A look back at the rebirth of Isaac Hayes
“I felt like what I wanted to say, I couldn’t say it in no two minutes and 30 seconds, because I wanted to speak through the arrangement, I wanted to speak through singing, I wanted to speak through actual monologue. I cut that record with all the freedom in the world and it was a beautiful release for me.” – Isaac Hayes on Hot Buttered Soul (Rolling Stone, 1972)
At the dawn of 1969, Isaac Hayes had every right to rest on his laurels. After all, he and David Porter had written many songs for stars like Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas and Sam & Dave, with more than a dozen hitting the top 20 in a mere two year span. He had made a name as a excellent player and producer, one of the finest proponents of the Memphis sound. If he had done nothing beyond that, he would still have “Soul Man,” subsequently honored by the Grammy Hall of Fame as one of the 50 most “influential” songs of the last 50 years and similarly recognized by Rolling Stone and the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And “As Long As I’ve Got You” by The Charmels might be even more influential!
But there was a restlessness to Hayes. After all, this was a man who started singing in church at age five and who had taught himself numerous instruments before graduating high school. He had turned down scholarships to college, offered on the basis of his musical prowess, choosing instead to support his family as a meat packer and continue his education in the juke joints of Tennessee. The first album released under his name, an uncharacteristic jazz trio recording called Presenting Isaac Hayes, had come out in 1968 when it could afford to fail. And it did.
But it’s hard to imagine the well-organized musical mind of Isaac Hayes, which to that time was known to favor drama, dynamics, rhythm, and concision, being particularly happy with ithe meandering and somewhat monotonous style of Presenting…. He even looks uncomfortable on the cover, hiding behind a ludicrous top hat and looking like he was just passing through the studio when the photographer snapped the shot. In 1972, he told Rolling Stone: “Well, I wasn’t satisfied with it, I didn’t think they were going to release it ’cause at that time I wasn’t in full control of my mental and spiritual facilities because I was under the influence of alcohol.”
A crisis had been brewing at Stax due to a distribution deal they had made with Atlantic. The deal had infused cash into the label when they needed it, but it also had an expiration date, which when it hit drained away not only a steadily selling back catalog, but also took Sam & Dave with it. Around the same time, true tragedy struck when Otis Redding’s plane hit those icy waters, killing him and four members of the Bar-Kays, who, in addition to their road duties, provided instrumental backing on many great songs.
With the edifice of Stax crumbling around their ears, leaders Al Bell, Jim Stewart, and Estelle Axton came up with a plan to save the label. It would require all hands on deck to work on releasing a plethora of albums throughout 1969 in what they called the “Soul Explosion.” Naturally, Hayes was heavily involved with many of these releases, writing, arranging, and pitching in however he could. But when it came time for him to contribute his own collection, Hayes took one of the great left turns in music history. I’m talking Dylan goes electric great, Bowie does Ziggy great, Grace Jones goes to Nassau great. Instead of doing the expected, which might have been to write and perform a dozen songs, maybe half of them tight, punchy get-the-girl songs, and the other half dreamy I-lost-my-woman songs, he cooked up a slab of epic wax he cheekily titled Hot Buttered Soul.
The album was released 50 years ago this month and the average record buyer would have already known something new was going on even before they got it home to their turntable. First there’s the cover photo, a revolutionary expression of “Black Is Beautiful,” with Ike’s bald pate front and center, breaking all the rules of portraiture. Photographer Bob Smith must have stood on a small ladder to get above Hayes, who looks lost in thought, his massive gold chain catching the light. Flipping the album over, the buyer would have noted only four tracks, and two of them were very familiar titles. The first was Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By,” originally made a hit by Dionne Warwick in 1964. The second was Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” a chart smash by Glenn Campbell In 1967. Standing at the checkout, our fictional buyer’s mind must have boggled when he saw the numbers to the left of the names: twelve minutes for the first and eighteen for the second–crazy Pink Floyd and Miles Davis lengths, not something you would have seen on a funk/soul record up to that time.
