When Isaac Hayes entered Ardent Studios in Memphis in 1969, he had the better part of a decade of experience under his belt as a hit songwriter (with long-time writing partner David Porter) and studio musician with Stax Records. Given the green light by Stax boss Al Bell to record his sophomore effort, the follow-up to his unremarkable solo debut, Presenting Isaac Hayes, nobody could have expected the result.
What Hayes delivered to the label was Hot Buttered Soul, a great leap forward in the evolution of not only soul music, but popular music altogether. Whereas pop and soul music during the 1960s had been keyed towards three-minute, radio-friendly songs; and albums were basically collections of singles and B-sides, the visionary Hot Buttered Soul offered just four songs - two per side - with not one less than five minutes, with the album's defining moment clocking in at eighteen-minutes-plus. The album was an audacious move of staggering genius that would go on to sell over a million copies and launch Isaac Hayes' career.
Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul
Hot Buttered Soul opens with Hayes' hyperbolic cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David 1960's pop classic "Walk On By." As pastoral orchestration gives way to slinky guitar riffs, the song takes on a funky rhythmic backdrop. By the time that Hayes' soulful, silken vocals take over the song has hit a steady groove that is provided further texture by the addition of Hayes' subtle (and, often, not-so-subtle) keyboard washes and Michael Toles' stinging, psychedelic-soul fretwork, which is reminiscent of what Chicago's Phil Upchurch was doing at the time. The original radio-friendly pop song is extended here into a twelve-minute-plus epic jam session.
The original "Hyperbolicsyllablecsesquedalymistic" is a spirited, swaggering nine-minute funkadelic workout that features Marvell Thomas' energetic piano-pounding, plenty of Toles' wah-wah guitarplay, and background singers offering timely punctuation to Hayes' gruff vocals. The shortest track on the original Hot Buttered Soul, "One Woman" is pretty much standard fare for the time period, if a little longer than the typical radio hit, a soulful romantic ballad with swelling strings and a soundtrack drenched in emotion.
By The Time I Get To Phoenix
The heart of Hot Buttered Soul, however, and the foundation on which much of the album's legacy rests is the phenomenal extended cover of the Jimmy Webb hit "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." With this tune, anarchy ruled in the studio, as Hayes and the Bar-Kays not only reinvent the ambition of soul music, they forever change the possibilities of R&B, rock, and blues music as well. Opening with a lengthy, soft-spoken monolog intro, backed by Willie Hall's insistent drumbeat and subtle flourishes of guitar and keyboards, by the time that Hayes' strong, passionate vocals kick in, it’s a revelation.
The song carries through its remaining minutes with lush orchestration, washes of instrumentation, and periodic bursts of piano or guitar, but overall it works as a brilliant composition of sound and feeling, the jazz-like improvisation shown by the musicians matched by an overwhelmingly emotional vibe. Stax's CD reissue of Hot Buttered Soul offers two bonus tracks in the form of single edits of "Walk On By" and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," designed to slide the songs onto AM radio. It was a typical corporate move, and largely unnecessary as the album would reach #8 on the Pop chart. These edited versions are masterworks in and of themselves, capturing the essence of the longer originals while sacrificing nothing in the way of power or emotion.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Isaac Hayes, for those that need smartened up, was more than "Chef" on Comedy Central's South Park TV show, much more than the dusky-voiced badass that sang the theme song from the movie Shaft. He was a visionary artist that would become an influence on soul, R&B, rap, and blues music unlike any other musician.
It's safe to say that Hot Buttered Soul would make Isaac Hayes a star and launch a successful career that would carry the artist through much of the 1970s. More than that, the album's musical innovations would open the door for the blockbuster 1971 album, Black Moses as well as the work of hundreds of singers, musicians, and producers that would follow in Hayes' larger-than-life footprints.(Stax Records, released June 23, 2009)