As someone who is a huge fan of the Stax record label, I’ve always loved the music of Isaac Hayes. He was one of the creative forces behind Stax, writing many of the songs for many artists on the label, many with David Porter, one of his songwriting partners. Not only was he a writer, but he played on many of the labels biggest hits and produced numerous singles and albums. His other role at Stax was that of solo artist, releasing six solo albums, of which Hot Buttered Soul was the second, released in June 1969. However, after the commercial failure of his debut solo album Presenting Isaac Hayes, released in 1968, Isaac’s career as a solo artist was very nearly short lived. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and from Hot Buttered Soul in 1968, until Joy in 1973, Isaac Hayes released a total of six consecutive top ten US R&B albums, the first five of which reached number one.

After Presenting Isaac Hayes failed to chart in 1967, and was a commercial failure, Isaac Hayes very nearly had one of the shortest recording careers in history. With members of Booker T and The MGs backing him, he’d recorded five songs, including two original tracks, one he wrote himself, Precious, Precious and another with David Porter You Don’t Know Like I Know. After the album’s failure, Isaac’s career looked short lived, but when Stax lost all of its back catalogue whilst trying to breakaway from Atlantic Records, this gave Isaac a chance to redeem himself. With no back catalogue to rely upon, all Stax artists were asked to record new material. This included Isaac, and what followed was one of his most successful albums, Hot Buttered Soul, the first of six hit albums.

Hot Buttered Soul was one of twenty-seven albums and thirty singles Stax released at once. Almost instantly, this gave the label a new back catalogue. The album had been recorded during the first half of 1969 at two studios, Ardent Studios in Memphis and Tera Shirma in Detroit. With The Bar-Kays backing him, Isaac recorded just four songs, two of them many people would be familiar with. One was a version of Bacharach and David’s Walk On By and the other a cover of Jimmy Webb’s By the Time I Get To Phoenix. While Isaac and The Bar Kays cut the four tracks, Isaac, Al Bell, Marvel Thomas and Allen Jones produced the album. However, this time Isaac had been granted total creative control, unlike his debut album Presenting Isaac Hayes. Al Bell agreed to this, and the four songs that were recorded demonstrated a very different side to Isaac. Not only that, but the production and engineering process was quite different, so much so, that the album influenced many other musicians, across the musical genres. From Motown, hip hop and soul, many other artists and producers were influenced by the production process on Hot Buttered Soul. This included the use of pre-delay reverberation technique which had originally been used in the late fifties at Columbia by Artie Fields. Although much of the album had been recorded in Memphis, the strings and horns were recorded in Detroit, at the United Sound Studios. Once the album was finished, it was scheduled for release in June 1969. Would it fare better than Isaac’s debut album Presenting Isaac Hayes?

When Hot Buttered Soul was released in June 1969, it was met by critical acclaim. This bode well for its release. On Hot Buttered Soul’s release, it reached number one in the US R&B Charts and number eight in the US Billboard 200. Two singles were released from the album, Walk On By with reached number thirteen in the US R&B Charts and number thirty in the US Billboard 100. This was followed by By the Time I Get To Phoenix which reached number thirty-seven in both the US R&B and US Billboard 100. However, after the success of Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac must have felt vindicated at his decision to assume creative control of his second album, and probably more than a little relieved. Little did he know this was just the start of a musical journey that saw him release five consecutive number one US R&B albums.

Isaac’s next album was the Isaac Hayes Movement released in March 1970. Like its predecessor, it reached number one in the US R&B Charts and number eight in the US Billboard 200. Later in 1970, in November, Isaac released his second album of the year To Be Continued. It too reached number one in the US R&B Charts and number eleven in the US Billboard 100. However, 1971 would see Isaac release two of his most influential and successful albums.

The first of the two album Isaac released in 1971 was the soundtrack to the classic Blaxploitation movie Shaft. This reached number one in both the US R&B and Billboard 200 charts, as well as winning four Grammy Awards and one Oscar. As if this wasn’t good enough, Black Moses was released in November 1970, reaching number one in the US R&B Charts and number ten in the US Billboard 200. However, Isaac who was a Christian, felt the title was sacrilegious, and was somewhat uncomfortable with the title. This came about when Stax executive Dino Woodward nicknamed Isaac Black Moses. Later, when writer Chester Higgins helped popularise the title, Isaac grew to like the nickname, believing it to be a badge of pride. After this hugely successful year, could Isaac keep up his run of number one albums?

Joy was released in 1973, and was the album that broke Isaac’s run of number one US R&B albums, stopping just short of top spot at number two, while reaching number sixteen in the US Billboard 200. This was also Isaac’s last album for Stax, leaving the label in September 1974. However, between 1969 and 1973, Isaac had released some of his most important and memorable work, including Hot Buttered Soul which I’ll now tell you about.

Hot Buttered Soul opens with Isaac’s cover of Bacharach and David’s Walk On By. However, when they originally wrote the song, they never expected it to be transformed like this. It’s a meandering twelve minute epic, with a Hammond organ, slow rhythm section and the lushest of strings swirling dramatically as the song opens. They give way to a searing guitar solo, before dramatically, the song is allowed to breath, a sense of spaciousness to enter. Gradually, the song builds, the searing guitar exiting before Isaac’s sad sounding rasping vocal enters, with sweet sounding backing vocalists accompany him. Again, space and drama are comfortable bedfellows, before a return of the guitar, while a flute floats high above the arrangement, and The Bar-Kays punctuate the track with bursts of drama. Later, the strings sweep in, before swirling grandly, adding to the sense of sadness and drama. Horns sit far back in the mellow sounding, meandering arrangement, as Isaac pleads “Walk On By,” accompanied by the backing vocalists. For twelve minutes this drama and emotion gradually reveals itself, growing and growing, until it reaches an impressive, dramatic crescendo, laden in emotion and sadness. With strings swirling, searing, soaring guitars and the rhythm section combining brilliantly as they lock into a groove that results in a stunning prolonged jam, where they feed off each other, you realize that this is well worth the wait. Although it’s taken over eleven minutes to get here, this makes it all worthwhile. Then, as if spent, drained of all energy and emotion, the track peaks and meanders to its fantastic finale. Wow, what a journey.