Before exploring what went on in those songs and the other two on Hot Buttered Soul, a quick look at how it was made. Hayes laid down the basic tracks at Memphis’ storied Ardent Studios with a small team of Stax veterans: Marvell Thomas on keyboards, Michael Toles on guitar, James Alexander on bass, and Willie Hall on drums. The latter three were the rhythm section of the Bar-Kays as they were reconstituted after the plane crash. Thomas, son of Rufus and brother of Carla, wore many hats at the label as a writer, producer, and player.
Toles, Alexander and Hall were all still in their teens but had been playing in clubs with Hayes for a couple of years, developing a telepathic interplay. Hayes led the band from the Hammond organ or piano, singing live in the studio, accompanied by two or three uncredited backup singers (probably including – or at least arranged by – Pat Lewis and Sandra Chalmers). When the tracks were done, Stax producer Don Davis took them back to his hometown of Detroit and worked with Johnny Allen, an arranger whose career went back to the supper clubs of the 1940’s, to add horn and string arrangements.
AUDIO: The Bar-Kays “Gotta Groove”
According to many people who played with him, Hayes’ methods were highly intuitive, often engaging in long sessions until he heard what he wanted, which makes it somewhat unlikely that he just handed off the strings and horns to Allen. Whichever cook was responsible for the sweetening, those orchestrations are the first thing you hear on “Walk On By,” sweeping strings building and building over the rhythm section, the cellos and basses coming to a crashing halt nearly one minute into the song. Then we hear the wild card: a serrated guitar line played by Harold Beane, who was a late addition to the sessions. Beane had played with the Bar-Kays, too, and would later go on to give us all some “Loose Booty” in Funkadelic. “He told me, ‘I want to take it out of the box,’ so I turned on the fuzz tone and turned up the tremolo,” Beane, told The New York Times a couple of years ago, “Then I took my guitar, and I slid it up and down the microphone stand. The arranger in Detroit heard that, and he matched that sound with strings.”
Beane’s spine-tingling solo lends a touch of psychodrama to what had been a fairly light pop song. But Hayes heard something different and his reinvention is no less radical than what Jimi Hendrix did with Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” When Hayes comes in with the vocal, a full two minutes later, he’s subdued, bringing an intimacy to the tale of woe: “If you see me walking down the street/And I start to cry each time we meet/Walk on by, walk on by.” His voice is restrained but the emotion is clear: he’s felt that devastation. Where Warwick had added a brightness to the chorus, almost as if she’s saying, “It’s OK, just keep going, I need to be alone,” Hayes is in a pit of despair. As the song develops, the interaction between him, the backup singers, the woodwinds, and the muted trumpets is sublime.
Not a second of the 12 minutes is wasted as the song journeys through several breakdowns and buildups. One thing that makes it work so well is the sheer power and passion of the underlying track. Listen carefully and you’ll keep picking up on virtuosic accents, whether Ike’s bluesy sparkle on the organ, Hall’s slamming drums, Alexander’s scampering bass lines, or Toles’ tidy wah wah-fueled comping. The last couple of minutes, with Beane finding endless themes and variations and Hayes putting the organ dynamically through its paces, are as thrilling as anything on the Allman Brothers Band’s Live At The Fillmore East – only funkier.
And if it’s funk you want, track two, the imaginatively titled “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” co-written by Hayes and Bell, will give you all you need and them some. No horns or strings on this one, just one of the toughest grooves of all time perpetuated by Hall, Toles, and Alexander, a brick foundation on which Hayes can build a mansion out of a slightly distorted piano. The first three minutes or so operate with traditional song structure, with a couple of verses (sing along with Ike: “Your modus operandi/Is really all right, out of sight/Your sweet phalanges/Know how to squeeze/My gastronomical stupensity/Is really satisfied when you’re loving me”), a chorus and a bridge, all aided immeasurably by the backup singers and Toles’ slashing chords. But then they just let the beat rock, with Alexander and Hall as deep in the crease as Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander on Funhouse and Ike exploring the piano’s percussive possibilities. While it’s now impossible to hear the Psycho-like crescendo at 7:15 without thinking of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” it’s easy to imagine a listener in 1969 picking up the needle to hear that part again. What a way to end Side One!
