Tiggerlion on Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes
The fortunes of Isaac Hayes and Stax Records in Memphis are inextricably linked. He first auditioned for the newly-named label in 1961 and covered on keyboards for Booker T. Jones in The M.G.s when Jones was away completing his university studies. By the mid sixties, Stax’s imperial phase, he’d teamed up with David Porter to write and produce a host of hit records, most notably Soul Man and Hold On (I’m Coming) for Sam & Dave, an act loaned to the label by Atlantic.
In December 1967, Stax’s star man, Otis Redding, died in a plane clash, an accident that also claimed the lives of most of his backing band, The Bar-Kays, too. In early 1968, the agreement with Atlantic fell apart and Atlantic took Stax’s back catalogue with them, as well as acts like Sam & Dave. Memphis, the city, was also in crisis with a sanitation workers’ strike, a stand-off with the authorities led by a white, racist mayor, the murder of Martin Luther King in a Memphis motel and the rise of black power threatening the balance of mixed race there was in the company.
Stax’s future looked bleak but Al Bell, the newly appointed Vice President, launched an initiative to release a slew of singles and twenty-seven albums within a twelve month period to effectively replace the lost back catalogue. He put all four M.G.s, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald Dunn and Al Jackson, plus Hayes and Porter on a weekly salary, freeing up their time to concentrate on this Herculean task and set about writing for and recording acts himself.
It was against this background of rejuvenation in the face of adversity that Isaac Hayes created Hot Buttered Soul, redefining the Soul Music Album as he did so, realising sales of over a million copies, rescuing the label in the process and becoming a huge star in his own right. Hayes knew he had complete creative freedom, that whatever he came up with was going to be released, but his approach was so unique at that time, the real surprise was how the album resonated with the public.
Hot Buttered Soul consists of four lengthy pieces. The songs, themselves, serve only to support the performance. For a man known as a great songwriter of three minute blasts of gut-bucket soul, he chooses to write only one of the tracks. Instead, he takes a few recent big hits, composed in a classic style, and stretches, bends, moulds them into something completely different. Hayes was fond of Jazz. His first album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, released in 1968, was him playing piano in a Jazz trio with “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson. He may well have been inspired by Hard Bop in which popular tunes, like Someday My Prince Will Come, are extemporised and improvised almost beyond recognition. This time, he had more than a rhythm section at his disposal. He had a full orchestra, a horn section, backing vocalists, a rebuilt Bar-Kays an as much after-midnight studio time as he wanted. He also had the unflinching support of Marvell Thomas who co-produced and played stylish piano.
The trumpeter, Ben Cauley, was the only survivor of the plane crash that killed Otis Redding. Bassist, James Alexander, had travelled on a different plane. Ronnie Gorden was recruited to play organ, Michael Toles guitar, Willie Hall drums and percussion and Harvey Henderson saxophone. Hayes would join them when they enjoyed a lucrative residency at the local Tiki Club before he was given a salary by Al Bell. They got to know each other’s quirks and foibles. Toles’s guitar would duel with Hayes’s organ and the piano found a way to be heard behind his deep, gravelly voice. Most importantly, Alexander and Halls perfected their response to his forays into improvisation. When the red light came on in the studio, they were ready.
Hall’s double snare rap at the beginning of Walk On By, the Bacharach and David composition, is as attention-grabbing as Bobby Gregg’s on Like A Rolling Stone. Hayes plays most of his cards immediately. The bass is cool and measured, the strings hover majestically as a hawk, the backing vocalists implore Hayes to ‘walk on’ and Toles’s fuzz guitar sets the tone. Hayes deliberately invites the listener to compare and contrast with Dionne Warwick’s original. Within the first thirty seconds, Warwick’s accidental encounter in the full light of day is converted into a tense, dark drama set in the dread of night. As soon as Hayes starts to sing it is clear this a strong, muscular man, as masculine as a man can be, an impression confirmed by a glance at the cover depicting a black and proud, shining bald head filling eighty per cent of the picture, broad, naked shoulders, from which hangs an enormous gold chain, a tool of slavery recast and displayed as a trophy, filling most of the rest. His voice is deep and sonorous, as deep as Ben Webster’s saxophone. He may be singing the same words as Warwick, but he is not ashamed. He has no intention of hiding his tears at all. This is a very public display of grief and heartbreak. He is man enough, powerful enough, strong enough to expose his vulnerability. A woman has hurt him and swept along by the strings, the imploring backing vocalists, the driving rhythm section, the heart-wrenching, frenzied guitar and the demanding horns, his heart bursts from his chest, his soul is torn into splinters and he roars loud enough for the whole world to hear. Over twelve minutes of ebb, flow, escalation, decline, during which Toles excels with what amounts to a protracted solo to rank alongside the greatest in Rock, Walk On By isn’t just the story of the aftermath of a broken relationship. In Hayes’s hands, it’s a monumental story of life and love, reverberating through the ages. It’s an astonishing performance.
Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic is the one original on the LP, cowritten with the other co-producer, Al Bell. It is a complete contrast to the previous track, an improvised funk tour de force featuring a lyric dazzling with science, probably in an attempt to win over the sapiosexual audience. How many songs describe the effect of falling in love on the gastrointestinal tract, the cardiovascular system and the medulla oblongata? This time, there are no strings, no horns and no organ. Toles plays thoughtful wah-wah in the opening section when Hayes intones his mind-boggling words. After three and a half minutes, the song is finished but the rhythm section has only got started. Hayes unleashes an extended piano solo, punctuated with grunts and growls, dominated by aggressive chords, starting in the lower register, gradually spreading across the whole piano, then focussing on the high right-hand notes. Halls’s drumming is superlative, keeping the energy high, creatively varying his path through his kit and propelling Hayes to pound ever more violently on the ivories. Alexander’s bass keeps the groove rooted to the ground as it threatens to fly in the strong winds of Hayes’s imagination. Toles’s guitar returns to bring a modicum of calm for the last couple of minutes but Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic is a track that could go on for ever, one that fades only because side one of the vinyl has run out of space.