Following the stunning Walk On By, comes Hyperbolicsylabicesquedalymistic  arguably one of the longest song titles ever. What follows is very different from the previous track combining deep soul and encompassing a variety of musical genres including krautrock. As a piano gently plays as the track opens, things change drastically quickly, with The Bar-Kays launching into the funkiest of grooves. Repeatedly, they play the same groove again, but never exhausting its hugely catchy sound. Meanwhile Isaac sings the lyrics, his voice sounding gruff, while the backing vocalists provide a contrast. His still soulful voice and the funk licks laid down by the band combine perfectly, as the guitars, bass and drums head into unchartered territory. With a piano accompanying Isaac’s grunts and hollers, a repetitive groove is explored thoroughly. There’s a jazz feel and influence present, combining with the soul and funk. With the constant repetition by the band, especially Isaac’s piano playing and the rhythm section, the result is almost hypnotic, giving it a real krautrock feel. However, this sounds quite wonderful and after the nine and a half minutes when the song ends, you’re almost disappointed. You find yourself wanting the song to continue, this hypnotic groove to build and build, so good it is. Sadly, like all good things, it has to end. However, this isn’t just good, it’s stunning. Amazingly, after just two songs, side one of Hot Buttered Soul is over.

Side two of Hot Buttered Soul opens with One Woman written by Charles Chalmers and Sandra Rhodes. By the standards of this album, this is just a short song, only five minutes long. This is probably the most “traditional” sounding arrangement on the album, opening with a gentle piano combining with a slow, thoughtful bass and chiming guitars that accompany Isaac’s tender, emotive vocal. Woodwind and shivering strings enter, combining beautifully with Isaac’s vocal. Behind him, his backing vocalists subtly accompany him, but later, add to the song’s emotion and drama. As the song progresses, it builds and builds, with Isaac torn between the two women in his life. Grand strings combine with sad strings, drums and piano to take the song in a dramatic direction. This results in a combination of a moving and powerful vocal from Isaac and a beautiful, yet drama laden arrangement.

Hot Buttered Soul kept its epic track for last, with Isaac’s version of Jimmy Webb’s By the Time I Get To Phoenix an eighteen minute epic, which is stripped bare and transformed by Isaac to something quite spectacular and ultimately brilliant. With a wailing Hammond organ subtly playing and combining with hi hats while Isaac Hayes launches into his “lover man’s” rap. After nearly two minutes, he announces he’ll interpret By the Time I Get To Phoenix. His half-spoken vocal is sultry, smooth as he talks about the song, the anticipation builds, you can’t wait to hear how he’ll approach the song, what twist he’ll give it. All the time, the Hammond wails sympathetically, just one note repeatedly playing, as Isaac tells the story of a besotted man and woman who used, abused and cheated on him. He gave her everything she wanted and desired, but still she cheated on him, time after time. With just the Hammond and hi hats accompanying him, Isaac has stripped the song down to the bare bones. This works really well, is really powerful and by the time the song opens out, with swirling strings entering joining the drums and Isaac’s vocal. Woodwind enters, a piano joins the arrangement, before horns blaze in the emotion and sadness building. It’s a total transformation of Jimmy Webb’s song, turned into something quite amazing and very powerful. By now the song is laden with emotion and passion, the arrangement getting even better. Horns, lush strings and a wandering piano combine with the hugely sad, wailing Hammond as the song heads to the finish. Isaac has built up the drama and emotion, as punchy drums, braying horns, swathes of strings and a screaming Hammond all combine, before the arrangement settles down, only to rebuilds as it heads to a dramatic and dynamic crescendo.

Although Hot Buttered Soul has only four songs on the album, they’re four amazing pieces of music. With Isaac Hayes assuming creative control, he was able to drive his music in the direction he chose. This was the path he chose for his music, where he combined elements of jazz, soul, funk and even rock and what became known as krautrock. It’s a melting pot of styles and influences, that when combined, by Isaac Hayes resulted in four stunning pieces of music. That he was given the opportunity to record this album, was all down to chance. If Stax had managed to win control of their back catalogue from Atlantic, then Isaac would’ve returned to his role as songwriter, musician and producer. By a twist of fate, they lost their battle, and Isaac Hayes recorded the first of six hugely successful albums, that saw him become one of the biggest names in R&B music. After this, he’d have five consecutive number one albums, with albums like To Be Continued, Shaft and Black Moses. Once he’d left Stax in September 1974, the success he continued to regularly produce quality music, although the chart success he’d enjoyed at Stax was never repeated. In some ways, the music he recorded on Stax was the best and most successful of his career. It wouldn’t be overstating things to call this “vintage” Isaac Hayes, all of which started with Hot Buttered Soul, one of the best album Isaac recorded during his long and illustrious career. If you’ve never heard Isaac Hayes music, Hot Buttered Soul is a good starting point and any of his Stax era music will allow you to hear him at his very best: Standout Tracks: Walk On By, One Woman and By the Time I Get To Phoenix.



1 Comment

  1. Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve reviewed a couple of Isaac Hayes albums and I’m sure I’ll review more of his music. Keep checking my blog.

    Best Wishes,

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