Side Two begins with reflective piano chords introducing “One Woman,” the most traditional song on Hot Buttered Soul. Written by multi-instrumentalist, singer and arranger Charles Chalmers with his wife, singer Sandra Rhodes (two thirds of Rhodes Chalmers and Rhodes, who sang backup on many songs, including classics by Al Green and O.V. Wright), the song is mainly distinguished by only being completely excellent rather than mind-blowing. With a classic Stax “torn between two lovers” narrative, a committed, nuanced performance by Hayes, and detailed arrangements for vocals and orchestra, on any other album this would be a magnum opus slow jam.
With the chorus of “One Woman” still echoing, a spare bass and cymbal duet opens “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” Ike’s organ burbling softly underneath, while he warms up his voice with some “mmms” and an “Oh, yeah.” Then he starts…preaching. About the power of love, how “it can make you or break you,” etc. But it’s really about the power of song, as when Hayes explains, “We shall attempt to do a tune, that is very popular, that was written by one of the great young songwriters of today. Now I don’t know what he was thinking about or what inspired him to write this tune, but it’s a deep tune, there’s a deep meaning to this tune, because it shows you what the power of what love can do.”
The rap that follows creates an entire story beyond the lyrics that Webb wrote, giving us an insight into how one of the greatest songwriters of all time interacted with the work of someone he considered a peer. The whole nine-minute introduction is a tribute to the way songs colonize our brain, making connections or illuminating things we didn’t realize we knew. Hayes also injects a bit of delta blues mythology into the song with lines like “seven times he left her, and seven times he returned.”
When the song properly starts up, Hall laying a heavy stick on the rim of his snare, horns and strings making their commentary, it’s even more satisfying than if he had just launched into it because we know these people. By releasing this story-song into the world, Ike made it all but inevitable that film soundtracks – and acting – were in his future. When the track starts to build, with Hall putting some power on the drums and Alexander riffing, Ike hitting that raspy falsetto (“he had a good heart”) the song acquires a nobility, like a medieval romance carved into a castle wall. It’s simply gorgeous. But would the world understand?
Commercially speaking, Hot Buttered Soul was a stunning success, hitting #8 on the Billboard 200 and #1 on the R&B charts, where it hung out at various positions for 69 weeks. Radio play was aided by the edited versions of “Walk On By” and “Phoenix,” released on a single that hit the Top 40, but the strong album sales showed that Ike was giving the people something that they didn’t know they needed. Stax had the big hit it needed to continue on and an era-defining template was set for future masterpieces by Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, and Marvin Gaye – not to mention Portishead and Massive Attack.
While most critics were apparently kind, there was a condescension to some, as in Robert Christgau’s clueless review where he begrudgingly admits “This album is a smash, and it may be so overstated that it has its own validity–a baroque, luscious production job over the non-singing of one half of Sam & Dave’s production-songwriting team.” Non-singing? Excuse me? Then he gives it a “C” rating. The snark continued in 1972, with a Rolling Stone feature by Timothy Crouse purporting that unlike “Soul Man” “…it is hard to hear any of that rhythm and blues magic in most of the Middle-of-the-Road music that Ike is turning out today.”
By 1979, Hot Buttered Soul must have been out of print as it gets no specific mention in the Rolling Stone Record Guide, although they claim that in his solo career, “…Hayes did gradually pick up steam by groaning long intros into truly gruesome ballads…” Nice. By 1992, Rolling Stone gave it four stars while still getting in a bit of a dig, saying Hot Buttered Soul “…must have seemed like the eccentric vanity project of a brilliant behind-the-scenes man–until it reached the pop Top Ten, anyway.” Hayes was so far outside the realm of what was expected of black musicians outside of jazz that going gold was its bid for respectability.
Even if they didn’t completely understand it, in that same edition Rolling Stone also called it “a landmark album” and nowadays it’s hard to find any mention of Hot Buttered Soul without that word attached along with four or five stars. But even if the critics had never got on board, the over 200 hip hop songs that have sampled tracks from the album speak loudly and have drawn perceptive listeners back to the original. So pull your chair up to the table and get ready for a rich and flavorful dish of Hot Buttered Soul, tasting just as fresh as it did fifty years ago.
AUDIO: Isaac Hayes Hot Buttered Soul (full expanded edition)