Ultimate Isaac Hayes (Can You Dig It?)
Hayes's story is one of epic proportions. In the mid- to late 1960s Isaac, and his songwriting and producing partner David Porter, played a seminal role in creating the nascent sound of soul music, writing and producing such genre-defining records as Sam and Dave's "Soul Man," "Hold On I'm Comin'," "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," "Wrap It Up," and "I Thank You." In their spare time, the dynamic songwriting duo also penned hits for Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Ruby Johnson, the Soul Children, and Mable John. As a session man, Isaac played on dozens of additional hits. His songwriting, production, and session work alone would make Hayes worthy of any music hall of fame that one could possibly name.
Yet, as monumental as his contributions were in this first part of his career, they are dwarfed by the impact of his solo albums such as Hot Buttered Soul, Shaft, and Black Moses. With these records Hayes would become the biggest artist Stax ever produced and one of the most important artists in the history of rhythm and blues. From 1969 through 1975, he single-handedly redefined the sonic possibilities of black music, in the process opening up the album market as a commercially viable medium for black artists. The fact that one musician could be responsible for such disparate but equally great and influential music as Hayes produced in the 1960s and '70s simply boggles the imagination.
Hayes was born in Covington, Tennessee in 1942. By the time he came to Stax he had been singing or playing the piano in various bands around Memphis for a number of years, cutting his first single for Chips Moman's Youngstown label in late 1962. His first session at Stax was as the keyboardist in baritone saxophonist Floyd Newman's band in 1963. Impressed by Hayes's playing, Stax owner Jim Stewart began booking him for sessions while the company's regular keyboard player, Booker T. Jones, was off at college. Within two years Hayes had hooked up with David Porter and embarked on a writing and producing career.
As Isaac was becoming successful behind the scenes, he still entertained thoughts of a career as a performing artist. Stax executive Al Bell had similar ideas. "As a marketer I'd look at Isaac Hayes," mused Bell, "and [I'd] see him banging on the piano and [I] watched his approach which, in terms of the way he held his hands, was sort of like the kind of stuff I would see those guys playing in the country and western bars, what I would see on television. Isaac looked like one of those guys [but] black. When he was working up material with Porter, I'd sit around and watch him writing. To me, he was a unique person. He had the bald head and he would come in with a purple shirt on and some pink pants and some lavender socks and some white shoes. There was this little club where I went one time and Isaac was in there playing on the organ and I decided, 'I've got to record this guy. I believe we can have us a huge, huge artist.'"
Hayes was initially a little reluctant but Bell finally coaxed him into the studio in January 1968 after a company party, accompaniment being provided by Al Jackson on drums and Duck Dunn on bass. According to both Bell and Hayes, all three musicians had imbibed at the party and were more than a little drunk. Not surprisingly, Isaac feels that the session did not capture him at his finest. Given that he had not planned to cut an album, no material had been prepared before the impromptu session. Instead the three musicians improvised as the tape rolled. The resulting album was entitled Presenting Isaac Hayes, its lead single, "Precious, Precious," being edited down from an 18-minute jazz-tinged funk vamp.
Both album and single sold poorly and that might have been the end of Hayes's solo career if fate had not intervened when Stax lost its complete back catalog upon severing its distribution deal with Atlantic Records in May 1968. In an audacious move, Al Bell decided in early 1969 to generate an instant back catalog by releasing 27 albums and 30 singles at once. To amass this amount of product, Bell had every one of the company's artists record new material and prevailed on session musicians, writers, and producers such as Steve Cropper and Isaac Hayes to record solo albums.
After the disappointment of Presenting Isaac Hayes, Isaac would agree to cut another album only if he had complete control.
"When I did Hot Buttered Soul," Hayes reflects, "I didn't give a damn if it didn't sell because I was going for the true artistic side, rather than looking at it for monetary value. I had an opportunity to express myself no holds barred, no restrictions, and that's why I did it. I took artistic and creative liberties. I felt what I had to say couldn't be said in two minutes and 30 seconds. So I just stretched [the songs] out and milked them for everything they were worth. I didn't feel any pressure that it had to sell because there were 26 other albums out there."
Only four songs were cut: an 18-minute version of Glen Campbell's Jimmy Webb–penned 1967 hit "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," a 12-minute version of Dionne Warwick's Burt Bacharach and Hal David–authored "Walk on By," a nine-minute Hayes original that Al Bell called "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic," and a relatively short five-minute take on Memphis songwriters Charlie Chalmers and Sandy Rhodes's "One Woman." The length of the songs, the arrangements, the long rap that preceded "Phoenix," and Hayes's vocal style were all radically different from what was going on in mainstream R&B at the time.
It surprised many that the man who had cowritten such incendiary pieces of gospel-inspired soul as "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Comin'" would record an album three-quarters of which he didn't write, and half of which were white pop tunes. It was quite a radical move.
"What it was, was the real me," proclaims Hayes. "I mean, OK, the real me had written those other songs ['Soul Man,' 'Hold On I'm Comin',' etc.], but they were being written for other people. As for me wanting to express myself as an artist, that's what Hot Buttered Soul was. Although I was a songwriter, there were some songs that I loved, that really touched me. Came the opportunity, I wanted to record these tunes. I wanted to do them the way that I wanted to do them. I took them apart, dissected them, and put them back together and made them my personal tunes. I took creative license to do that. By doing them my way, it almost made them like totally different songs all over again."
No 45s were originally envisioned for Hot Buttered Soul, and none were scheduled amongst the 30 singles that were released at the Stax sales meetings in the spring of 1969. Instead, Al Bell had planned to try and break the record as an album in Los Angeles, but to his surprise it was broken in Detroit by jazz disc jockey Sonny Carter on station WGPR-FM.
After Carter began spinning the disc, the reaction to Hot Buttered Soul in Detroit was so strong and instantaneous that Bell immediately realized that the record was potentially a gold mine. Isaac claims, "We were getting reports about people in Detroit burglarizing record shops and the only thing they'd take out was Hot Buttered Soul. That's making a statement!"
Intent on capitalizing on the album's success, Stax engineer Ronnie Capone quickly edited "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Walk on By" for single release. "Phoenix" appears here in its edited form while "Walk on By" appears in its full-length album version. Both songs combine aspects of jazz improvisation, classically-influenced string arrangements, rock guitar, ballad singing, and R&B rhythm.
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Q&A Part 1 (Live on the Honda Stage at the iHeartRadio Theater LA)