45 Years Ago: Isaac Hayes Changes Everything With ‘Hot Buttered Soul’
One of soul music's landmark albums almost never got made. Isaac Hayes had spent months licking his wounds over the failure of 1967's 'Presenting Isaac Hayes,' a project that was meant to hurtle him from a behind-the-scenes position at Stax Records as songwriter and producer into a long-hoped-for spotlight. Instead, it failed to chart.
Then something fortuitous happened, though it grew out of a dramatic setback for Stax. The label split with longtime partner Atlantic Records in 1968, losing the rights to every album that had ever been recorded there. Stax executive Al Bell came up with an inspired idea: Producing more than 25 albums, and some 30 singles, all at once. In so doing, Stax would have an instant back catalog from which to build anew.
That meant everyone on staff would be recording, and right away. But when Bell approached Hayes, he responded with his own bold counter-offer. Hayes would return to the studio, but unlike 'Presenting' (which had a trio of co-producers including Bell and Booker T. and the MGs members Donald "Duck" Dunn and Al Jackson Jr.), he would only do so if granted complete artistic control.
Bell, desperate to get his label-saving idea off the ground, acquiesced. And something unexpected happened. Whereas Hayes had arrived for the 'Presenting' sessions without prepared material, leading to a series of improvised jams, this time he boasted a clear sense of direction -- both in terms of the music and the production style. The results might not be as well known as 'Shaft' or 'Black Moses,' Hayes' masterwork, but they definitively blew apart the manufactured conformity that Motown had made the industry standard.
He'd learned an important lesson along the way after entering those debut sessions with an eye toward celebrating a childhood passion for improvisation. Hayes exited with a very adult sense of what worked in the contemporary marketplace.
"My heart is jazz, and I'm a hopeless romantic," Hayes admitted during an April 2001 appearance at Chicago's Symphony Hall. "I was in a talent contest in high school singing 'Looking Back' by Nat King Cole. I was just a raggedy kid, and I won the contest, and all the girls said, 'I want your autograph.' I was going to be a doctor, but that's when I said to myself, 'Hey, there's gonna be a change of course here.'"
After an initial stumble, that course was set forever with 'Hot Buttered Soul.' Hayes illustrated that he knew no bounds, both in terms of source material or song length. And his inspired band (as witty as they were talented) matched him stride for funky stride. His music, beginning right here, would build in the same way his career did -- from determined quietude to striking plateaus. "Just, you know, you can't put bread in a cold oven," Hayes told NPR in 2008. "You know, you've got to take your time; you've got to heat it up. So that's what I like to do with my music. I like to build it, and build it into a maddening, exciting crescendo."
Not that Hayes could necessarily articulate this grand plan, at least not at first. Really, he always had an almost indescribable knack. Then, the world eventually caught up. "I knew nothing about the business, or trends and things like that," he said in a 1999 interview with the Associated Press. "I think it was a matter of timing. I didn't know what was unfolding."
Born dirt poor on Aug. 20, 1942, in Covington, Tenn., Hayes would move approximately 40 miles north to Memphis as a youngster, and teach himself music. He arrived at Stax in 1964, to serve as a backup pianist, having worked for a time at a local meatpacking plant. Later, he played sessions, notably with Otis Redding. He'd also contribute sax, indicative again of his youthful love of jazz. Hayes' star finally began to rise when he turned to songwriting, establishing a successful partnership with David Porter that led to a series of Sam and Dave hits including 'Soul Man,' 'Hold On, I'm Coming' and 'I Thank You.'
'Hot Buttered Soul' would be dominated by two broadly extended cover tunes, the album-opening, 12-minute 'Walk on By' from those unlikely popsters Burt Bacharach and Hal David; and the album-closing, nearly 19-minute 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' -- an even more unlikely country classic from Jimmy Webb, completed with a lengthy monologue that seems to presage rap.
In between, Hayes quickly sets forth the canny blend of personas that would define him for decades to come, offering hard-eyed grooves and lover-man lasciviousness on 'Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic' and 'One Woman.' Even on those comparably short excursions, Hayes and his band the Bar-Kays continued setting new standards for the way soul music would be approached in the coming decade.
"I felt what I had to say musically could not be said in two minutes and thirty seconds," Hayes told the Athens Banner-Herald in 2005. "So I did my thing. If it was a hit, great. But I just did what I wanted creatively."
Hayes also introduced a sweeping orchestral feel to his music, with the help of Detroit arranger Johnny Allen. "I'd been hearing things in my head for a long time, but I'd been restricted," Hayes added. "Now I did what I felt. When I had the opportunity to do my own thing, that's when I thought about strings and different chords."
Generations, both near and far, were changed forever. To begin with, it's not unfair to say that Hayes helped save Stax, as the triple-platinum 'Hot Buttered Soul' reached the top of both the R&B and jazz charts after its Sept. 23, 1969 release.
Four out of Hayes' next five albums would find similar success, with only 1973's 'Joy' finishing at No. 2 on the R&B list. Without him, we might never have heard the Staple Singers' early-'70s shift from gospel to R&B on Stax and the ageless fun of Rufus Thomas' 1970 smash 'Do the Funky Chicken,' to say nothing of the era-defining Wattstax concert in 1972.
Stax would falter and eventually go under anyway in 1975, but by then Hayes' legend had long been set. In years to come, 'Walk On By' would be widely sampled -- with notable examples including Notorious B.I.G. and Wu-Tang Clan.
'Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,' meanwhile, became a key element of Public Enemy's 'Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.' "The rappers have gone in and created a lot of hit music based upon my influence," Hayes told the AP. "And they'll tell you if you ask."