to a slowdown.
It didn’t take long for others working Hayes’ turf to be felt. Barry White filled the void with his own brand of lushly orchestrated loverman soul with a number of classic hit singles.
While Hayes would influence a number of artists from the ’70s into the ’80s, that influence moved beyond singers. He was sampled early and often by rappers and producers who grew up on his prime work.
Hayes was Stax’s best selling artist, but eventually had to sue the label. Unable to pay him royalties, they had to release him from his contract. The label continued to hemorrhage acts before finally collapsings.
Hayes moved on to ABC, where he had one more successful album under his new imprint, also called Hot Buttered Soul. But he was unable to maintain the momentum from 1975’s Chocolate Chip (which had boasted the discofied funk of the title track and the ballad “Come Live With Me”, which should have come with a complimentary fireplace and bottle of champagne.
Audience tastes were changing, with disco more of a factor. The rest of Hayes’ 70s output often tried balance disco material with the latest iteration of the slow jam lover man formula, even resulting in a stretched out (with spoken word intro) Billy Joel cover at one point.
Hayes had always wanted to act (agreeing initially to do the Shaft soundtrack if he got an audition for the lead role — which never happened). With his acting career, he recorded less frequently. He only put out one album of new material in his final 20 years –1995’s Branded. Even with two of its 11 tracks being new versions of old songs, it was his best album in years. Sadly, it didn’t kick off a late-career rebirth, but it was a definite reminder of how why he mattered in the first place.
Instead, Hayes became most well-known in his later years as the voice of Chef on South Park, parodying his lusty ’70s persona, even getting a No. 1 hit in the U.K. with the novelty “Chocolate Salty Balls.”
VIDEO: Chef’s “Chocolate Salty Balls”
The show brought him a new audience, but it could feel odd. The one time I saw Hayes live (at Summerfest in Milwaukee), in a set otherwise full of classics, there he was at the keys. Here was Black Moses needing a crib sheet to sing lines like “Say everybody have you seen my balls/They’re big and salty and brown!!/If you ever need em’ quick, pick me up/Just stick my balls in your mouth!”
Hayes suffered his first stroke in 2006, then left South Park the following year over an episode that went after Scientology, which he had converted to. A second stroke in 2008 claimed his life.
It was a sad end for someone whose very vitality had turned him into a creative force of nature who, when he got the opportunity, became an innovator.
For all its wounds, some self-inflicted, some not, Stax managed a lot of memorable music in its short existence. The label’s losses of 1967 and 1968 would result in some wonderful gains — Johnnie Taylor, the Staple Singers and, above all, Isaac Hayes — the living embodiment of the Soul Man.