At first listen, One Woman is the most straightforward track of all. It was written by Charles Chalmers and his wife, Sandra Rhodes, who were both backing vocalists for Al Green, Charles playing sax as well. Green had recorded the original on his album, Green Is Blues, just a couple of months before Hot Buttered Soul was released. It is a song with a country flavour and a typically country theme, infidelity. The protagonist is caught on the horns of a dilemma between “the woman who’s making a home” and the other one “who’s making me do wrong”. Green, to his credit, is so conflicted he doesn’t know how to sing the song. His voice is all over the place. Hayes, on the other hand, is coolness personified, delivering his vocal in a calm, measured manner with just a little echo to add some authority. Lounging on a gentle orchestration of sound, he seems unperturbed by the admonishing backing vocals. Even when Halls and Alexander lose their patience towards the latter end of the song, Hayes sounds unmoved, as though he could easily continue living a double life for many years. Certainly, he doesn’t sound as though anyone could make him do anything, let alone “do wrong”. After a mere five minutes, the situation remains unresolved and Hayes is quite content to continue as is. The sensitive, vulnerable man in the opening Walk On By is plainly perfectly capable of being very bad.
The finale originates from The Tiki Club, when a rowdy crowd needed work to attract its attention. Over a one-note bass vamp, an organ drone and a light dusting of the ride cymbal, Hayes starts to talk, almost as if murmuring to himself. “I’m talking about the power of lurve,” catches the ear and, before long, the listener is mesmerised by the metronomic pulse and Hayes’s monologue as he observes another man’s relationship spark into life, build, then wither and die. He bears witness to his suffering. At times, Hayes becomes overwhelmed and takes a moment to moan, “Oohhhhhh!” or “Mmmmmmmh.” He composes himself by crying out, “Come on…Come on!” and he calls to a female divinity, “Oohhhhh, MAMAmamamama!” The story is full of detail: the year and make of the car, the number of times he gave her another chance, her job seeking, the number of times he turned around on the drive. Eventually, he glides effortlessly into the actual song, a genuine country song written by Jimmy Webb and originally performed by Glen Campbell, Hayes transforms the lead male into a black man from Tennessee and the song into a lifelong epic rather than a single overnight drive into the next day. By The Time I Get To Phoenix is an exercise in sustained, controlled crescendo, constantly building and growing. It is a bolero. The strings and horns were elegantly arranged by Johnnie Allen and recorded in United Sound Studios. They provide more than just an opulent sound-bed to the album. On this performance in particular, they are the impetus behind the perpetual ratcheting up of tension. The swirl of strings push our man onwards to his destination. The Roman horns proclaim the dawning of hope. Flutes demarcate the milestones along the way. Hayes’s organ is almost beside itself with excitement, held back only by Halls’s command of the rhythm. When Glen Campbell sang By The Time I Get To Phoenix he was constantly looking over his shoulder, regretting the past. Hayes, on the hand, over nineteen minutes, gets his man to work through his grief and start looking forward to a brighter future. For the last minute or two, Hot Buttered Soul ends with tranquil and reflective music, just Hayes on organ with the Bar-Kays, as though, together, they have come through an ordeal and not only survived, they have emerged stronger.
Make no mistake, Hayes loved and respected these songs. He felt he could say more with them than he could with his own tunes and he needed more time to say it. There are no radio-friendly three minute singles here. There were edited versions of Walk On By and Phoenix but they were merely teasers for the main attraction. Hot Buttered Soul can only really be listened to as an album. It refuted the commonly held, racist belief that only white artists could sustain a creative concept over a whole album, paving the way for Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic.
Hot Buttered Soul invented the Love Man, especially with the rap at the beginning of Phoenix, even though Hayes wasn’t consciously trying to be sexy. He certainly wasn’t boasting about his prowess in the bedroom. He was attractive because he was willing to express his feelings while retaining an aura of powerful masculinity. Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass and the whole of The Philadelphia International Records were to follow. Female Soul artists were equally inspired to perform their own soliloquies, artists such as Millie Jackson, Doris Duke and Shirley Brown. It inspired a host of Rap artists, Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic being sampled by the likes of Tupac, Public Enemy and Ice-T.
In 1969, Billboard renamed the R&B chart, Soul. It was as though it was creating a category specifically for Hot Buttered Soul. Besides the inevitable top place on the Soul album chart, it was also a number one Jazz album, whereas Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way only managed number forty in the Soul chart.
Isaac Hayes was born in poverty. He joined Stax early on and worked his way through the company fulfilling the roles of musician, writer, arranger, producer and artist as he went along. Hot Buttered Soul established him as the label’s biggest superstar, a position he continued to enjoy for the next five years, during which period both he and Stax flourished and became very wealthy.
Hot Buttered Soul is a triumph of musicianship, performance, masterful arrangements and, most of all, absolute faith in an artistic vision. Fifty years ago, Isaac Hayes was at the right label at the right time and was surrounded by the right people. Nevertheless, it was Isaac Hayes who was the visionary. He was, indeed, a Black Moses ushering in a new era of Black American Soul Music that continues to exert an influence today.